I always dreaded the usual back-to-school essays I had to write in elementary school. Most of the kids had stories about trips to fun places and I was trying to remember how to spell moussaka. Moose-Caca??!!
You see, near the end of summer every year my church holds its annual Greek Food Festival. As the name implies, it is a festival of Greek food. Lots and lots and lots and lots of Greek food. All that food needs to be prepared. From scratch. By hand. Lots and lots and lots of hands.
What this meant was that my mom would often take me down to the church during summer vacation and we would help prepare some of that amazing food. It was really during those times that I learned the art of fighting with fillo dough and actually winning sometimes. I mastered grape leaf rolling for making dolmades, and sprinkling chopped walnuts that had been mixed with sugar and cinnamon for baklava.
Some of the pastries we make need to have a honey-syrup drizzled over them, and so the “church ladies” would often argue as to whether the pastries should still be warm from the oven with syrup at room temperature added, or should the pastries be room temperature and the syrup hot off the stove? (The answer is: it depends on the pastry!) There would always be that one person who would say “well, this is how I do it” and everyone knew it meant that person felt that things weren’t being done right (okay, sometimes that person is me!).
One woman in particular, Eleni (bless her soul), was so picky about how she rolled her dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), that she wouldn’t let anyone else put their rolls in the pan she was working on. She wanted to make sure that everyone knew those perfect rolls were all hers, and in fact she would show her pans off to the younger women in the kitchen and tell them as much. One time she watched as I was rolling my leaves around the lump of seasoned rice. She turned to another lady sitting next to me and said something in Greek. I wasn’t entirely sure, but it sounded like she was complementing my work. The woman sitting next to me confirmed that was indeed what she had said. I nearly passed out due to the shock of it all! I will treasure those words for the rest of my life!!
This year I went to help make the spanakopita (spinach and feta pie), on the very last day of school. After a long day of cleaning up my classroom and packing up the remnants of grading still left to be done, I headed down to the church. My summer vacation started with three days of folding, wrapping, and buttering fillo dough along with smearing large quantities of spinach and feta filling and topping it with more fillo. It’s hard work, but there are always friends to chat and laugh with, a hearty lunch and tasty snacks, and we always wrap up the final day with a shot of ouzo together. Opa!!