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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

When NOLA says “opa!”

Posted By on Wed, May 16, 2012 at 2:20 PM

Greek Fest returns to the bayou on Memorial Day weekend
  • Image courtesy of Greek Festival
  • Greek Fest returns to the bayou on Memorial Day weekend

Restaurants provide the food for countless festivals around town, but sometimes it’s the crews of volunteer home cooks stepping up to contribute their own talents that really set an event apart.

That’s the case at Greek Festival New Orleans, coming up May 25-27 along Bayou St. John near the lakefront. This is the 39th year for the festival, which is held on the grounds around the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral and inside its Hellenic Cultural Center. The event raises money that supports the church community year-round, and as such it inspires a devoted effort from church members who run the show.

For instance, some of them will spend the festival weekend roasting 300 whole spring lambs, a featured food that has become a centerpiece of the event.

“Many of the people who cook the lambs are from Greece, from the small villages, and this is how they do their picnics and celebrations there,” says festival chair Ginny Zissis. “The way people in America do hamburgers and ribs for our cookouts, over in Greece they roast a lamb.”

Cooks will roast some 300 whole spring lambs.

Slow-roasted on the bone, marinated with olive oil, lemon, garlic and herbs, the meat comes off the spit juicy and bursting with flavor and it’s sold by the pound to eat at the event or bring home.

In recent years, the church has added adjacent lots to expand its festival grounds, so now there’s more room for the stage, the dance floor, the crafts tents and the kids’ activities here. But food is always close at hand.

Other booths around the grounds dispense gyros, calamari, souvlaki and loukoumades, which are like Greek beignets topped with honey and cinnamon. Goat burgers, which debuted at the festival last year and sold out very quickly, are back again in greater quantities this time around. There are also combination dinner plates with tastes of different Greek specialties, including vegetarian options.

In addition to local beer (Abita), imported wines (Greek) and stiff aperitifs (potent, anise-flavored ouzo), you can wash this all down with iced tea, snoballs or daiquiris each made with pomegranate, that ancient Greek symbol of prosperity.

The festival also transforms the Hellenic Cultural Center into a Greek food mart of sorts, with tables stocking everything from tubs of tzatziki and red caviar spread to salad dressings and flavored honeys for sale. This is where you’ll find the festival’s sprawling pastry operation, boasting some 20 different varieties of cakes, cookies and other sweets, all made by the local families who support Greek Festival.

“What people usually do is get one box that they tie up to take home and then they go around and fill another box that doesn’t make it out of the festival, they just eat them right there,” says Zissis.

Admission is $5 per day (children under 12 free), though on Sunday, May 27, anyone wearing a toga gets in free. Remember this is a family event, not a Zeta Psi mixer, and as such the festival advises to keep togas “tasteful and tightly tied.”

Greek Festival
1200 Robert E. Lee Blvd.
May 25, 5-11 pm
May 26, 11 am-11 pm
May 27, 11 am-9 pm

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