Wafting through the air of Oak Park this past Saturday came the smells of grilled meats and raucous calls of “Opa!” The 35th Annual Santa Barbara Greek Festival had begun.
Long considered to be one of the highlights of the Santa Barbara summer, the Greek Festival represents the only Greek cultural celebration of the year, and is, for many, their only chance to experience Greek culture up close. For others, it’s a chance to catch up with old friends within the Greek community. Every year, volunteers come to help all the way from San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles. As this is the only major Greek Festival in the area, crowds come from all over, drawing approximately 20,000 to 25,000 people over the course of the weekend.
Since its inception, the festival has been sponsored by the Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church. “The main point of the festival is to express the cultural heritage that we as Greeks bring here, but also to show that religion is a major part of our heritage,” said Reverend Father Simon Thomas, pastor of Saint Barbara.
All revenue generated from the festival goes to the Saint Barbara Scholarship Fund - which has donated over $70,000 in scholarships over the past few years - as well as to various community charities and to the upkeep of the parish. The pastor, whose own family draws originally from the Peloponnese and Macedonia, has been with the parish for two years, and he already notices some improvements from past years. Among the changes this year are new food items, which include lamb chops and bougatsa, a custard-filled phyllo concoction. In addition, this year the church decided to “go green,” by introducing compostable or recyclable plates and utensils.
Aside from the occasional additions to the menu and improvements of the vendors, the overall feel of the festival remains unchanged. Lining the tables of the pastry tent are the traditional syrupy glyka, or sweets, which are so ubiquitous at all Greek celebrations. These sweets, along with the mezethes and main course dishes, are still made with the recipes used 35 years ago, all detailed in The Greek Feast: Santa Barbara Style, a church-compiled book of family recipes. “That’s the beauty of the Festival is that it has not changed. We try to keep consistency,” said Jeff Rishwain, who is president of the Saint Barbara parish council and has been involved with the festival for 12 years.
Walking past the snaking lines for the gyro and pastry tents, it’s obvious these are the biggest revenue producers of the event. Georgia Gastouniotis, originally from the Greek city of Patras, has been a member of the church for 33 years and now heads the baked goods section. “It’s my heritage,” she said. “I’m proud to be presenting what we [the church] do, to be continuing what we do.”
Way back when, the festival was run by the Women’s Auxiliary, or the Philoptochos Society. “It was only one day, just for a few hours the first couple years. It was evident as it became so popular that we had to expand,” said Andriana Kolendrianos, chair of the pastries. “I think it’s giving a sense of a village - we’re really small at heart. Greeks always go back to the chorio [village].” Kolendrianos, whose mother hails from the mainland and her father from the Ionian island of Lefkada, emphasized the importance of staying connected within a community. “We’re letting people come back to the village,” she explained.
So, for the many of us yearning for the sights and sounds of the Mediterranean, the Greek Festival offers a welcome escape on a sweltering weekend afternoon. All you have to do is close your eyes and let the melancholy notes of rembetika carry you away to a taverna in a remote Greek village, where you would be feasting on the same traditional cuisine.
For more information on the Santa Barbara Greek community, see www. saintbarbara.net. For those who wish the Greek food experience lasted longer than a weekend, check out The Greek House Cafe, located at 5 West Haley Street.