The names don't sound like typical Yankee cuisine. Yet, these traditional Greek dishes have become staples for Yankee Homecoming since the celebration began 50 years ago. They've been served up hot and scrumptious at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church Food Festival almost every year since Yankee Homecoming began.
It started originally as a one-day event, said Charlie Neos, who's been co-chairman of the food festival for the past six years. Now it's up to three days, open today and tomorrow from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and last year was the most popular yet. The money raised during the three days supports the church during the year.
"I swear every year we feed the whole city," said Helen Matthews, as she lifted one of the 30 triangles of deliciously sticky baklava from one of the 48 sheet pans of the very popular nutty dessert cooked up for this weekend's festival. "Baklava's a very good seller."
Matthews' husband, former Newburyport Mayor Byron Matthews, also helps out, as do other men from the parish.
"The men prepare the lamb shanks, and lamb shanks prevail," said Anna Mamakos, the festival's matriarch. "The lamb shanks dinners are the most popular during the festival. The lamb and chicken shish kebab (souvlaki in Greek) are the second most popular."
According to Neos, 560 lamb shanks were prepared by the male cooks of the congregation. Men also make the meatballs and do the grilling. But although lamb shanks may be the most popular, Neos said it's the women of the parish who are the foundation of the festival. They started cooking two months ago.
"If it weren't for about six or eight women - Anna being one of them - this thing wouldn't happen," Neos said.
About 50 to 75 church members will be involved before the event ends, in positions as cooks, servers, cleaners and cashiers. There are even prep-cooks - like Anna's husband - who get ingredients ready for the standardized recipes the women use to prepare the festival's traditional meals.
"My husband slices," Anna Mamakos said and laughed. "He slices the cucumbers; he slices the onions; he slices whatever we need."
The camaraderie that's developed over the decades could be seen as workers filtered into the church hall yesterday morning. Both women and men were smiling as they began the final preparations.
Although it's an enormous undertaking, no one seemed to be slowing down or debating whether to continue. As the women worked over the baklava table, they talked, reminisced and laughed.
"Sometimes we have workshops when about 20 women come together here to make the baklava," Mamakos said. "Some women don't know how to make it when they come, but they learn from the others."
It's a way to keep the food traditions passed from one generation to another. The younger members of the church - like Joanna Tsrantas O'Connor - might be working the cashier table now, but in years to come, her generation will have to step up to the stove.
"We'll have to, won't we, if this is going to continue," Tsrantas O'Connor said.
As the traditional dishes are made over a two-month period prior to the event, they are frozen then cooked up fresh during the festival. A glance around the kitchen and hall finds evidence. The hall kitchen has a walk-in freezer like a restaurant kitchen's and four smaller freezers to hold the hundreds of pans of prepared dishes Yankee Homecoming attendees go through each year.
"Last year, we had a record Sunday, and we had our best year ever," Neos said. "What's good about our food festival is that people can come here rain or shine, and no one has to stand in the rain. We can hold about 200 people in line in covered, air-conditioned space."
Each dinner is served with rice pilaf, rolls and a choice of Greek salad or fasolakia yahni - Greek green beans cooked in tomato sauce - with dinner plates ranging from $12 (lamb shanks) to $8 for keftethes (Greek meatballs) and locanico (Greek sausage). Baked haddock is served on Friday, and the spinach, feta and filo dough Spanakopita is a standby for vegetarians. Entrees can be purchased a la carte as well for about half the cost of the dinner plate.
Is the food good? Consider it's been time-tested over about five thousand years of Greek history and 50 years of Yankee Homecoming.
It's a toss-up whether there are more people who eat their Greek delights in the church's Harris Street halls and tents or get takeout to enjoy as a picnic during one of the Yankee Homecoming concerts or at their own homes.
The success of the festival also has something to do with the cheerful faces and busy hands of the women and men who work so hard to take part in their city's annual summer extravaganza by passing on their Greek cultural heritage through their food, city and ethnic pride.
For that, the city should offer a big "efharisto" - a Greek thank you.
*Greek Food Festival Menu Translation
Pastitsio - Baked macaroni layers with seasoned beef and topped with Bechamel (rich cream) sauce.
Moussaka - Eggplant layered with meat sauce and topped with Bechamel sauce.
Dolmathes - Grape leaves stuffed with ground beef, rice and seasoning.
Baklava - Layer after layer of filo dough, chopped nuts, butter and honey syrup.
Galatoboureko - Layers of filo dough filled with custard and saturated with honey syrup.
Loukoumades - Warm, freshly made pastry puffs dipped in honey.
Karithopeta - Walnut cake drenched in syrup.
**Yankee Homecoming Greek Food Festival Recipe for Fasolakia Yahni
Greek Green Beans
Two pounds of fresh green beans
3/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup chopped parsley
Lots of sliced onions
1 cup crushed tomatoes
1 cup tomato sauce
Dash of sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
According to Anna Mamakos:
Throw everything together in one pot and bring it to a boil.
Reduce to simmer and cook until beans are done to preference - crisp or soft.