An annual spring tradition for many Arkansans is to head to Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church for the International Greek Food Festival to enjoy some amazing food and culture.
Church members begin at the first of the year baking pastries and prepping Greek dishes so that there is enough for the festival. Greek and Middle Eastern food served up includes the delicate and flaky baklava, sourota, kataifi and other sweets; tasty gyros, souvlaki, pastitsio and spanakopita as well as hummus dip and tabbouleh salad.
The three-day event, May 18-20, is in its 34th year. What began as a benefit for the church's building fund has expanded to benefit local charities.
Chairmen this year are newlyweds Sara Massana Hurst and Edmond Hurst.
"When we agreed to take this on," says Edmond about the festival, "we did some research and looked at other festivals. We are really fortunate to have the quality and quantity of what we have here. We couldn't find another festival that offers as much as what we do."
Because the event is so successful, Edmond says, they wondered how much, if anything, they should tweak or change.
"You can get more of these foods around town now," says Edmond about the authentic food they offer, "but they are not the same. They are buying masses of frozen food, and as you can see," he says referring to the folks busy baking in the church's large commercial kitchen, "they are all in there making it by hand."
Edmond has been volunteering with the festival for 10 years, mainly in the lamb booth that serves up some variation of lamb each year. He ended up falling in love with the church and joined. Three years ago, he invited Sara, whom he met through mutual friends, to volunteer, and she has also worked in the lamb booth. She also joined the church, and the couple married in January.
Sara says she enjoys the community of the church and being a festival volunteer and is looking forward this year to trying a little bit of everything the festival offers. She explained that when working in the lamb booth, she gets there really early and does not leave until close to midnight. When it's time to eat, it is just easier to eat lamb than stand in line for something else. However, she does admit the one thing worth standing in line for is chocolate baklava.
Edmond agrees. "Generally, if you wait too long on Sunday, it's gone. They are in there preparing it for months and you still can't make enough."
"And they are here every day, Monday through Friday," says Sara. "They'll get different shifts of people in, but there are a core group of people there every day," explains Edmond.
And the food is not all Greek. The church is a mix of cultures and that's reflected in the event. It's the "International" Greek Food Festival, says Edmond. "It's like a real melting pot," he says. "The church itself, but you see that in the festival, too. It brings all demographics out to enjoy the food. It's fun to see someone that is a grandma that's been coming since it opened, or some youngster and it's his first time to try a gyro or lamb."
Money raised by the festival supports activities at the church, but it also supports various charities including two new to the festival this year, the Humane Society of Pulaski County and the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas.
"We still have Arkansas Foodbank that we introduced last year. You can bring three canned goods for admission which goes to the food bank," says Sara.
The other charities are Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arkansas, Community Connections, Wolfe Street Foundation, Easter Seals Arkansas and Youth Home.
"One of the things we are working really hard toward this year is bringing new people in, because when you have a core group that's been doing it for 30-plus years, they want to see some new energy come in," Edmond says.
Sara and Edmond have been helping to make the pastitsio -- under supervision, Edmond says -- which is layers of flat pasta and ground beef topped with a thick cheese sauce. "We've been having fun bringing new people in to learn to cook the dishes."
A tremendous number of the volunteers are from outside of the church. The charities that benefit from the festival provide volunteers. "The amount they get depends on how many volunteers they have," says Sara. "The Ronald McDonald House is bringing 100 volunteers, so that's 100 volunteers that we didn't have before."
Volunteers help with everything from working at the food booths packaging food, putting together dishes, on-site cooking, helping with the children's area, selling T-shirts, collecting money and helping with the carryout and drive-thru.
"It's been fun." says Sara about overseeing the festival this year. "Even though we've had our own little spot, it's good to see a bigger view of the festival."
The festival will be 11 a.m.- 9 p.m. May 18-19 and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. May 20 at the church, 1100 Napa Valley Drive, Little Rock. In addition to all the food, there is an Old World Market featuring imported products, and a grocery with items such as Greek olive oil, olives, cheeses and Pete's Famous Salad Dressing made and bottled at the church. A children's area will feature games, face-painting and grilled hot dogs. Then there's the entertainment, an international mix of dancing including the Greek-American Folk Dance Society, Dabkeh Middle Eastern Dancers, O'Donovan School of Irish Dance and Ballet and Mexican Folkloric Dance Group Quetzalli.
Admission to the festival is $3 or three cans of food. For a schedule, menu, information about parking, visit greekfoodfest.com.
Months of work go into preparing the dishes and pastries offered at the International Greek Food Festival. Chairmen Edmond Hurst and his wife, Sara Massana Hurst, have tried their hand at making pastitsio this year. They explained that all the dishes come from family recipes of earlier organizers of the festival, converted into quantities large enough for crowds.
High Profile on 05/06/2018
Print Headline: Church making pastas, pastries at furious pace