After my first day away at college, my father called to ask me what I ate. Yes, his primary concern was whether I had eaten.
Raised in a Greek-American household, I learned about the importance of food at a young age. “If you finish all the food on your plate, you will marry a handsome man!” my Yiayia, or grandmother, would tell me over plates layered with thick meats and oily potatoes.
While I secretly hoped that my favorite meals would ensure the physical superiority of my future family, I knew that food in a Greek home primarily serves as a measure of hospitality. Houseguests never leave without a meal: Hungry or not, they are fed.
The practice stems from ancient times. Xenia, the Greek word for hospitality, was practiced by all hosts and continues to be an important gesture among Greek families. The Xenia tradition lives on this week as the Holy Trinity Greek church of Wilmington hosts their annual Greek festival, serving the guests of the neighborhood.
Founded in 1977, the Greek Festival is a five-day celebration that features Greek cuisine, live music, traditional dance, a moonbounce and souvenirs. One of the festival’s founders, Jerry Giannatos, explained that the festival began when church members decided to grill outdoors and open their tables to the public. “It’s become a tradition,” he said. “Good food and good service.”
Food preparations began in late January to accommodate these loyal customers who return to the Greek festival year after year. While cooks and merchants are primarily from the Greek community, attendees come from many ethnic backgrounds.
“80% of the people here aren’t Greek,” said Emmanuel “Manny” Fournaris, while turning souvlaki – or shishkabob – on the grill. “That’s what differentiates this festival from others. It’s a great ethnic atmosphere and it draws everyone from the community.”
Families and friends, Greek and American, stream in at a steady rate. Hundreds of hungry attendees stand in line for the famous Greek gyro, marinated and seasoned to perfection. When not enjoying warm lamb or a fresh Greek salad, attendees can listen to live Greek music and watch the youth dance group perform various traditional dances, dressed in baby blue silk skirts and red and gold jackets.
And let’s not forget the desserts, my favorite being loukoumades, donut holes lathered in honey. Just like the rest of the food served at the festival, there is a live presentation as the workers prepare the dessert. Guests can see the doughy mixture poured into metal machine, which pops out perfectly-sized dough balls into boiling oil. They emerge with a crusty exterior and a soft, sweet interior. Next, the donut holes are submerged in honey and topped with cinnamon or nuts.
While the treats and entertainment are foreign for many, it is a treat for me to share some of my favorite aspects of Greek culture.
Michael Ziccarelli, a local high school student, also enjoys the opportunity to share his Greek culture with friends outside of the community. Ziccarelli has helped serve food at the festival for the past five years, and this year, he brought a classmate to help. “The festival really brings everyone together,” Ziccarelli said.
Festival spokesperson, Spiros Mantzavinos, expressed his appreciation for the community’s receptiveness. “It has really humbled us to have been supported by so much grace from the community,” he said.
On its opening night alone, the festival drew an impressive crowd, solidifying a strong attendance rate from years before. In fact, Fournaris and his team worried that the 8,000 souvlakies they prepared may not be enough. Giannatos said, “[The festival] can’t get any bigger! There’s no room!”
The Greek Festival runs through Saturday June 9th, from 11 am to 11 pm, at 8th and Broom Streets in Wilmington. Admission is free.
Parthena Moisiadis is a 2011 graduate of Wilmington Friends School and a student at the University of Pittsburgh studying English Writing and Communication.