By Ruth Ann Ruiz
The Post Newspaper Features Editor
Galveston’s Greek Festival will serve up three traditional pastries, melomakarona, kourambiedes and Baklava. All three pastries are hand prepared by the ladies of the parish. The ladies travel from all over the region as members of Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Galveston to participate in the festival and festival preparations.
Melomakarona or melomakarona is a Greek Christmas tradition which is spelled with a k or a c. Galveston’s Greek ladies spell it with a c. But no matter how you spell the name, the cookie’s flavor comes from the many spices added to the dough and the honey syrup that each cookie is dipped in after baking. The ladies of the parish spent an entire day making nearly 1000 melomakarona.
Recipes for Greek desserts are handed down from one generation to the next. Galveston’s Festival recipes come straight from Greece via Popi.
Popi is the chairwoman of the pastry committee for Galveston’s Greek Festival. She brought the recipes she learned from baking alongside her mother and grandmother in their kitchens in Greece.
Coming together to bake Greek pastries is a social event for the ladies of the parish which they look forward to every year. While together they chat about Greek traditions and share their memories of trips to Greece or their memories of growing up in Greece.
A second day of baking is for kourambiedes.
After the kourabiedes dough is prepared in the kitchen, the next delicate step happens in the activity center. Ladies sit and stand patting the dough of what will be a flavorful cookie covered in powdered sugar.
“Lots of real butter is used in the traditional cookie,” one of the ladies shared. “And they are not gluten free,” she added.
“You have to roll them easy in your hand till it forms a little nipple, and then it is ready to be baked. They will flatten out in the oven,” shared another of the ladies. ”Roll easy” was repeated by another woman. “Pat gently, pat easy and roll gently” were phrases spoken numerous times in the cookie making session.
As the ladies were patting out cookies a discussion regarding the size of each cookie began.
“We charge $2 per cookie, so we want people to get their $2 worth,” explained one of the ladies.
Trying to create a uniform size is a goal but without a baking scale, uniform sizing is not always accomplished.
The ladies decided a scoop and a half is the proper amount of dough for each cookie, and they continue heeding each other’s reminders to pat out the dough for the sweet treats gently.
The women gathered to bake are both Greek by birth and “Greek by marriage.” Together they are kindred spirits and there is no sense of alienation between those who do not have Greece in their DNA and those who do.
Irma has been baking for the festival for 30 years.
Roxanne is of Romanian heritage and learned how to prepare Greek food via her husband. Though she has technical skills when it comes to preparing food, she prefers to allow the women who are more her senior to give her directions.
Rosa speaks Greek and has been baking for the festival for 44 years. She, like Roxane, is Greek by marriage.
Pracilla hails from East Texas. When she moved to Galveston, she fell in love with a Greek man. “Right away, I loved his food and his dancing,” she shared as she gently patted out the dough. “I made these cookies every year at Christmas and Easter for my husband and children”
Aroza and Katiana are both Greek and speak a bit of English and a lot of Greek. They know their cookies and offer directions as they all work together.
As the ladies sat and patted, they voiced a concern that no one will fill their shoes and continue the tradition when they are gone. The ladies range in age from their early 60s to 80s and beyond. Only one younger lady named Maddy helped with the baking.
Maddy, an emerging adolescent, moved between working with the parish artist, Mary, to working with the parish pastry team. “She’s a hard worker,” the more senior team members proclaim. Perhaps there is hope that younger people will find the same joy in Greek traditions that the senior generations have found.
When I was invited to have a cookie, there was no way I would refuse. One of the ladies brought me a freshly powdered cookie that was still warm. “It will be better in a few days when all the ingredients settle together,” she told me as she smiled and laid the cookie on a napkin in front of me.
Never mind what the cookie would taste like in a few days. It’s divine in its first hour out of the oven, as far as I am concerned. As I enjoy my warm powdery delight the sugar tickles my throat, and Katina brings me a bottle of water.
The original patters shifted to another task, and a new set of women sat down at the table patting out the dough and new voices said, “pat easy.” Some members of first group began shaking powdered sugar onto trays filled with kourabiedes while others went to the kitchen to make more cookie dough or help with lunch.
Popi announced to all that lunch was ready while she placed a pot of steaming soup on an empty round table. Other items quickly filled the table. Popi cooked and baked a feast for the ladies on her team, and she insisted I join them in their lunch.
Lunch was a combination of artichoke and potato soup along with just out of the oven spinach and feta cheese spanakopita. Bread was also plentiful on the table. Baked zucchini patties were present as well and were amazing. There were so many options that if someone didn’t like one part of the lunch, she might like the other. For anyone who might not want to eat cooked food, Popi provided lunch meat and sliced bread. (no one made a sandwich)
The ladies and I complimented Popi on her cooking and her dedication.
Though she managed the team, which she did in her soft-spoken manner, and she prepared a feast for many to enjoy, Popi bowed her head as she was complemented. One thing she cannot do very well, she said quietly, is receive compliments.
Lunch was cleared away and the ladies returned to cookie production. As I left, voices rang out, “You will be back for baklava!” The ladies were not so much questioning me as they were summoning me back for their baklava baking day. I waved and assured them I wouldn’t miss it.
Galveston’s 39th annual Greek Festival is just around the corner. It will take place on Saturday October 14 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday October 15 from 12 p.m.to 5 p.m. Admission will be free, but donations will be appreciated, according to the event website.
Check back with “The Post Newspaper” for more about what goes into preparing baklava for the annual festival. For an additional source of information about the food and entertainment you can look forward to enjoying at the Greek Festival, you can visit. https://www.galvestongreekfestival.com.