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Oakland Greek Festival offers food, dancing and tradition

on May 15, 2011

Dough is tossed into a vat of oil and floats to the top once it’s gold. Drenched in honey and sprinkled with walnuts and cinnamon, each bite bursts with sweet liquid as it deflates and dissolves. Loukomades, or honey-dipped pastry puffs, are not a typical dessert in Northern California. But on one weekend in May, Oakland residents are granted the opportunity to explore Greece — and without the purchase of a plane ticket.

The Oakland Greek Festival, which opened this Friday and will run until Sunday at 9 pm, offers the chance for visitors to immerse themselves in Greek tradition. Each year, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension hosts three days of dancing, souvenirs, religion, and food. The festival’s slogan is “Greek food with a side of culture,” and it allows curious and well-seasoned attendees alike to get a taste of both.

Loukomades (honey puffs). Photo by Kevin Cuevas.

Outside of the cathedral, booths and stages are set up with different attractions. The aroma of cheese, spices and cooking meats wafts through the air and mingles with the mellow sway of Greek music. Children run around excitedly to dance and play. Tables are set up for people to eat, but families also congregate on the steps to sit or walk around carrying plates of food.

The Greek Festival is strangely quiet for a large group of people on a Saturday afternoon, but one bite of any dish explains why people would rather eat than talk. Spanakopita, a pie made from pale sheets of phyllo dough, oozes with creamy spinach leaves and soft crumbles of feta cheese. A giant rotisserie slowly spins a smoky lamb, frequently brushed with rosemary and lemon. According to the chefs, it is 66 pounds and needs to cook for around seven hours. Dinner orders are accepted throughout the day in anticipation.

Saganaki, or flaming cheese, is also a fiery favorite. Squares of sheep cheese are tossed on the grill until they brown and bubble. Then, they are squirted with brandy, lit on fire and quickly doused by squirting lemon on the flame. Spectators here yell “Opa!” as the cheese ignites. “It’s the word we use when we get excited, like ‘Yahoo!’ or “Yippee!’” said Nancy Katsouras, a church member who devoted her weekend to volunteering at the booth. “It’s a lot of work, and we have a ball.”

Chef Doug Dietz preparing calamari for the crowd. Photo by Kevin Cuevas.

The festival even teaches visitors how to cook their own Greek delicacies. Doug Dietz, a manager of the San Francisco Greek restaurant Kokkari, put a California twist on traditional calamari by stuffing them with organic ingredients and grilling them over an open fire instead of frying the squid. He mixed together tangy cubes of feta cheese with fresh herbs and lemon peels and while talking about the importance of dinner. He scolded people for using cell phones while eating and said families should treasure the idea of a slow meal. “The most wonderful memories of my childhood were spending time in the kitchen with my dad,” he said.

The vibrant purple tubes of squid took on a richer color as Dietz filled them with his feta and herb concoction, and the calamari quickly circulated through the crowd surrounding the booth. There were a few excited squeals from the hungry crowd followed by the noises of people savoring the food. “This is a wonderful way to expose people to Greek culture and food,” said Dietz. “It’s about more than saying ‘Opa!’ and ‘Yasou!’”

The dance group Seismos performs. Photo by Kevin Cuevas.

Seismos, a children’s dance group which has performed at the festival for seven years, was one of the many entertainers at the church. They performed dances from the islands Thessaly and Kefalonia, and quickly gathered a crowd. Boys in billowing pants dipped and jumped in front of girls in long flowery skirts who were wearing yellow scarves over their hair. Then everyone linked arms into a semi-circle and stepped in tune. Money tokens flew through the air and landed at the dancers’ feet to praise their work. “It’s a big community here,” said Andrea Assilia, who helps lead the group. “It’s like family.”

At the festival, visitors can also experience Greek culture beyond their plates. Vendors run stands with colorful pottery and jewelry that twinkles in the sun. Live music plays during the day at two different stages, and the space cleared for different dance groups becomes filled with spectators who want to learn the same moves. Church doors are left open and visitors of any denomination can tour. Inside, the pews are bathed in turquoise sunlight and overlooked by the painted dome ceiling.

Vendors sell Greek coffee. Photo by Kevin Cuevas.

“We avoid the food — it’s too good!” said Douglas Fish, who has attended the festival for 15 years. At one of the booths, he holds up a mirror for a girl trying on a purple coin scarf. She twirls and giggles at her reflection, and smiles at her mother to entice her to make the purchase. Fish said he enjoys the music and dancing, but the people and culture draw him back year after year. According to him, on the first day of the festival alone he met visitors from Lebanon, Egypt and Kansas City. “Make friends from all over the world,” he said. “That’s what you have to do.”

Text by Micki Boden

This year’s Oakland Greek Festival lasts until Sunday, 5/15 at 9pm. Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension is located at 4700 Lincoln Avenue, Oakland. Tickets are $6, but admission is free for children under 12. A discount coupon on admission as well as more information is available online:

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