Oopah! St. Sophia Greek festival kicks off Tuesday

Fofi Zelepos of Saint Sophia Hellenic Orthodox Church on Hempstead Street in New London removes a tray of fresh baked baklava from the oven at the church on Oct. 29.
Fofi Zelepos of Saint Sophia Hellenic Orthodox Church on Hempstead Street in New London removes a tray of fresh baked baklava from the oven at the church on Oct. 29. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

With approximately 4,000 dolmades rolled and scores of baklava trays baked, it was time to baptize the chickens.

Not to worry, "baptize" here is a culinary term; it's the crucial step in preparing Chicken Oregano, a popular menu item at the annual St. Sophia Hellenic Orthodox Church Greek Festival. Chickens bound for festival plates get a dip in the dish's signature spice mix — some oregano, some lemon, some garlic, some salt and pepper — before they are frozen in advance of the festival.

This was day four of a six-day spree by church volunteers to bake and prep for the Greek festival, an event in its 61st year that kicks off Nov. 5 and has become local legend. A simple system keeps festival prep manageable: the men cook, and the women do the pastry, according to church secretary Jeanne Fakis. Parishioner Angelo Simos is head of the kitchen, and several committees — one for takeout, one for pastry, one for the kitchen — work in tandem to keep everybody fed for four days.

Just the day before chicken prep, a group of women baked enough baklava to feed an army. Next up for the men is prep-work on the festival's popular lamb shanks. Stuffed peppers — a Tuesday special — will be prepared shortly thereafter.

The volunteers have their work cut out for them. Throughout the festival's run, all 300 dine-in seats in the church hall tend to stay occupied — sometimes twice a day by the same guests. Meanwhile, the takeout operation has become the festival's busiest area.

"That's the hardest booth to man," Fakis notes, adding that oftentimes a single takeout order — such as the regular orders that come in from staff at Electric Boat - can bring in thousands of dollars. Funds raised from the festival support the church.

This year marks Fakis' 39th as a parishioner; she says the Greek festival really hit big around 1974, when St. Sophia built its community center. Since then, the church has grown from 150 families to 350 families — and the festival grew with the church.

"It's something that everybody looks forward to," Fakis says. "I was getting calls (about the festival) in September!"

Like Fakis, the men in the kitchen are longtime festival volunteers. Parish treasurer Bill Bellos of Waterford estimates he's been involved with the festival for 40 years, and he's in good company.

"There's a bunch of us who have always done it," he says. "We're all over 77 now."

On this day, he's on butcher duty.

"I don't cook, I just cut," he explains. Approximately 2,000 pounds of chicken will be processed before the day is done.

And even after 39 years, Fakis remains impressed by what her fellow volunteers accomplish in the kitchen.

"It's amazing the food that comes out of that kitchen," she says, adding that the recipes for the festival menu come straight from the volunteers — among them, professional chefs and restaurateurs.

Festival-goers know it isn't easy to pick a favorite dish from the St. Sophia spread from moussaka, gyros and pastitso to avgolemono, rice pudding and Greek salad — but Fakis can quickly point to hers: the spanakopeta, the famous four-cheese and spinach squares.

But another dish remains close to her heart. The Greek-style green beans ought to be called "Jeanne's beans," since their appearance on the menu was her idea.

One year, she decided the menu should have a vegetable. Despite the kitchen team's suggestion that the eggplant-based moussaka is a vegetable, Fakis pressed on, and now Greek-style green beans — beans in light tomato sauce with Greek seasoning — come with the lamb shanks and Chicken Oregano and as a side dish.

There's one additional payoff for volunteers, though.

"It's a lot of work," Fakis says, "but I don't have to cook for the whole week, so I like that."

IF YOU GO

What: The 61st annual Greek Food Festival

Where: St. Sophia Hellenic Orthodox Church, 200 Hempstead St., New London

When: Nov. 5-8; from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

For take-out: (860) 447-1322

For info: (860) 442-2377

Prices: Unchanged from last year, except for Shrimp Scampi, which is $12.50. Cost for some favorites: Lamb Shanks Dinner, $16; Chicken Oregano Dinner, $9.50; dolmades are $3.50 for six with meat and $3 for meatless; Greek salad, $6; gyro (beef), $6.50; baklava is $3 a piece.

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