My Big Fat Greek Fest 

Oakland Greek Festival brings sacred elements to its big feast.

The Oakland Greek Festival happens in May, but the blizzard of activity began in March. That's when parishioners from the Ascension Greek Orthodox Cathedral started cooking all the spinach pies, vegetable medleys, stuffed grape leaves, salatas, and meatballs that fill their festival menu. "There's so much food to cook that they need a schedule. Every week they cook a different thing," said Kathryn Doyle, who helps organize the event. What results is a dizzying Mediterranean feast: dolmathes, chicken baked with lemon and oregano, fat juicy olives, kouloura bread, deep-fried smelts, loukaniko (Greek sausage) on pita bread, fish plaki (Pacific snapper and baked vegetables), filo-dough pastries, gyros, buttery baklava with nuts and honey, lamb sandwiches, lamb shanks in tomato sauce, and roughly a dozen kind of fresh pastries (they bake the pastries last). They fry up the calamari that weekend and roast one lamb on a spit each day.

No surprise that the food is the main draw, since it constitutes such a big production. During the three-day weekend, Ascension members reconfigure their church into a nexus of food booths, along with an estiatorion (dining room with a food line), kafenion (tea room with coffee and pastries), and a taverna (bar that sells wine and microbrews). Greeks definitely know how to eat, and they also know how to throw a good party. The Oakland Festival features nonstop music and dancing, with a lineup of professional groups performing alongside homegrown folk dancers from the church. Children at the Orthodox church apparently start dancing at a very young age and continue all the way through college. Their mothers sew costumes that reveal ancestral ties to specific Greek villages, each of which has its own "look." Some kids stick with it, learn all the choreography, and compete in such prestigious events as the San Francisco Diocese Folk Dance Festival. Others just participate in the open line, where everyone holds hands and the yia yias dance with the little children.

Religion and cultural pride are slippery concepts, but the Orthodox Greeks give them a lot of latitude. (Doyle said they've managed to squelch all hard feelings from the great schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, which happened about a thousand years ago). The Oakland Greek festival is, indeed, a celebration of religious identity, with liturgical choirs and vendors hawking sacred artifacts along with secular souvenirs. It's also a place that welcomes the wider community of Oakland, Doyle said, noting that of the 1,200 families who currently belong to Ascension, many are non-Greek converts. Celebrations like this one might draw in many more. Friday through Sunday, May 15-17, at Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension (4700 Lincoln Ave., Oakland). $6.


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