Taste the tradition at the Dayton Greek Festival
By Sarah Sidlow
Photo: Evzone dancers will perform at the Dayton Greek Festival Sept. 6-8; [l to r]: Dean Margioras, Evan Bambakidis, Stephen Ziehler, Pete Alimonos and Alex Revelos
Seven hundred pounds of feta cheese, 1,600 pounds of fresh tomatoes, 15,000 handmade spinach and cheese pies, and a 55-year Dayton tradition that features the best in dancing, dining and diaskédasi (that means “fun” in Greek).
What began as a small parish picnic has grown into a three-day festival celebration. From Sept. 6-8, the 450-family parish of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church expects to welcome more than 20,000 predominantly non-Greek guests to experience traditional Greek culture with all five senses, and then some.
They’ll gather on the church grounds at 500 Belmonte Park North, kith, kin and the uninitiated hoping to find kefi, a spirit of joy, enthusiasm and internal good humor.
“The hub of our community is our church,” said Dee Fricioni, who handles publicity for the festival. “Everything we do stems from there. I could be at church five times a week, and I’m not counting Sunday service.”
Between coordinating the traditional Greek folk dancing, preparing for the festival and buzzing around the church kitchen, the seemingly tireless Fricioni has plenty of reasons to be at Annunciation. Her boundless energy, she says, can also be attributed to her church.
“It’s not an immigrant community anymore,” she said. “We don’t have parishioners who are straight from Greece. It’s a younger community, but if you’re 70 they consider you young. It’s an atmosphere that keeps the older people active, and it’s very rewarding.”
Though many of the church’s members may have lived here most their lives, their Greek traditions are alive and well, and will be on display during this year’s Greek festival. There’s the obvious selection of mouth-watering delicacies: fresh gyro sandwiches, pastitsio (Greek lasagna), moussaka (eggplant casserole), full lamb shank dinners with rice and green beans, and an entire wall of pastries.
But it isn’t just the food that’s important, it’s how it’s made that keeps the tradition alive.
“We start cooking in June,” said Fricioni. “Volunteer ladies cook everything in the church, in a big kitchen.”
It’s no simple task. In the days leading up to the festival, the ladies will roll out about 10,000 domathes (stuffed grape leaves) and bake 10,000 baklava. They bake from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., using three big ovens, a great big stove, a walk-in cooler and a freezer. At any point, there are around 50 people milling about the kitchen.
All in the name of kefi.
The members of the church also put together a cookbook for those souls brave enough to attempt making these treats at home. Those looking for a little extra guidance should look for Maria Cleary’s cooking demonstrations, which will take place throughout the weekend, providing some tips non-Greek newbies might need, like how to work with phyllo dough.
If you’re going to talk about tradition, you have to talk about dancing. In most Greek churches, children begin to learn traditional dances at around 4 or 5 years old. Annunciation has youth folk dance groups from ages 5 to 18, and adult groups from 18 past Medicare. They include husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, even a grandmother and three adult grandchildren. That grandmother is Dee Fricioni.
“Dance is something we try to teach our children,” said Fricioni, who performed herself until she was 68, and now acts as a coordinator. “If you go to a wedding or a festival, you see kids dancing with parents or grandparents because they have that common knowledge.”
Fricioni was responsible for passing the folk dancing down to her three grandchildren, including her eldest granddaughter, 26-year-old Dessine Ziehler, named in the Greek tradition after her grandmother, Dee.
“Even before she was in a group, she taught me how to dance when I was 4 in her living room,” Ziehler said.
The joyful sounds of the bouzouki and clarinet, the frenzy of folk-dancing feet, the moments shared with family. This is kefi. And it’s tradition.
“Tradition overall plays a huge part of our lives,” Ziehler said. “And I’m technically only an eighth Greek! The sense of family, our church, our faith is all part of that culture.”
Ziehler and her husband met through the church. Their 10-month-old son Matthew will also attend this year’s Greek Festival. He’ll be wearing his own evzone, a traditional Greek men’s costume.
Ziehler’s husband will be working in the big food tent. Her parents, in the beverage center. She, along with her brother-in-law and siblings, will be performing in the adult group at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
And while baby Matthew won’t be performing at this year’s Dayton Greek Festival, his mother is certain that he will as soon as he’s old enough.
“He definitely will dance,” Ziehler said. “If he doesn’t want to, he’ll be forced to dance in the festival when he’s 5. I just see the tradition, especially the faith and the culture, as a big part of our family.”
The Dayton Greek Festival will be held Friday, Sept. 6 through Sunday, Sept. 8 at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 500 Belmonte Park, North, next to the Dayton Art Institute. It will run 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and $2 per person for the rest of the weekend. Children under 12 get in free. Parking is free and available on the streets around the church and in the Dayton Art Institute parking lot. A free shuttle will begin Friday at 5 p.m. from the corner of First and Wilkinson Streets. Visit daytongreekfestival.com for more information.
Reach DCP freelance writer Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.