Food, Glorious Food: Eat like the Greeks — or Assyrians — at festivals

Assyrians, Greeks share their culture

09/07/2010 6:38 PM

09/08/2010 12:11 AM

In the kitchen at Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Modesto, sweetness abounds.

Church members have been on a marathon since June, when they started preparing for the Greek Food Festival on Sept. 18-19. Five baking days are scheduled this month, including Sept. 13 when they'll be making melomakarona, or honey-dipped cookies, at the Tokay Avenue church. The day before the festival, they'll start marinating chicken.

"Everything we do is made from scratch, hand-made fresh," said Irene Hasapopoulos, choir director and administrator.

This is the church's 45th year of hosting the event. It's the oldest of three ethnic festivals held in September and is sandwiched between an Assyrian festival this weekend and an Assyrian Chaldean festival near the end of the month. Both of those are in Ceres.

"Over the two-day period of the festival, we serve 8,000 people," said Irene Jaureguy, administrative assistant and choir director at the Greek Orthodox Church.

The process goes something like this for making the honey-dipped cookies: Anna Petrulakis, the head baker, will come in at 5 a.m. to make the melomakarona dough. By 8 a.m., girls from age 12 to women in their late 80s will arrive to roll the dough into balls and then fill each ball with a mix of honey and chopped walnuts. Each will arrange 50 cookies in a pan.

"Our junior high and high school boys carry the pans to the ovens," said Jaureguy.

Tray after tray will go into the oven. Tray after tray will come out. Then they are readied for the final step, when the baked sweets are dipped into a large pot of honey spiced with lemon and cinnamon. There will be four women who lord over the pots as the cookies are allowed to soak a bit and then are rolled in more chopped nuts, said Jaureguy.

"The ladies make 7,000 melomkarona in a day," Jaureguy said.

A similar production is taking place at the Bet-Nahrain Assyrian Cultural Center for its Assyrian Food Festival this weekend.

"The ladies have started in beginning of August with jams and pickling," said Janet Shummon, festival chairwoman. Breads and pastries are being made now.

That event, in its 13th year, is designed to present the food, art, history and traditional dancing and music of the Assyrian people.

The Assyrian empire, which fell in 612 B.C., covered parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.

An attraction at this festival, which is expected to draw thousands, is the food. On the menu will be Assyrian rice, beef kebabs, chicken, green bean quiche and grilled tomatoes.

"Variety of traditional pastries, jams, pickled vegetables and Assyrian tea and coffee will be available at the bake shop and tea room," said Shummon.

Stanislaus County is home to more than 20,000 Assyrians, said Shummon. The diversity of the people is evident in that a second festival also celebrates the people. The third annual Assyrian Chaldean Food Festival on Sept. 25-26 at St. Matthew Catholic Church, 3005 Sixth St., is expected to draw about 1,000 people.

But there is more that binds these groups than distinguishes them.

"Assyrians and Chaldeans are equal and one," said Basil Aboona, Chaldean festival chairman. "We speak the same language and share the same heritage and culture.

The Assyrian Chaldean festival will feature gyros, chicken kebabs, egg rolls stuffed with ground beef, stuffed grape leaves, chicken with harissa spices, rice, baklava, two types of Assyrian cookies and a variety of other sweets.

"Everything will be cooked fresh on the day of the festival," said Samira Osman, the president of the ladies auxiliary in charge of the food.

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