When Odysseus and his crew visited the land of the Lotus-eaters, they encountered a people so completely devoted to their own appetites that they did nothing all day but sit around and feast on the narcotic fruit of the lotus plant. The sailors tried it too, and they almost ended up staying. It was all Odysseus could do to get them back on the boat.
Much the same thing happened yesterday, here in Memphis. I’m speaking, of course, of the Memphis Greek Festival. After landing my vessel at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church and partaking in the feast, I very nearly foreswore my homeland and stayed. No, they weren’t serving lotus fruit. But I think baklava cheesecake will do just as well.
The festival continues today until 8pm. For me, the food is the main draw—about which, more later. The festival also features live music by Kostas Kastanis and and traditional Greek dancing by the Athenian Dance Troupe. There are bouncy castles and an outdoor marketplace. For those who like a bit of theology with their spanakopita, there are even church tours led by Annunciation’s Father Jim Berends.
(Speaking of spanakopita, did you happen to catch this wonderful article in the Flyer last month? It’s a must-read for anyone who’s serious about Greek food in Memphis.)
Back at the festival, I had a late lunch with Anna Denton (nee Maniatakou). At age 79, with wavy gray hair and a mischievous twinkle in her eye, she’s everybody’s Mediterranean grandma. She’s also one of the women who helped start the Greek Festival back in 1958, and she’s been helping out ever since.
“I’m the one who started doing shish kebabs,” whispered Denton.
At Denton’s recommendation, I tried the lamb shank with tomato sauce over rice. And now, reader, let me recommend it to you. The festival is full of delicious food, but nothing can touch that lamb, tender and smoky and supremely flavorful.
“Americans don't cook cook lamb enough,” Denton confided. “You have to leave it on until it’s well done. That’s where you find the flavor.”
For dessert, I was served a round robin of sugary delights, eight in all. Of course, I’ve never met a pastry I didn’t like, but my particular favorites were the koulourakia (Easter cookies) and the indokarida (coconut macaroons). I should add that the women of Annunciation Church began preparing these desserts back in January. Because, yes, there’s that much demand.
After lunch, I took a church tour and got a Greek dance lesson from Liz Ramage, who teaches the Athenian Dance Troupe. Then, after a quick spin through the Agora Marketplace, I stopped to catch my breath at the bar tent.
That’s how I met Lee McBee and Troy Fink. They said they had come for the late-night dancing—which was interesting, because when I spoke to them, it was still only 2:30 p.m.
“I’m glad they have a bar,” reflected McBee. “You know? It’s like, thank God.”
“Last year somebody tried to make ouzo jello shots,” added Fink. “It was really foul.”
Memphis Greek Festival