Father Antonios Kotis meets me at the door of St. George's Greek Orthodox Church in Bartlett and leads me to the kitchen. "That is where the women are," he says. With his bushy salt-and-pepper beard and black floor-length robe, which appears to be made from wool or some other material far too hot and uncomfortable to be worn in Memphis during the summertime, he looks a little spooky. But his eyes sparkle with good humor and the kind of gentleness that, outside of orthodox circles, are seldom associated with archaic robes of somber black.
"Before we get on with the cooking," I ask Father Kotis, "would you like to sit down somewhere and talk about Greekfest?" Before he can answer, the women shout in unison, "NO! He doesn't speak good English."
"Thank you very much," he answers the chorus of naysayers, his voice laden with irony. And then he turns back to me. "You do not know your name," he says. Then in broken English he begins to tell me the story of a fifth-century saint named Christopher. Unlike other stories I've heard about the saint, his version had nothing to do with travel or with carrying Christ across a river on his shoulders. But then again, I'm a heathen, and a Protestant-raised heathen, at that, and don't know a great deal about a lot of saints.
"Christopher was a big, big man," he says, holding his arms out to indicate that, given how much smaller people were in the fifth century, St. Christopher might have been about my size. "And he was ugly. He was very ugly. And he had a [walking stick] that was big and ugly." According to Father Kotis, people made fun of Christopher's walking stick until the saint performed a miracle, and that ugly gnarled hunk of wood he carried began to produce edible fruit. Christopher, who was given to small, working-class miracles, also had the ability to turn rocks into bread. Clearly, based on the roar in my tummy, Christopher was my kind of saint.
In the kitchen, the women were hard at work making kourabiedes, little almond butter cookies. They work as a team with only minimal communication. They all know what to do and how to do it. Too much talk would only get in the way.
"It smells so good," says Aspasia Zambelis, who shares her given name with the wife of Pericles, the famous Greek ruler who reigned over golden-age Athens. "And it tastes so good you can eat it raw." So I do. And Zambelis is correct. Unlike most American cookie doughs, it's not overly sweet. The sweetness will come once the cookies have been baked and rolled in powdered sugar. The tastes that permeate the dough are butter, almonds, and seven-star Metaxa.
"You have to try the Metaxa," says Penelope Bennett, forcing a glass into my hand. Sure, it's 10 a.m., but what the hey? Metaxa is a luscious, Greek brandy that is so mellow, flavorful, and potent that it's downright dangerous and impossible to turn down. Bennett closed her tailor shop on Union a few years back and moved to Florida, but she comes back year after year to help with the cooking. "We will tell you some of the recipes," she says, "but we will not tell you all of them. Some things are secret. If you come to eat on Saturday we will fix you up, but we won't tell you the secrets. Not all of them."
"We make the souvlaki [Greek kabobs]," Bennett says, "with good-quality meat. We use pork tenderloin instead of lamb because a lot of people don't like lamb. We use olive oil, garlic, excellent, fresh oregano, bay leaves, lemon juice, and a little something extra I'm not going to tell you about. It's the secret. We marinate it and put it on the skewers, then the men cook it outside over charcoal. You have to cook it outside over charcoal. You have to eat it fresh."
The group is even less forthcoming about the chicken recipe. "It's a family recipe," I'm told, "handed down from generation to generation." Only one person in the room knows how to make it.
When it comes to the spanakopita, the spinach filo pie that is perhaps the most famous and frequently replicated dish in the whole of Greek cuisine, however, the ladies are happy to share their secrets. Naturally, the dish calls for spinach, garlic, filo, and butter. But there is more.
"Mary Kapos grows her own herbs, and we use the herbs from her garden," says Bennett. At that point, Kapos offers me a bag of herbs.
"This is maratho," she says. "It is a cousin of dill and anise." The furry green herb has the aroma of dill but the aftertaste is pure licorice. "This is the secret." I told the ladies I planned to take my maratho home to make spanakopita, but Bennett would have none of that.
"No," she says. "You put some of that on salmon. Wrap it in filo and bake it. So good. It's SO good.
When St. George's Greekfest opens to the public on Saturday, September 13th, there will be Athenian dancers, Greek music, and tours of the church's sanctuary. And that's all fine. But it's about the food.
"You don't have a choice between souvlaki and chicken," Bennett says. "You get souvlaki AND chicken. And rice and a salad, and spinach pie, and homemade bread, and dessert. For $10 you can't beat that."
For more information on St. George's Greekfest in Bartlett, call 388-5910.