Community, culture and food at Nashua's Greek Food Festival
NASHUA -- Theodora "Chickie" Pitarys is never surprised by the huge crowd that turns out each year for the Greek Food Festival at St. Philip Greek Orthodox Church in Nashua.
"This is ethnic, it's real, and I think people are looking for that," said Pitarys, who was sitting just inside the door of the church hall on May 17, the second of the festival's two days.
Next to her was a stack of blue cookbooks containing recipes for pastichio, gyros, spanakopita and most of the other dishes that volunteers serve the thousands of guests who come to the annual event.
"And it's food," Pitarys continued, noting that people typically enjoy sharing a meal, whether they happen to be the guest or the host.
When she was growing up in a tight-knit Greek community in Chelmsford, Mass., families always sat down to meals together, Pitarys said. As she was talking, she recognized a 40-something man who was heading into the church hall to take a place in the long line for dinner. She jumped up and hugged him, and they talked for a minute.
"I used to baby-sit him, while his mother was out picking beans for one of the farms," she said as she returned to her seat behind the cookbooks. "We always helped one another like that."
That farm no longer exists - bought and razed years ago to make way for Interstate 495, Pitarys said. But what is still going strong is the region's Greek-American community, which in Nashua is united around St. Philip Church.
St. Philip's pastor, the Rev. Alex Chetsas, said there are about 350 families actively involved in the church.
And it takes hands from many of them to put on the annual Greek Food Festival.
Jorge Pantali, head of the church council, and Kosta Baryimes were behind the church working over a huge charcoal grill where long spits loaded with pieces of marinated lamb were slowly cooking.
"It's a lot of prepping and two days of hard work," said Pantali, adding that over the course of the festival, the group typically prepares about 1,900 pounds of lamb.
Pantali wasn't complaining. Like everyone else who was wearing an apron, he was happy to be sharing a little bit of Greek life with the rest of Nashua - and even happier to be working alongside families and friends he has known for years through his work at St. Philip.
Like other churches and congregations that were built by groups of immigrants, St. Philip has allowed people to maintain their faith traditions along with their language and culture. St. Philip offers Greek School, in which children can learn their parents' and grandparents' native language while connecting with other children within the community.
Among the church's many other programs is a strong chapter of GOYA, the Greek Orthodox Youth Association, for teens. Pantali's daughter, Kate, a student at Nashua High School North and a member of GOYA, also was wearing an apron and working hard to keep the food line moving.
"The GOYA group is getting more and more active," said Jamie Pappas, Greek Food Festival's organizer-in-chief. "We all grew up in the GOYA group."
St. Philip and other churches founded by immigrant groups provide programs for younger members to maintain ties to family heritage. But for older, first-generation immigrants, churches have long offered a community for people who share similar experiences, sensibilities and memories of people and places that are oceans away.
New groups welcome
At St. Philip, there's been a small stream of new immigrants who grew up in Christian orthodox churches coming to services. Russian, Armenian and Romanian families all feel at home at St. Philip, which now celebrates many of its services in English.
"It's not a striking amount, but we have seen different groups approach us," said the Rev. Chetsas, adding that the main difference among orthodox churches is cultural.
Chetsas said there is a pan-orthodox community clearly in evidence on occasions such as Jan. 1, St. Basil's Day, one of the most important days on the Christian orthodox calendar. As part of St. Basil's Day, people cook and share vasilopita, a special cake or sweet bread.
Different ethnic groups use different recipes and ingredients, so their vasilopita have different forms and flavors, but they are all part of a shared foundation of faith.
Still, individual churches like St. Philip often host big events that give members a chance to showcase their unique traditions, and share their music, dancing and, most of all, their food. The Greek Food Festival is a chance to celebrate and share memories and open the door to new relationships and connections.
"Everyone is so happy today," said Pitarys as she watched more guests coming through the door for homemade spanakopita and baklava. "It's such a blessing."