SOUTH OGDEN — Dust off your Greek gastronomy terms, people. It’s time for the annual Ogden Greek Festival.
From dolmathes and tiropitakia to loukoumathes and baklava, for two blissful days each September the good folks at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church offer up a feast of delicacies unrivaled this side of the Acropolis.
Dozens of volunteers have spent weeks preparing thousands of pounds of meat and an even greater number of pastries and other baked goods for the two-day event. This year’s festival takes place Friday and Saturday, Sept. 28-29, at the church, 674 42nd St.
Drew Wilson, co-chairman of the Ogden Greek Festival, said the raw numbers are impressive, including 2,000 pounds of souvlaki meat, 84 legs of lamb, 550 pounds of gyro meat, and 1,100 pounds of hamburger.
“And that’s just the meat products,” Wilson said.
Volunteers also busied themselves making more than 5,000 tiropitakia (cheese triangles), 4,000 pieces of baklava (a dessert pastry), 120 loaves of holiday bread, hundreds of dozens of cookies, and all manner of other Greek foods.
“This thing started 60 years ago as just a bake sale,” Wilson said. “But it’s been going like this now for 40-plus years.”
Although crowds have been on the increase, Wilson said the amount of food prepared stays about the same year-to-year.
“That’s because we don’t have anywhere else to put it,” he said. “We have two walk-in coolers and two walk-in freezers, and every year they get filled right up to the doors.”
The varieties of Greek foods at the festival remain fairly consistent as well. The only change to the menu in a number of year has been the spanakopita, a Greek spinach pie, according to Wilson.
“We discontinued the spanakopita a few years ago, because it was so labor-intensive and we couldn’t buy spinach because of the bacteria issues,” he said. “But now they’re actually talking about bringing it back next year, because it’s very popular.”
Wilson guesstimates they have between 8,000 and 10,000 people visit the festival each year. Although the event opens at 10 a.m. both days and continues until 10 p.m. on Friday, the festival closes early on Saturday, at 8 p.m.
“That’s because we start running out of food,” Wilson said.
The festival will also include Greek dancers performing on Friday night, and a booth sponsored by the Ogden Greek Orthodox Youth Association.
The annual festival is a chance for Greeks in the Ogden community to show off their culture and food, according to Father Patrick O’Rourke, the new priest and pastor at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church.
“Greeks are an incredibly loving people,” he said.
O’Rourke said Greek culture is generally dictated by two concepts, “philotimo” and “philoxenia.” Philotimo is the love of honor and propriety, and philoxenia is the love of strangers, he said.
“That’s the direct translation of philoxenia, but it’s actually similar to ‘hospitality,’” O’Rourke said.
The priest says he believes it’s these two concepts that have fueled the Ogden Greek Festival for so many decades.
“Honor and hospitality are what drives Greek festivals,” O’Rourke said. “I’ve been to Greece a couple of times, and I’m not sure I’ve met a friendlier people.”
An Ohio native, O’Rourke arrived in Ogden on Aug. 1, replacing the former priest, Father Mario Giannopoulos. Prior to coming here, O’Rourke had spent the past two years in the New Rochelle, New York, parish.
Why Ogden, Utah?
“It’s like the military,” O’Rourke said. “When the general tells you where you’re needed, you stand at attention and go where you’re told.”
Although Ogden’s is a Greek Orthodox parish that serves about 100 families in the Ogden area, O’Rourke says it also serves people from places like Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia and Russia.
“All with this strange Irish priest,” O’Rourke jokes. “I’m Irish by the grace of God, but I tell them we’re just the Greeks of the North Sea.”
O’Rourke says members of his parish have gone out of their way to make him and his wife feel welcome.
“They volunteered their time to help move us in, and we’re surprised with hand-picked vegetables from their gardens every Sunday,” he said.
Angeliki Bolos, chairwoman of the festival, said food preparations have been right on schedule, and she’s looking forward to the event.
“We’re excited to open our doors for the festival,” she said. “And to have happy people come in and enjoy our food and culture.”
Bolos has been involved in the event since moving to Utah from Greece in 1973. She says she loves helping because the festival is for a good cause — not only does it fund the church and its obligations, but a portion of the proceeds goes to charities like the American Red Cross, Primary Children’s Hospital and Shriners Hospitals for Children.
“And others, who just call in and ask for help,” Bolos said.
And although they usually don’t have much food left over after the festival, what is left is often donated to the Ogden Rescue Mission, according to Bolos.
O’Rourke says he’s amazed by the entire labor of love orchestrated by this tight-knit Greek community.
“Some of these ladies are pushing into their 90s, and they’re still making cookies by hand to sell to their neighbors and friends,” he said.