Weeks ago, when end-of-summer vacations were underway, the volunteers at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church were doing what they do best: Planning how they would feed an Army.
Once a year, the church opens its doors, sets up a giant dining tent and hosts the annual Tacoma Greek Festival.
This is the 56th year for the event, which is a three-day eating adventure with five ways to dine, plus dancing, church tours and other introductions to Greek culture. It’s also a fundraiser. This year’s event raises money for the Tacoma Rescue Mission.
Here’s the best part about this festival: Nearly everything diners eat was made from scratch and by hand. A battalion of church volunteers spends weeks plotting the menu and several more making it.
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Take, for instance, the bread. On Monday, Krisann Firth, Sally Hallis and numerous other volunteers gathered at the church to make 305 loaves of the braided sweet bread, tsoureki. On Tuesday, they made 300 more. They’ll all be for sale in the church’s upstairs bakery.
And the koulourakia? Those little cookies that are shaped like a twisty rope? Volunteers made 7,000 of those. They also baked 8,000 kourambiethes, the snappy cookies coated in powdered sugar.
Then there are these shocking numbers: 3,866 dolmades (the rice and meat stuffed grape leaves with lemon sauce), 3,800 tyropitakia (flaky cheese turnovers) and more than 20,000 slices of baklava.
All made by hand. By church members.
And that doesn’t include the chicken, fish or lamb dinners prepped for the seated meals. The 20 gallons of hummus. Or the many pounds of marinated souvlakia.
If you’ve never been to the Tacoma Greek Festival, here’s a quick primer for what you can expect.
Not much this year. Even the prices will be the same.
That said, church members are bringing back a long-gone menu item.
Karithopita is a walnut cake that disappeared about eight years ago because of the labor involved and the oven space required.
Firth described karithopita as a coarse-textured walnut cake with a sticky texture from a soak in honey syrup (the same syrup used in the baklava). They only made about 20 pans of the cake. Find it in the coffee shop bakery case in the dining tent.
A new item added a few years ago, mosaiko chocolate dessert, previously was sold only on Sundays, but volunteers made enough to be sold Saturday and Sunday (unless it sells out) in the dining tent coffee shop.
“This one is for choc-a-holics,” said Firth. “It’s a dense chocolate dessert,” she said.
The chocolate surrounds crushed almonds and biscuit cookies. When it’s sliced, “it looks like a mosaic,” Firth said.
Fried calamari with skordalia sauce from the 2016 Tacoma Greek Festival.
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HOW TO DINE
A la carte dining tent: This one is for grazers. Enter the dining tent behind the church and find food stands serving one or two items each. Diners can load up on mix-and-match portions. Find a seat at large communal tables.
Exchange cash or credit for tokens to buy a la carte items.
A la carte booths serve gyro sandwiches ($6), fried calamari with garlic-potato skordalia sauce ($6), Greek fries ($4), skewered pork souvlakia ($5), Greek sausage loukaniko ($4), Greek salad ($4), fresh fried hot Greek doughnuts loukoumathes ($3) and Greek beer ($4) or wine ($5), plus soft drinks ($1).
Kitchen window: An appetizer window is located in the kitchen. Use tokens to buy rice-and-beef dolmades ($3) or tyropitakia turnovers ($3). On Sunday only, find spanakopita ($3).
Dining tent coffee shop bakery: A la carte bakery items are for purchase with tokens at a bakery counter that also serves Greek coffee ($1). Find dozens of cookies, cake-by-the-slice and pastries. Favorites include paximathia, the cookies that resemble biscotti, melomakarona, the Greek Christmas honey cookies, the kourambiethes and koulourakia (all $1 each). By-the-slice items include ouzo cake, baklava, rolled baklava and galaktoboureko, a custard dessert topped with phyllo (all $3 each).
Dining hall/plated meals: Use tokens, cash or a card to buy a full plated dinner with table service. Table seatings are continuous. Dinners include Greek salad, braised string beans, rice pilaf, bread and coffee or tea. The chicken dinner is served all three days, the fish dinners are served Friday and Saturday (both $12). Lamb dinners are served Sunday only ($14). Kids plates are available.
Deli: Buy ingredients to make a Greek feast at home, including hummus made by church members, gyro fixings and other Greek deli items.
Upstairs bakery shop: Use tokens, cash or check to buy boxes of mixed pastries ($12) or trays of baklava ($12), Greek braided sweet bread ($6) or other boxed pastries ($6-$12).
Tacoma Greek Festival 2017
Where: St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 1523 S. Yakima Ave., Tacoma.
Information: 253-272-0466; stnicholastacoma.org/greekfestival.
When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday (Oct. 6) and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Benefitting: Tacoma Rescue Mission.
To do: Greek dancing throughout the event (check the program for the schedule), plus church tours given every two hours starting at noon.