Where Y'Eat: When NOLA Says "Opa!"

May 24, 2012

Traditional food prepared by devoted home cooks sets the table for a toga party on the bayou at Greek Fest.

Restaurants provide the food for countless festivals around town, and for some people getting their signature dishes in a festival setting is a big part of an event’s appeal. Think of the lines you see whenever Drago’s does its charbroiled oysters at an outdoor affair, or the buzz that chefs like Paul Prudhomme, Leah Chase or John Besh add to an event.

But sometimes it’s the crews of volunteer home cooks who step up to contribute their own talents that really sets an event apart. And that’s the case at Greek Festival New Orleans, coming up on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day weekend along Bayou St. John near the Lakefront. Greek Festival is held on the grounds of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral and inside its Hellenic Cultural Center. The event raises money that supports the church community year-round, and as such it inspires a devoted effort from the church members and their friends who run the show.

Some of them will spend the festival weekend roasting 300 whole spring lambs, a featured food that has become a centerpiece of the festival. As it turns out, many of the volunteers on this lamb crew hail from small villages around Greece, where roasting a lamb in just this way is a major obsession, something akin to the passion people here in the South apply to their barbecue. Slow-roasted on the bone, marinated with olive oil, lemon, garlic and herbs, the meat comes off the spit juicy and bursting with flavor and it’s sold by the pound to eat at the event or bring home.

In recent years, the Greek Orthodox church has added adjacent lots to expand its festival grounds, so now there’s more room for the stage, the dance floor, the crafts tents and the kids activities here. But food is always close at hand.

Booths around the grounds dispense gyros, calamari, souvlaki and loukoumades, which are like Greek beignets topped with honey and cinnamon. There’s a goat burger booth and also combination dinner plates with tastes of different Greek specialties, including vegetarian options. In addition to local beer from Abita, imported wines from Greece and stiff aperitifs – like the potent, anise-flavored ouzo -- you can wash this down with iced tea, snoballs or daiquiris all made with pomegranate, that ancient Greek symbol of prosperity.

The festival also transforms the Hellenic Cultural Center into a Greek food mart of sorts, with tables stocking everything from tubs of tzatziki and red caviar spread to salad dressing and flavored honeys. This is also where you’ll find the sprawling pastry operation, boasting some 20 different varieties of cakes, cookies and other sweets, all made by the local families who support Greek Festival. It’s common to see people buy a box of pastries, tie it with string and put it aside to bring home before making a second round of the selection to pick out the treats they just have to eat right then and there.

As usual, the Sunday of the festival is its toga day, and this being New Orleans the invitation to costume for the event in this traditional Greek get-up is an easy sell. Just remember that Greek Festival is a family event, not a Zeta Psi mixer, so make sure to keep those togas tasteful and tightly tied.

Greek Festival
1200 Robert E. Lee Blvd., New Orleans

May 25, 5–11 p.m.
May 26, 11 a.m.–11 p.m.
May 27, 11 a.m.–9 p.m.