An army of volunteers begins mincing garlic and buttering thousands of sheets of phyllo dough weeks before anyone even thinks about scarfing a gyro or a wedge of baklava at Tacoma’s Greek Festival.
Through Sunday evening, parishioners at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, where the festival is held, will be armed with garlic, lemon, oregano and gallons of honey syrup, and they’re not afraid to launch those weapons in mass quantities.
This year’s festival — now in its 52nd year — has an extra layer of volunteer reinforcement from the FISH food banks of Pierce County.
Festival chairman Habib Serhan said the partnership resulted from the church’s tradition of donating a portion of festival proceeds to a nonprofit agency, with FISH this year’s parish-elected recipient.
FISH, a group that knows how to feed people — about 556,000 in 2012 — is sending its board members to work alongside church members, said executive director Beth Elliott, who will work a lunch shift Saturday.
Serhan said inviting the FISH volunteers seemed one more way to make the festival — which will feed an estimated 9,000 people — even more efficient.
Those efficiencies are broken into dozens of small tasks.
Volunteers are assigned to head food production committees. One is in charge of the baklava and pastries, another gyros and souvlaki, another in charge of appetizers, the take-out deli and coffee shop, where pastries are sold. There’s even a committee called “the night packaging crew.”
Mary Koumantaros, a lifelong Tacoman and church member, has attended every festival since its inception. She finds the volunteer age range stunning — from grade school tykes to seniors well into their 90s. She’s done everything — from dancing as a child to festival co-chairwoman as an adult.
“They had dress rehearsal for the dancers last night,” Koumantaros said Friday as she was preparing deli items. “I was looking on the stage; some of the kids I taught when I was the director for the dancers from 1990 to 1997, some of my students then now have kids who are in the dance group. It’s so wonderful to see that these young adults are instilling their culture in their kids.”
Koumantaros recalled walking into the church kitchen Tuesday and finding 30 volunteers assembling pastry. She said she was struck by the average age of the volunteers — about 70.
“It’s a committed group of volunteers; a lot of them are first generation. I’m first generation. My parents came here from Greece,” she noted. “They have a love and a passion for their culture, and it shows through the sheer manpower they provide for this event.”
At Friday’s festival, it took a small army — led by volunteers Chris Basil and Reagan Charuhas — to tend the souvlaki. Volunteers turned — and turned and turned — the skewers on a grill that wafted smoke outside the temporary dining tent erected to hold visitors who feasted communally at long tables.
In the center of the enormous temporary annex was an elevated stage where dancers perform on odd hours, beginning at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Inside the tent, diners can wind their way through the a la carte food stands, each dishing up a single item, such as calamari with skordalia, a potato-garlic dip, or the deep-fried puffs of dough with honey syrup called loukoumades.
Tent items are priced from $1 to $6, and can be bought with tokens exchanged for cash or credit at the tent entrance.
The tent is a destination for diners who want to pick their way through smaller plates. Those who go for the gusto — feasting on a big plate of Greek classics — can visit the adjacent church dining hall where baked fish, chicken and lamb dinners (Sunday only) are served at tables with continuous seatings. Priced $12 to $14, dinners come with salad, green beans, rice pilaf, bread and coffee or tea.
Head upstairs forpastry take-out packs, but buy the baklava as soon as you get there because there’s always a chance they’ll sell out.
The festival isn’t just about food. It’s also a time for visitors to talk with parishioners about the church’s iconography project, which resulted in elaborate paintings installed on the church’s dome in 2010. Church volunteers give tours all weekend.
Sue Kidd: 253-597-8270