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Greek Cooks Are My Gyros

Baking baklava, slinging souvlaki and talking old times at the Orthodox Church


Published April 3, 2007 at 8:08 p.m.
Updated June 14, 2022 at 2:37 p.m.

Nectar Rorris - namesake of Nectar's restaurant - is in the kitchen washing dishes. Sotos Papaseraphim, who sells souvlaki from a cart on Church Street, is grilling skewers of fragrant chicken. George Hatgen, owner of the Parkway Diner, whips up batch after batch of fluffy rice, flavored with garlic and herbs. In a county without a dedicated Greek restaurant, this sounds like a Hellenophile's fantasy. The scene took place at last Saturday's semi-annual pastry sale put on by The Dormition of the Mother of God Greek Orthodox Church in Burlington.

The pastry portion of the sale has been going on for decades, though nobody seems to remember exactly when it began. One lovely, silver-haired woman, who moved to Burlington in 1977, is sure it started about a decade before her family arrived. Mary Pappas, who claims to have participated for the last 45 years, firmly concludes that the genesis was during the '50s.

Everyone agrees that in 1999, they added a full meal to the mix. Options include a lamb gyro or two chicken souvlaki skewers wrapped in pita with yogurt-based tzatziki dressing, rice and a side salad. It's a great way to tame the sugar high that inevitably follows the sweet stuff. As with other aspects of orthodoxy, traditions still hold - women make all the pastries, men deal with the meat.

Ninety-five percent of the customers who grab gyros or baklava are not parishioners but "Joe Q. Public," says the Reverend Robert T. Athas. This makes sense, because the pastry sale takes place on the Feast of St. Lazarus, when members of the Orthodox Church are prohibited from eating meat. There isn't a specific ban on confections, but treats and celebrations are supposed to be reserved until Easter. During Lent, fasting and sacrifice are key. Perhaps that's why, in the course of two hours, Papaseraphim has eaten three carrots, and not much else.

Anthe Athas, the reverend's wife, is making a small sacrifice, too. Her lunch has been sitting next to her for more than an hour, but she's been so busy collecting money from the endless stream of pastry enthusiasts that she hasn't had a chance to eat a thing. "My nose has been in the honey all day," she exclaims. Her take on fasting during Lent: "Really, if people kept to the fast, they wouldn't be suffering from cholesterol, high blood pressure, all that good stuff."

Athas is president of the church's charitable society, Philoptochos, which means "friends of the poor." While some of the sale's proceeds will help support the church itself, the rest goes to local and national charities. Vermont beneficiaries include COTS, American Red Cross of Northern Vermont and the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf.

Athas can't put a dollar amount on the day's earnings. "It's easier to talk about the hundreds of people who come and enjoy it," she says. How many hundreds? By 2:30 p.m., less than four hours after the sale began, head counters are guessing around 450.

They've done their damage. This morning, three tabletops were covered with trays of honey-soaked walnut cake, coconut drops dusted with powdered sugar and butter cookies topped with chopped walnuts. Now only a few forlorn goodies remain, and the sticky paper signs that identified each syrupy selection are piled up on a back table. In the kitchen, the last of the spanakopita and marinated chicken are mere memories. A few people head to the grocery store to rustle up supplies for dinner - the event is supposed to last until 7.

Greg Lambesis, who was a restaurateur at Hotel Kelly in St. Albans for 10 years, now works as a financial advisor. He helped to organize the men's portion of the event. How did the committee decide how much food to buy? "It's based on past experience," he explains. "We increase a little bit each year. We increased again this year." But the crowd was much larger than expected, Lambesis says. "At 11:30, we had a line down to the street."

Does he miss working in the food industry? "The restaurant business is the best and worst in the world," he suggests. "The biggest problem is that there's not a lot of good help available." With so many ex-restaurateurs in the 80-family church, "It's good to be able to come here and do some cooking and be involved in this." Other opportunities for the kings of the kitchen: a fish dinner on Palm Sunday and the annual Greek Festival that takes place the last weekend in July.

Athas talks up the festival, too. It was originally held on August 14 to celebrate the Church's feast day. Dormition, which means sleep, refers to the day when Mary ascended to heaven. Roman Catholics call it "the Assumption." For various reasons, the celebration is now held the last weekend in July. The outdoor party features "music, dancing and many kinds of food," Athas says. And while the big festival takes place on Sunday, Athas suggests that if "you want to party with the Greeks," you should come on Saturday night.

As today's sale winds down, the fatigued cooks and pastry-makers aren't exactly partying. Many flop into the folding chairs that have been vacated by the public. Most of the women have been spending their free time for the past week preparing for today's events. They came to the church in groups of 15 to 20 to make sheet-pans of baklava, galatobouriko - a custard topped with philo dough - and rich loaves of a sweet, egg-y Easter bread called tsoureki. "We're good tired. Happy tired," Voula Zontanos comments to a visitor. "We're full in our hearts because we've been doing something for the church."

Do things ever get competitive with so many laborers? Zontanos, who has been a member of the church for 40 years, says no. She describes the women as "like family."

Lambesis suggests that the men are a little more likely to fall prey to the problem of "too many chiefs, not enough Indians." "Sometimes I think we're going to kill each other," he jokes. But they look friendly enough as they take a well-earned break before the new supplies arrive. Papaseraphim and Hatgen, who spent four hours chopping onions and garlic yesterday, are joined at one of the tables by their friend Vasilios Contis. Contis imports around 40,000 gallons of Greek olive oil each year through his Jericho company, Elaioladon-Contis Imports, Inc.

Contis explains what it means when a bottle of olive oil is labeled "first cold-pressed." "The temperature is critical," he says. The water used must be "26 degrees Celsius or less."

Meanwhile, Hatgen is talking about the flavored cider vinegar he likes to make each summer. "I add garlic, rosemary, dill, basil, red pepper and roses." Roses? "It's beautiful," he answers.

To make excellent olive oil, Contis continues, the "olives must be pressed within 24 hours, or else they'll begin to ferment."

"I leave the vinegar for the whole summer on the deck," says Hatgen. Between the two, it sounds like the makings of a perfect salad dressing.

Papaseraphim's tales of a recent four-month trip to Cyprus with his wife, Maria, get Hatgen reminiscing about his travels as a cook with the Merchant Marines. After visiting Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and many parts of Europe, he came to Vermont in 1952, and decided to settle down here. In 1975, he bought the Parkway Diner. He ran it for 20 years before leasing it out to another Greek family. Now, Hatgen and his son, Peter, will be running the diner again. He's one of the few here with professional cooking in his future.

Papaseraphim is another. He's gearing up for summer out on Church Street. He plans to add a falafel sandwich for vegetarians to his carnivorous options.

Church members have lots of communal celebrations to look forward to during Easter week. The general public will get its next taste of the wares from this Mediterranean "dream team" in July.

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