“Is this too much?” Helen Servetas, of Manhattan Beach, asked while packing a walnut mixture into shredded phyllo dough.
“You don’t have enough,” Kristina Karabatos, of Torrance, said, grabbing more phyllo to show the proper technique.
“See, I’m still learning!”
The two are 40-plus year veterans of the South Bay Greek Festival, a weekend celebration of all things Greek that begins Friday—and, yes, that includes the food.
But the food isn’t imported from fancy catering. The hundreds of baked goods come from an army of little Greek women, many of them Yia Yias—grandmas for the uninitiated—who pass their dessert recipes from generation to generation.
The festival began 52 years ago at the Torrance Recreation Center, but moved when the city tried to raise the rent, recalled Helen Brock, one of the original women who helped put together the festival. They made enough food for 1,000 people, but ended up having close to 3,000.
“We ran out of everything. We had a Food Giant at the time; they almost robbed the place,” she said. “We all went home, made baklava and brought it in.”
Now, the group prepares for nearly 10,000 and starts months in advance.
This year, Maria Santy made the baking schedule, that began in mid-May. Now the process is made easier by a new state of the art kitchen in the St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church’s offices.
“It was like the little old lady who has a tiny little oven compared to a gourmet kitchen. The things these little ladies put out in those tiny little ovens, it’s just amazing,” Santy said.
On Tuesday, just days before the festival was set to begin, groups took out 44 trays of homemade baklava and spread melted butter before baking them. Meanwhile, teams of women made kataifi, another Greek dessert. Panagiota Krikelos regularly sprayed the phyllo dumplings with water to keep them moist until the trays were ready to bake.
The festival is popular for a pretty simple reason: people love authentic food.
“We love to share our culture, our food, our kefi, like our energy,” Santy said.
The group uses all of the original recipes, she said. While she might make a dessert a little differently in her home, the recipes have been handed down through generations. Recently, with more than 50 years since the festival began, there has been a passing of the baton from the older women to the younger women in the church.
Helen Anastassiou, of Redondo Beach, said the group picked the best recipes among the original women. She has been assisting for 50 years.
The difference between their food and most other food at a Greek restaurant is butter, she said.
“All real butter. We have good ingredients,” she said.
Mary Peters said what she enjoys about helping is getting to meet other church goers. For years, she’s said hi to women at church who she never met. At the South Bay Greek Festival, she gets to know them. And of course, there are the little tricks that she picks up to help out with her own cooking and baking.
It can be difficult to find younger women to help, Peters said. But on Tuesday morning, two 16-year-olds were just beginning to learn how to bake kataifi. Valentina and Styliani Tragus were rolling their shredded phyllo with a long wooden stick a bit more slowly than the older women.
Though their mother, Dena, makes the dessert at home, the twins had never made it.
“But now they will,” Dena said.
The two teens decided to participate because they wanted to help out in a more substantive way. Though the South Bay Greek Festival is an event the whole family tends to participate in, many of the younger kids will assist in the raffle on the day of, not with the preparation.
“I have my Greek friends who all go to different churches, we all go to each other’s festivals,” Styliani said.
“Yeah, we festival hop,” Valentina chimed in.
Typically, the parents bring their children into the kitchen at a young age to teach the ins and outs of Greek food, Dena said. Her daughters are always helping. The two assisted in making a dinner that morning, with one washing the peppers and another chopping, she said.
“My mom is always baking,” Styliani said. “We never eat out. She is like the best cook ever.”
Of course, there’s an easier way to describe this all. It’s just like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
“That is exactly our life,” both twins said in unison, and then burst into laughter.
South Bay Greek Festival preparation
The South Bay Greek Festival, which runs July 15-17, takes months to prepare. Women from St. Katherine's Greek Orthodox Church begin baking in mid-May for the event. Tuesday, July 12, women prepared kataifi, a Greek dessert made with phyllo dough and a walnut mixture.