This time of year is full of food fests, including a preponderance of Greek fests.
Food is, of course, a central part of Greek culture, and as we found at a festival in Laconia, that means a look at the food can reveal something deeper.
If the music on Laconia’s Main Street doesn’t clue you into the festival outside Taxiarchai Orthodox Church, walk under the big white tent on the lawn and see Susan Harris, who's serving an array of Greek favorites, from lamb and barbecued chicken to spanakopita and pastichio. "It's like mac and cheese, only better," she says, "and with hamburger."
The connection between church and plate is strong in Greek culture, and especially so at Taxiarchai – back in 1936, the church’s first services were held in a space above a Main Street café. The recipes the Greek Fest cooks are using, Susan Harris says, have been cooked at Sunday dinners following the family trip to church. They’ve been handed down from generation to generation, – and she’d know, seeing how she and her cohort Mary Garci have been in the church, as they put it in near-unison, "since birth."
Garci says the next generation is here too, including her two daughters. "One of them lives in Florida, the other one lives in Gilford," she explains. "The day of the festival, they’re here to help to do whatever they can. The oldest one arranges her vacation with this weekend. So I guess it’s something we instill in our family. And it becomes an expectation that the next generation is going to continue it. It’s a tradition.
“Right now," she adds, we’re crossing our fingers and hoping that it is because life is very different than when we were kids.”
"I don’t have the horsepower"
The future is a question that's on a lot of minds here. While longtime members are on hand as always – and, by the way, Mary Garci’s daughter isn’t the only one who’s flown in from out of state to help out – what is the future of this festival – and of the church that puts it together?
The man who's in charge of organizing it says putting Greek Fest together each year is getting harder and harder.
"A lot of folks ask ‘why isn’t this two days like all the other festivals?'" Christopher Tsakiris, parish president, says. The answer? "I don’t have the horsepower. Seven to ten people put this on. It’s tough.”
Tsakiris sits by the pastry table. He greets everyone he sees, most of them by name, but he's most interested in what he doesn’t see: a next generation, getting ready to take the reins of the church. That, he says, comes from two main factors.
“Laconia typically has a brain drain anyway, so most of my peers have moved out," Tsakiris explains. "For folks, [the church is] not important to them as it was. And just by nature of where we are, they have to leave to get a strong career.”
And that, researchers say, is a problem for Greek Orthodox churches like this one. Society is growing more secular and more mobile, and ethnic identity doesn’t always go hand in hand with religious faith like it used to. And Taxiarchai has always been small – Tsakiris says today it has about 40 parishioners, known as stewards. On a good Sunday, you’ll see about 18 or 20 of them, along with a priest who drives up from Brookline, Mass to conduct weekly services.
When I ask Tsakiris what the community can do to ensure there’s a Greek Orthodox church in Laconia in five, ten, fifteen years... he pauses.
“Brady, that’s why they call it faith. That's the only answer I have for you... But you press on. You just have to press on.”
And that’s what Tsakiris does. In the church basement there's a group of Greek Fest dishes to be washed, and somebody’s got to do it.