It’s All Greek – Houston’s Original Greek Festival Turns 50

The spanakopita. The souvlaki. The gyros. The dancing and singing in traditional garb. The miles-long displays of mouthwatering, gooey pastries. We’ve all welcomed these treats and customs into our daily lives, and with the turn from summer into autumn, it’s also time, once again, to partake in one of our city’s most beloved traditions.

Join the commemoration of the life and culture of Greece with the 50th annual Original Greek Festival.

“What started off as a little Greek night has now become a citywide affair,” said Dana Kantalis, event chairperson.

After a half-century, no one would argue that fact.

What an affair it has become. The event brings songs, dancing and tons of food. Oh — the food! It deserves a celebration of its own. The Greeks don’t mess around when it comes to food.

For the Greek culture, it’s almost a birthright to participate in the kitchen. Just look at Georgia Markopoulis as an example. She helms the kitchen each day and directs her cooks about how to properly prepare culinary delights the traditional way. With more than 100 years of experience, she probably knows what she’s doing.

Sources can't figure out if she is 103 or 104, but at this point, does it matter? Clearly, the woman knows how to do it right, and she is pretty much a living legend in Houston's Greek scene. For all intents and purposes, it’s her kitchen, and everyone else is just proud to be a part of it. We all know better than to question Grandma about how to properly prepare a meal.

“She is this amazing, fiery woman who comes and helps us prepare year after year. She is devout and loving,” says Kantalis.
Much to her community’s happiness, Yia Yia (a term lovingly bestowed upon Greek grandmothers) is still helping out at the festival and passing along her traditions to her family and community. And that tradition is being shared with all who are willing to join.

“We basically work to feed 50,000 Houstonians over three and a half days. It’s a labor of love the entire community is part of,” says Kantalis.

The traditional Greek cooking is not something to be taken lightly.  Food has remained a long-decorated part of the celebration. Groups gather each week to hand-make each item of food on display. A whole lot of hands work on a whole lot of food – each one doing it with love and devotion to re-create the recipes and authenticity of the mother country.

People like Fote Demeris, the grandchild of Markopoulis, are part of this tradition. The owner of a Charlie’s BBQ in Bellaire, he and his family pour their tradition and pride into the food, and they perform this feat weekend upon weekend leading up to the festival.

“Being in the restaurant business, we’re really into food and we make everything from scratch. We really are one of the only food festivals that will do it from scratch and in house,” says Demeris.

As a community, they gather each week to craft the foods served at the Original Greek Festival. They freeze all of their delicatessens for storage starting a month or two before the festival, and then the group prepares the food for the masses in the days leading up to the events.

Beyond the food, though, there is the Greek tradition and culture. The celebrations include traditional dancing, music and the occasional Greek Orthodox Church service.

The festival features an Agora, where patrons can purchase anything from arts and crafts to olive trees and oils. There’s also a monastery whose monks are bringing their wines for sale from the San Antonio area. The list of items available boggles the mind, but it all sounds quite delicious, and it's a once-a-year type of treat worth exploring.

Throughout its previous years, the festival has grown in popularity. The festivities have become so well-known that a group located on Houston’s west side have started their own Greek festival; hence, the founding group made the decision to brand themselves “The Original” Greek Festival in order to mark the distinction between the two.

With the festival having existed this long, the planners have learned a thing or two about logistics. One of the most welcome changes this year involves the parking. Free shuttle service will transport people from Lamar High School and the City of Houston’s Lot H, located downtown, every 15 minutes. The Wave will also be on hand to transport people in the immediate area.

Join in and shout “Opa!” this weekend to mark 50 years worth of Greek tradition!

The Original Greek Festival runs  October 6 – 9 with tickets starting at $5. Children 12 and under are admitted for free. Visit GreekFestival.org for more information. Join in 50 years worth of culture at 3511 Yoakum.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd