Every gyro tells a story

The 16th Annual Asheville Greek Festival is more than a nod at Asheville’s melting pot — it’s a celebration of the Greek community that, this November, will celebrate 80 years feeling at home in Western North Carolina.

“Most of the families who originally settled here are from a place in Greece that’s very similar to Asheville geographically,” points out festival-committee member Catherine Faherty.

The first Greek in Asheville was Demosthenes Psychoyios, who arrived in 1900 and opened a restaurant on Pack Square — that means he was probably dishing up spanakopita to the likes of Thomas Wolfe. A decade later, the Chakales family came to visit a relative who was recovering from a respiratory illness. They decided to stay in the mountains and raise a family (in fact, they had nine children). During the early 1920s, more Greek families settled in Asheville and opened businesses. John Mimidis opened a hat shop on Pack Square, and the Parthemos family ran the Atlanta Quick Lunch.

Before the 20th century, Greeks widely populated not only their own country, but also most of Western Asia. Historians estimate that Greeks inhabited the Black Sea area earlier than 1000 BC, maintaining their freedom long after the classic Greek period and the rise of the Roman Empire. Greek populations occupied Constantinople, Trebizand, the mountain regions of Pontos, central and coastal regions of Russia and the Russian territories of Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan. In 1918, 650,000 Greeks lived in Russia alone.

However, all of that came to a bitter end with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and the forceful expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor. Many Greek people left their homelands prior to WWI, and WWII saw the country of Greece in desolation. Without industry or a reliable economic structure, thousands more emigrated.

World War II brought another influx of Greeks to the area, largely due to the Displaced Persons Act, which made immigration easier. “During the ’50s and ’60s people who were already here and who had established businesses brought their families over,” Lamprinakos says. “The community swelled. Before that time there were only about 50 families.”

It was easy to see that the growing community needed a larger property than their Market Street storefront. So, in 1953, the M.V. Moore estate on Cumberland Avenue was purchased. The house on the property was renovated and used as a place of worship until the Greek Orthodox Church was completed in 1958; Mary Zourzoukis proudly remembers that her son, John, was the first to be baptized in the new Church. The house continued to be used as a community center until the growing population dictated a need for a larger space. These days, the community includes about 125 families.

“There are also singles, widows and widowers,” Lamprinakos explains of the 160-plus names on the mailing list. “We stay about the same size now. As many people come here as move away.”

“It’s a very close community,” notes Faherty. “Whether you’re Greek-American or not, you’ll be welcomed at the Church. This community is known throughout the state for being so welcoming.”

In step with tradition

Fortuitously hot on the heels of the romantic hit movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the local festival will be a real-life chance to hone up on Mediterranean culture, gyros and the grapevine step.

If you’re not enough of a Greek buff to know when to shout “Opa!” — or if you’re not even sure what opa means — don’t worry: This is a festival for Greek nationals and mere “tourists” alike.

As Lamprinakos offers, “For one weekend it won’t cost hundreds of dollars to go to Greece; you don’t even need a passport.” The three-day event promises authentic foods and pastries; Greek music and dancers in native costumes; booths and games for children; and a bakaliko (grocery store) so you can bring a bit of Greece home with you.

“Most churches hold their festival on the church grounds,” explains Lamprinakos. “We needed more space. Because the Department of Parks and Recreation co-sponsors our Festival, we hold it downtown at City/County Plaza. Many visitors who are in town for leaf season discover our festival.”

Just because the events happen off church grounds doesn’t mean the experience isn’t authentic. Pastries — from the flaky staple baklava to kourambiethes (shortcakes with powdered sugar) — abound. There’s the ever-popular spanakopita (spinach pie) and refreshingly mayo-free Greek potato salad. At the kafenion (coffee shop) visitors will find loukoumades — doughnut-like confections served with mythically strong Greek coffee. (“If you’re in Greece, sometimes the gypsies will ‘read’ your fortune in the coffee grounds at the bottom of your cup,” Faherty relates.)

An integral part of Greek tradition, dancing is a unifying element in the culture and at the festival. Because the basic steps are simple enough for anyone to pick up — and because the steps are the same worldwide — Greeks at home are united with those living abroad whenever they join in the dance.

The tradition in Asheville has been sustained by Tula Andonaras, who learned the dances while living in Greece, and by Pauline Kaltsunis, who’s currently in charge of teaching locals the ancient moves. You might recognize the hasapiko, created by the Butcher’s Guild in Constantinople. This dance, popular for centuries, was made famous by the movie Zorba the Greek. “We do a couple of variations, and in one of them we invite the audience to join us,” says Faherty.

The weekend-long festival is definitely all fun and games, but it’s also a long labor of love for the people who bring it together. “It’s a lot of hard work and preparation,” Faherty admits. “But in the middle of the weekend, it’s really fun to be able to share our culture with the entire Asheville community.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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