By Angeljean Chiaramida
---- — NEWBURYPORT — What do you have when you take 900 pounds of lamb shanks, 700 pounds of lamb and chicken kabobs, 5,500 stuffed grape leaves, 30-plus pans of moussaka, 48 pans of spanakopita, and enough salad, rice pilaf, green beans and honey-soaked desserts to sink a small battleship?
You have just part of the menu of the Greek Festival, an unofficial opening event of Yankee Homecoming, cooked up and served lovingly by very dedicated members of the Newburyport’s Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on Harris Street, near the Newburyport Public Library. Running today 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the feeding frenzy has been a beloved staple of Yankee Homecoming since the early 1990s, according to Anna Mamakos, one of the festival’s founding organizers and cooks. The three-day event started on Friday.
“We have people who come all three days,” Mamakos said.
“I run the register, and some people come twice a day,” said Rena Monoxelos. “One man came for lunch and said he was coming back for dinner with his wife. He asked me to please not tell his wife he’d already been here for lunch.”
The best advice for people who have yet to experience the delicious food at the festival for the first time is to go hungry and eat slowly, so every morsel can be savored. But be careful. Even when your stomach’s full, your mouth will want more ‘cause it tastes so good.
“People love the Greek Festival because everything’s homemade,” Mamakos said. “We make everything from scratch.”
Offering Greek salads, entrees, sides and desserts, many dishes are made from the family recipes of the 15 to 20 members of the church who do most of the cooking. There’s no scrimping, the produce is fresh, the meat’s top quality, even the olive oil’s authentic.
“We use only Greek olive oil, of course,” Mamakos said, and laughed.
“Our priest, Father Constantine Newman, and his sons make all the galaktoboureko themselves,” John Housiantis said of the honey-laced, custard-filled filo dough dessert.
But by far the most popular item on the menu is the lamb shanks dinner, which for $18 includes rice pilaf, rolls, salad or green beans. They’ve prepared 630 this year — a few more than sold last year — all ranging in size from one and three-eights to one and a half pounds.
“People see those lamb shanks and they think they’re getting a piece of dinosaur it’s so big,” festival chairman Charlie Neos joked.
“The lamb shanks are our signature dish,” said Milton Monoxelos. “Years ago, the committee didn’t want to offer lamb shanks, but I’d make them anyway. I make 100; we sold out the first day.”
Since then the men of the parish have been trimming, brazing, seasoning and roasting more and more lamb shanks every year. Slow cooked for a total of almost three hours to produce a tender, succulent piece of lamb, it’s an ambitious undertaking, which this year is headed up by Christos Patrinos.
And for the first time this year’s festival will offer an ATM machine, for those who may not have brought enough cash, but decide they want to buy extra to enjoy at home at a later date.
“We’ve been fighting for four years to have credit cards,” said Housianitis. “The ATM’s will help.”
The importance of the earning power of the Greek Festival for the parish can’t be overestimated. Housianitis calls it the “financial lifeblood of the parish.”
“The church would run a $3,000 a month deficit without the festival’s income,” Neos said. “If it weren’t for the festival, we’d have to close the church doors.”
Many realize that and although not everyone can cook, some parishioners set up, serve and clean up, others help by making donations, sponsoring the cost of the ingredients that go into making the food to be sold in support of their church.
Although in the past the women of the parish have made the famed Greek desserts and casserole dishes like moussaka and pastichio, Housiantis said this year he’s seen the men pitching there, too.
And as the founding generation of the festival ages, Momoxelos is “starting to see new faces,” as the younger generation steps up to learn how it’s done. They’ll have to ensure their church survives, and so the throngs who attend Yankee Homecoming can enjoy this work of Greek culinary art for years to come.