The Fresno Greek Festival
Jul 26, 2018 11:00AM
By Enjoy Magazine
It's All Greek to Me
By Kimberly Horg
Photos courtesy of the Fresno Greek Festival
GREEKS FIRTS BEGAN immigrating to Fresno around the turn of the 20th century. At first, a handful of men came to America who then aspired to have their Greek wives join them. The first Hellenic Americans formed the Fresno Greek Community, and by 1910, they had a small but flourishing business district on the West Side of the city. But one thing was missing: a church.
A church holds great importance to the Greek community, and after years of making do with a small church, they purchased five acres of land in 1953 on North Orchard in East Fresno. The following year, a groundbreaking ceremony for a new St. George Church was officiated by his Grace Athenagoras Kokinakis, bishop of North and South America (later, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople). The new church was consecrated on November 22, 1959.
Each year, the Greek community celebrates its heritage with the annual Greek Food Festival, held the last full weekend of August for the last 57 years. More than 25,000 people throughout the San Joaquin Valley gather to celebrate the heritage.
“Not to brag, but it is one of the best events in Fresno and the largest Greek festival in California,” says event chairman Peterangelo Vallis. “The food is really good too. And you meet a lot of really happy people. If you are not Greek, like 99 percent of our guests, you get to experience life like a Greek.”
St. George Greek Orthodox Church is one of the most ethnically diverse congregations in the Valley. People of all races, religions and ages have attended the festival for generations.
“It’s not uncommon for people to come with children and grandparents at the same time,” Vallis said. “We have a little something for every age group, and we are fortunate that everyone loves to be Greek one weekend a year.”
The festival offers an acre of family-friendly amusements and an authentic Greek tavern for those looking for a fun night out.
This year’s event will feature more than 30 Greek-themed vendors as well as new additions, such as cooking demonstrations, new backdrops, people dressed in traditional costumes, Greek wine tasting, an expanded kids’ play area with water slides, youth Olympics and art tours with noted art experts. Five shuttles are available, including one with wheelchair accessibility. Misters will keep customers cool.
Vallis says the festival gets great feedback from customers every year.
“As a matter of fact, more than 70 percent of our guests are repeats. We try to make improvements each year and we appreciate our guests who give us the benefit of the doubt if a line runs a little longer than we would like,” he said.
The festival started when several members of the Greek community wanted to have a small event to showcase Greek food and culture to friends and neighbors. Although the Greek community has stayed roughly the same in size in the city (roughly 2,500 Greeks live in Fresno), the festival has continued to grow to meet local demand for all things Greek. The event has become a fundraiser for Greek communities across the country because Greeks have a cultural imperative for entertainment and feeding guests. This ethos goes back into ancient times and is still a source of pride in the community.
The signature dish is moussaka: eggplant and ground meat casserole topped with rich béchamel sauce. People also enjoy lamb shanks, lamb chops, and spanakopita: spinach and feta pie wrapped in layers of phyllo dough.
“Greek fest has no food vendors – we make most of the food that we serve, including more than 50,000 pastries, from scratch,” Vallis said. “And oh, the pastries are out-of-this-world tasty. My personal favorite is our Loukaniko. We have our own secret recipe for this Greek sausage and make almost 1,000 pounds each year.”
Vallis says a Greek festival is an extravaganza for the senses.
“Sights, smells and sounds transport our guests in a virtual visit to Greece and nothing pulls it all together more than the music,” he said.
The main stage features The Olympians from Long Beach, a versatile Greek band that provides both traditional and modern rhythms. Greek dancing demonstrations will be featured. And direct from Greece, Holax trio will play acoustic and bouzouki music on the patio. It will feature bouzouki, baglama, tzoura, vocals, ethnic clarinet (klarino), keyboards, guitar, bass and doumbek/drums/percussion, their unique versions of folk music to Greek greatest hits.
“We want to thank our friends throughout the Valley for helping us celebrate our culture and eating all the food we make for the festival. If it were not for the enthusiastic response from Valley residents, the festival would not have earned its place in the pantheon of Fresno lore.” •
Fresno Greek Festival • Aug. 24-26 • www.fresnogreekfest.com
St. George Greek Orthodox Church • 2219 N. Orchard, Fresno