St. John the Theologian Greek Orthodox Church in Panama City hosts annual festival.

PANAMA CITY — On Wednesday morning, ladies gathered in the kitchen at St. John the Theologian Greek Orthodox Church baking Greek specialties for this year’s Greek Food Fest — an annual tradition for more than 40 years.


“We love doing this. We love getting together, especially after not having it last year,” said Calliope Bryant, vice president of the parish. “This is the way we keep our traditional, ethnic heritage alive. This is where we come together, and let’s face it: Food is what brings people together.”


Last year’s 42nd annual festival was canceled due to damage the church suffered Oct. 10 from Hurricane Michael (including losing all of their baked goods and food from the freezer that they had prepared in advance). Although church services resumed Oct. 28, 2018, the church is still undergoing repairs. There was “careful consideration” as to whether the church was ready to resume its annual tradition, which brings thousands of locals and visitors to the church for the celebration of Greek culture and cuisine.


“It’s a big undertaking in order to get back a sense of normalcy,” said church member Pana Gregg. “The community wanted us to get back. It brings a positive vibe back in the community; it brings joy.“


The damaged outdoor freezer — which shifted when a tree hit it during Hurricane Michael — was just one of many repairs that had to come together to make this year’s festival happen. The now restored commercial freezer features new shelving to receive the enormous quantities of Greek goods made by the core group of about 10 ladies — most in their 70s and 80s. But they are getting a late start — beginning just weeks ago for preparation that usually begins in late summer.


“My family and I were not here for the hurricane,” explained Gregg, who relocated to the area with her husband and their two daughters in January. “Others were emotionally drained. To come in as an outsider, I was coming in asking, ’How can I help?’”


Gregg has been helping coordinate logistics, something that easily could have been daunting.


On Oct. 16, they hand rolled 2,000 dolmades (stuffed grape leaves with seasoned hamburger meat and rice) that are being stored in one of the six freezers inside.


“As soon as they are prepared, they go into the freezer immediately,” said Gregg, who explained how they keep their freshness. “This year, we will have Slavic food. We have a lot of Russians, Ukrainians and Bulgarians in the community and wanted to include them. They are all included in the Greek Orthodox, one big community.”


Pre-orders must be received by Nov. 15 at GreekBakeSale.org. Greek delicacies include almond cookies, mini pastes (chocolate covered cake with mousse filling), kok (cream-filled pastry), Athenian cookies (butter tea cookies), baklava (filo and nut filling with honey), finikia (honey-dipped spice cookies), Greek sweet bread, karidopita (nut cake), kataife (shredded filo with honeynut filling), kourabiedes (wedding cookies), paxemadia (Greek tea biscuits), and Feud Cake (pecan torte with cream icing). Pans of pastitsio (Greek lasagna), as well as spanakopitakia (spinach triangles), tiropitakia (feta cheese triangles) and dolmades — each sold by the dozen, can be purchased frozen and heated later for the holidays. Cooking instructions are included.


Local pickup for pre-orders will be Thursday, Nov. 21, and during the festival, which is scheduled for 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22, and 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, at the church.


Even if you don’t pre-order, they always have extra pastries and baked goods for sale during the festival. Guests also can enjoy a hot Greek lunch at the church or to-go featuring selections such as the lemon chicken plate, pastitsio, dolmades and gyro sandwich — with plenty of tzatziki to go around. This year, they will be serving slices of baklava cheese cake for dessert.


TRADITIONAL FLAVOR


On Wednesday, ladies — and even some of their children who were out of school — prepared their first round of paxemadia.


“It’s like a biscotti,” said Bryant, who also sees the get-togethers as a chance to speak the Greek language.


After the dough was rolled, Noni Taylor brushed each roll with egg wash. She then cut through each roll halfway before baking it at 350 for 30 minutes. After the first round of baking, the dough gets cut all the way through, flipped and baked again for another 30 minutes.


“We’ll make 65 to 70 dozen of those,” said Taylor, referring to what they were making Oct. 23. “Next Wednesday, we’ll be back again and make those. They keep well; we don’t even have to freeze them.”


The women come in at 9 a.m., working till nearly 1 p.m. And on Saturday, the ladies — along with many of the younger women who work during the week — planned to be back in the kitchen making pastitsio.


Most of the baked goods are recipes from Helen Patronis, whose family owns Capt. Anderson’s Restaurant in Panama City Beach — where she and the women have made brownies and nut cake closer to the festival dates.


Recipes remain the same year after year, from Taylor’s tzatziki to Patronis’ dolmades — so festival-goers can look forward to those consistent cravings.


“Different regions have different recipes. I’m learning from these ladies,” said Gregg, whose parents are from Cyprus — where there’s “more Middle Eastern influence.”


FRIEND OF THE POOR


Though Gregg's family is in Europe and her husband Jeff’s family is in Tennessee, the couple and their daughters are at home at St. John the Theologian Greek Orthodox Church in Panama City — where they have had a renewed sense of purpose.


“We were just welcomed with open arms. ... What we get here at the church, this is family,” said Gregg, whose husband is now retired from the U.S. Coast Guard.


While the church isn’t quite ready to return to the Greek market, music and dancing yet, there will be a silent auction of gift baskets at this year’s festival with proceeds to go to the Ladies Philoptochos.


“It translates as ’friend of the poor,’ but it’s not just that; it’s so much more,” Gregg said. “They do charitable work really far and wide, which can be anything they can do to make a difference in the community.”


The local chapter of the women’s charitable organization contributes nationally and locally, Bryant added.


“National Philoptochos sent us money to reach out to help those who were affected by the hurricane,” Bryant said. “All these people were just pouring food and goods to us through their community’s Philoptochos.”