Odyssey Greek Festival Sept 2-4: An Invitation to Share Greek Cuisine & Community

Anna Bendiksen

If there’s one thing that the Greeks are known for, it’s warm hospitality. The ancients, believing that the gods walked among us, saw this as a practical matter; the lowliest beggar could be Zeus or Athena in disguise, and so was given a lavish welcome.

For Greek-Americans today, faith and tradition still make hospitality a priority. Just ask the members of St. Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church in Orange, CT, as they prepare to welcome guests to their 36th annual “Odyssey” festival this Labor Day weekend.

The Odyssey Festival takes place at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, 480 Racebrook Road, Orange, CT, 06477. Hours are 12 noon to 10 PM on Friday through Sunday, September 2nd through 4th, and 12 noon to 7 PM on Monday, September 5th, 2016. 

“For us this is God’s house and our home,” says Father Peter Orfanakos, priest at St. Barbara’s. “This festival provides us with an opportunity to welcome people into our home.”

Guests of all backgrounds can appreciate the culinary specialties known far beyond Greece. The Odyssey’s cuisine this year includes meze (appetizers) such as saganaki (flaming cheese---a Greek-American dish invented in Chicago), souvla (lamb roasted on the spit), loukaniko sausage (a fresh pork sausage often flavored with orange), grilled shrimp, lamb chops, and avgolemono soup (lemony chicken soup thickened with egg yolks), moussaka, gyro, spanakopita, and pastitsio (lasagne-like casserole made with long tubular pasta); and glyka (assorted pastries such as baklava and the koulourakia mentioned above). Senior citizens can enjoy a 20% discount on meals from 12 to 3 PM on Friday, September 2nd.

 “People can come and get a taste of our Hellenic traditions, faith, and philotimo,” says Father Peter. (Philotimo does not translate easily; one rendition might be “honor that binds the community.”)

The four-day festival, featuring Greek food, music, and dancing, is the parish’s main fundraiser in more ways than one. While supporting St. Barbara’s financially, it also serves as a way for the parish to strengthen bonds of friendship across the generations. This, too, is philotimo.

“We call upon the whole community, young and old,” says parishioner Helen Wachter, whose mother was instrumental in helping to start the festival in the 1980‘s. Today, over 1000 volunteers, ranging in age from 8 to 96, come together to bring it to life.

On a recent visit, the parish hall was bustling with almost two dozen volunteers, young and old, chatting in Greek and English as they shaped dough for koulourakia, a braided butter cookie rolled in sesame seeds. According to Wachter, over 1000 pounds of butter, 1500 pounds of sugar, and 900 of flour are used every year in preparing---by hand---more than 40,000 pieces of pastry for the festival.

“The old teach the young,” Wachter says. “There’s a lot of camaraderie.”

Cultural offerings are equally rich; the Odyssey features live Greek music and dance performances by nearly 100 dancers aged 8 to 18, each of whom spends approximately 25 hours rehearsing for the festival. According to Vicky Vagenas, who coordinates the dancers, many of the costumes are imported from Greece.

A giant tag sale, activities for kids, presentations on Greek culture and religion, tours of the church, and a raffle are also offered. For foodie visitors, there are also live cooking demonstrations and an agora (Greek marketplace) with grocery items.

 “You can just tell the volunteers are having so much fun,” says Father Peter. “People come and see the joy. It’s an expression of love, and for me it’s priceless.”

Free admission and free parking. For more information, visit http://www.saintbarbara.org or call (203) 795-1347.