Father Constantine Lazarakis carried a large tray of freshly made Greek rice pudding. The prespotr of Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons was helping out in the church kitchen in preparation for the annual Hamptons Greek Festival in mid-July. Nearby, his mother-in-law, Xante Karlotsos, wife of the protopresptr, Father Alex Karlotosos, oversaw the two-dozen parishioners who prepared Greek delicacies for the 2000 people who attended the annual fair.
Unlike most Hamptons benefits that bring in professional chefs from trendy New York restaurants, the church kitchen is staffed by parishioners, dedicated volunteers who put months of work into the festival. And, unlike summer benefits that cost $200 or more to attend, the price of admission to the Greek Festival is only a healthy appetite and an appreciation for traditional Greek specialties. Attendees can choose from souvlaki, moussaka, pastitsio, spanakopita, gyros, and more. They can sample such Greek pastries as baklava, galaktobourdios, katfi, koulouraka, kourambiedes, and loukomades.
And that scrumptious rice pudding.
Xante greeted me warmly. She is a poised woman, elegant even in her work apron and the calm commander of kitchen operations, presiding over the salad station and the appetizer station where parishioners scooped homemade hummus and tirokafteri into portion-size containers. Tirokafteri, I learned, is a spicy dip made with Arahova feta, roasted red pepper, Calabrian chillis, and paprika. At the dessert station, my neighbor, Teddy Velys, co-owner of Revco with her husband Ross, put the finishing touches on “doples,” helped by Despina Mellis. They dipped the thin horns of freshly baked pastry into a chafing dish filled with a warmed honey/syrup/cinnamon mixture. These were then dipped them into chopped walnuts and packaged in individual portions.
From across the room, complex cooking aromas emanated from enormous pots on the restaurant kitchen stove. I introduced myself to Kyriacos Mytides, who was stirring cans of crushed tomatoes into a pot filled with 25 pounds of green beans. Kyriacos, a compact man with twinkly eyes, was the only non-parishioner in the kitchen. He is the executive chef of the Archdiocese of New York, located across from Mayor Bloomberg’s house.
In another enormous pot, Kyriacos boiled lamb shanks, and, in a third pot, he slow-cooked finely chopped onions, tomato purée, cinnamon sticks, salt, and pepper. After the lamb shanks had boiled for an hour, Kyriacos degreased them, cleaning them of all gristle, before further cooking them in tomato sauce. At the festival, this flavorful Greek specialty would be served with lemon roasted potatoes and Kiriaco’s savory string beans.
For 25 pounds of string beans, Kyriacos sautéed finely chopped onions in olive oil, then added the crushed tomatoes, a little water, the string beans, oregano, salt, and pepper. He would go on to cook 400 pounds of lamb shanks in the course of the festival, 800 pounds of onions, and 750 pounds of potatoes. Unless you are cooking for 2000 people, if you try making Greek lamb shanks or string beans, you may want to modify the quantities on your own.
I could have stood near Kyriacos, watching, while he made cooking seem like a meditation, but I was whisked away by Paul Strassfield, a dapper parishioner wearing a Worth and Worth straw hat. You’ll notice that his name is the first one I’ve mentioned that is not Greek. He is married to Christina Mossaides Strassfield, museum director and chief curator of Guild Hall. His love for his wife led him to convert from Catholicism and become a devoted parishioner of Dormition of the Virgin Mary.
“In the Greek Orthodox world women are represented by the Earth,” Paul tells me. “Men are the moons.”
Before we continued the culinary tour, Paul led me to the stunning sanctuary designed by a Harvard Byzantine scholar. High above are icons of the saints painted on glass by Long Island artist George Filipakos. In the nave are icons representing the Virgin Mary, Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, and the “dormition” — the mortal sleep that led to Mary’s transformation into the Holy Mother.
Walking out to the fairgrounds, Paul took me to meet Pericles Bakas, who founded the church in 1985. Pericles and his wife Tulus owned the Hampton Bays Diner, a staple of the East End for decades until Perry retired.
Perry was holding court at a bridge table. He kept his eye on three large spits where whole lambs were slowly rotating. The lambs are purchased from a purveyor in Astoria, Queens, then trucked to Southampton pre-seasoned with Greek spices.
“I have Perry save me the heads,” Paul told me. “I roast them, then scoop out the brains for breakfast. Delicious!”
As the lambs turned on the spit, Pericles said that back in 1985 he rounded up 20 Greek-Americans to establish a Greek Orthodox church in Southampton. The archbishop turned him down, saying that they would need a minimum of 50 parishioners. So Pericles and Tulus did outreach in the Greek community, and more than met the required minimum. George Gouleandzis was prevailed upon to donate some of his land on which to build the church. He declined, but instead gave $35,000, and helped make a deal for the new church to buy land on St. Andrews Lane from Southampton College. Tulus’s uncle, Dr. Langounis, gave $60,000 and with this start, Perry had dishwashers from the Hampton Bays Diner pour the terrazzo floor for the fledgling church. Today, Dormition has more than 250 members.
Now, with only an hour before the festival opened to the public, Father Alex arrived. Dressed in his dignified clerical collar, he carried a much-needed salad spinner. In our brief two-minute conversation, he talked about a cooking class that the church gives for autistic children in the community.
I had come to see the festival in a new light. The delicious food, the dancing, the celebration, are in service of a profound spirituality. I felt humbled.
Before I left, Paul introduced me to 10-year-old Demetrios Lazarakis, son of Father Constantine, grandson of Father Alex. This was Demetrios’s second year working at the festival, and he told me that he would help to serve the “yeeros.” Maybe the aromas of too many delicious foods had gone to my head. What, I asked, are yeeros? It was explained to me that yeeros is Greek word for “turn,” and “yeeros” are what Americans call “gyros,” thinly sliced, seasoned pork roasted on a vertical spit and served on pita.
I asked Demetrios if he plans to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and become a priest. “Actually,” he said, “I plan to be a professional ballplayer. Probably baseball.”
Linda Kline wrote the “Cooking With Sam” column for The Independent in the 1990s. She received a first place Press Club of Long Island Award, on behalf of The Independent, for reporting on the Arts in 1995. She went on to co-write the book for the musical, “A Class Act,” for which she received a Tony nomination. Kline is a resident of Water Mill and the Upper West Side.