The welcome banner was in place, gently bouncing in the light wind. Dozens of white tents were assembled above cooking stations and dining areas and craft stands. The amusement rides were in place and in motion, flashing and zipping around. But most importantly, the yiayia (grandmothers) were cooking - and cooking, and cooking.
It was time, once again, for Greek Fest, put on by the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church and featuring a variety of ethnic foods and entertainment, including authentic dance performances and live music, carnival games and rides, a market and a cultural area. Now in its 47th year, its fourth year held at Wisconsin State Fair Park, the annual three-day festival is one of the biggest fundraisers for the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed church.
Eric and I went Saturday around 4 p.m., which, surprisingly, was the perfect time to go. We scored a primo parking spot just a few strides from the main entrance, paid $5 to park, and then were quickly ushered through the massive gate by a swam of people.
Upon entering, we were immediately drawn to the packed performance area where the Hellenic Dancers, a Greek dance troupe, decked out in traditional black, white and red regalia, performed authentic folk dances. The traditional performances are one of the popular aspects of the festival, but the biggest draw is undoubtedly the food.
As we stood watching the choreographed routine, the warm scent of spices engulfed us and drew us away from the dancers and through the crowd. Thoughtfully, festival organizers included a list of food and beverage options and their respective cost next to the ticket window, making it easy to decide how many we needed for food purchases.
Gyros, chicken kebabs, souvlaki, saganaki (flaming cheese) and lamb dinners are among the traditional Greek cuisine available, as well as mouth-watering pastries like koulouria, loukoumathes (honey puffs) and baklava. Those with their taste buds set on lamb, though, would have to come early because the festival was sold out of the Greek staple as soon as 5 p.m. on Saturday.
Food tickets in hand, we first headed for the tent offering up saganaki, an alcohol-doused flaming cheese, but the line was unbearably long. We moved on to our next option: pastichio, a baked pasta dish stacked with layers of ground beef and béchamel sauce. It's a lot like lasagna, but less dense.
Next, we made our way over to the tent serving up made-to-order gyros. The popular dish is probably the most “comfortable” option for those who don’t usually stray too far from typical Wisconsin grub. So, naturally, the line to procure one was long. Luckily, it moved fast, and once we made it to the front of the line, our large gyro, packed with thin slices of lamb on fresh pita bread and topped with a large swirl of cool and creamy Tzatziki sauce, fresh tomatoes and red onions, arrived in mere moments.
We found a place to sit beneath the main tent and ordered a couple of glasses of Greek wine - a dry rosé for me, white for Eric - and dug into our helping of pastichio and gyro.
After that, Eric pulled me over to a tent offering dolmathes, a combination of fresh ground beef and rice that's seasoned with herbs and wrapped in tender grape leaves. He could pound dozens of these at a time! While munching on those we wandered around the expanded marketplace that was filled with imported artifacts and goods from Greece, like pictures of Greek Orthodox icons and “evil eye” trinkets. There really wasn’t anything I felt compelled to buy. I did, however, have a hankering for some coffee.
I ordered a cup of Greek coffee, and watched, fascinated, as a lady sporting perfectly manicured pink nails, a baseball hat and dark tortoiseshell sunglasses stood behind a little green gas grill and heaped spoonfuls of finely powdered coffee and sugar into the silver briki. Slowly, she stirred for several minutes, bringing it to just the right temperature, and then poured it into a tiny Styrofoam cup. She handed it over with a smile and I savored the first super-sweet yet pungent sip of the deep dark brew.
With only a few tickets left we wandered around the now larger crowd, trying to decide what to buy until we spotted the dessert tent. We couldn’t resist sampling a couple of pastries. Eric got a piece of karithopeta, a rich walnut cake with honey syrup, and I tried one of the melomakarona, a richly spiced cookie dipped in honey and sprinkled with ground walnuts that melted in my mouth. We also shared a plate of loukoumathes, deep fried dough balls drizzled in honey. I would take a bite and then scoop extra honey from the plate onto the puffs and into my mouth. So yummy!
As the sun began to wane and our bellies began to protrude, it was time to head home. Greek Fest continues today on the State Fairgrounds - check it out!
47th Annual Greek Fest
Wisconsin State Fair Park
640 S. 84th Street, West Allis
When: Friday, June 22 and Saturday, June 23, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, June 24, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Parking: $5 for cars, free for motorcycles