Belmont Greek Festival 2005

Last Saturday September 3rd 2005, I attended the Belmont Greek Festival. It was a lot of fun! Unlike most festivals that bring in dozens of random vendors selling random food and items, Greek festivals tend to be highly themed and controlled. The only food is produced by the festival itself; the entertainment is Greek music and plays; almost all the vendors sell items from Greece.

The most distinctive feature of Greek festivals (from what I've seen) is the amount of space devoted to food preparation and delivery. Greek festivals always have a wide menu ranging from the well known items like gyros (which I tried and it was great!) and souvlaki and baklava to more unusual items like spanakopita, moussaka, loukoumades and galactoboureko. If you want a good description of the food served at this festival, read this Chronicle review of the Belmont Greek Festival.

In addition to the gyros, I tried the
* Moussaka (eggplant and beef casserole). Pretty decent when I got a balance of the flavors; however, there was way too much beef in my serving and hence most bites entirely lacked eggplant and were uninteresting. I left a lot of ground beef on my plate.
* a Greek salad. Good, though oddly without feta cheese.
* Fasolakia (Greek-style green beans). Nothing special.
* Galactoboureko (custard filled filo pastry). Very tasty.
* Kataife (shredded nut pastries). Similar to Baklava in flavor, but the shredding of the nuts and the shreds of baked dough give it a neat texture (and birds-nest look).
* Hillas (a Greek beer). Tasted like Budweiser (i.e., nothing).

The food was provided and prepared at a variety of places. It was impressive watching the gyro and lamb chop people roast whole lambs outsides. In retrospect, besides desserts I probably should've just stayed outside with the gyros and souvlaki and lamb chops and possibly the filo pies as entrees rather than trying the green beans and the moussaka. (But the roasted chicken inside did look really good...)

Lines for the various stations were long at times, but there was one line that never shrunk. It was always at least half an hour long in waiting time, all the way through closing. As the Chronicle writes, "The most popular sweets by far are the Belmont Greek Festival's renowned loukoumades -- doughnut holes glazed with honey. The freshly fried treats are so popular that the festival organizers have to limit orders to two per person before sending people to the back of the line." I didn't have the patience to wait, but some people at the table I sat at did, and decided it was well worth it.

But I digress about food. Arriving late afternoon, the first thing I did after familiarizing myself with all the sights around was to sit down and watch a production of a play called Jason and the Argonauts. It was great! The actors included a few high school/college-age students -they played the main characters-, and a number of elementary schoolers. The story followed Jason's adventures. It was clear the actors were having piles of fun. And the script seemed authentically home-produced, with remarks like, "I'd love to join your crew Jason, but first I want to sample some of the excellent food at the Belmont Greek Festival." One (big) monster Jason and his argonauts had to defeat was played by an adult dressed in a black robe with a child with a mask sitting on his head. The whole thing was hokey enough to be a lot of fun. They even had little fight scenes with swords and staffs, with a soundtrack played out of speakers by the side of the tiny (four-row) amphitheater . When a monster or challenge was overcome, they'd trigger the momentous-sounding music. I never thought watching such amateur theatrics could be so fun!

As for the rest of the evening, I alternated between waiting in food lines, eating, digesting, reading my book, and listening to music / watching the dancers, successfully stretching out dinner to be a three hour affair.

This was an impressively well organized festival (and I don't just mean a decent quality web page). They gave me a brochure when I entered, that included, among other things, descriptions of all food items, all vendors, and all events, assorted recipes for some of the food, maps of the festival space, and pictures of many of the helpers as well as of the actors and actresses in costume. In addition, it included a bunch of details that added flavor to the festival, like a page with basic Greek lessons, a timeline of the founding of the Orthodox Church, and discussion of Greek customs and rituals (religious and cultural). The most entertaining fact in this brochure was in the section on the history of Greek festivals: Greek festivals were known as an opportunity for young Greeks to dance and woo each other, and the wedding season tended to follow promptly after festivals.

One great feature of this festival (and yet another fact that distinguishes it from most) was that it went until late at night. While most festivals end at five or six pm, this one went until ten. As time passed from the last afternoon when I arrived to nighttime, the crowd changed. In the afternoon there were more families (with an active kids' play zone); in the evening, while the many high schoolers hadn't disappeared, some of the oldest crowd (60+) had been replaced with more college students from local colleges and some twenty-somethings. The dance floor became packed. It got happening. (Earlier in the day the music was a bit more traditional and usually there were only a dozen people on the dance floor dancing traditional dances. The music in the evening, while still mostly Greek, was more lively and allowed a much wider range of styles of dancing.)

Sad that you missed the festival? Greek festivals happen pretty often; most Greek Orthodox Churches have them yearly. The ones nearby still happening in 2005 are: Santa Cruz (Sep 9-11 2005), San Francisco (Sep 16-18 2005), Concord (Sep 16-18 2005), Vallejo (Oct 8-9 2005), and Hayward (Oct 7-9 2005). Judging by their web pages, none of these are as well organized as this one, but they should have good food and music and I've never been disappointed by a Greek festival yet (and I've been to three).

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