Archive for Saturday, April 11, 2009

For Greek Easter, a month of prep

A buffet table at last year’s Easter celebration at a home in Washington.

A buffet table at last year’s Easter celebration at a home in Washington.

April 11, 2009

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— It’s the aromas that are driving everyone crazy. The scent of garlic, lemon and oregano from the pans of slow-cooked lamb. The warm, buttery perfume oozing from the bowls of crisp potato chunks. The sweetly tantalizing smell of braided egg bread. It’s exquisite torture as the guests stand in line, mouths watering, waiting to reach the buffet table where childhood chums Jennifer Poulakidas and Angelique Skoulas have set out their annual Greek Orthodox Easter feast at a friend’s home here.

But first, before anyone can fill a plate, they all must play the traditional red egg game. Twelve dozen bright-red hard-cooked eggs are passed out to the nearly 175 adults and kids. The color of the eggs represents Christ’s blood. The idea is to bang your egg against someone else’s, pointy end to pointy end, with one person calling out “Christos anesti” (Christ is risen). After the eggs hit, the other person responds, “Alithos anesti” (Truly he is risen). Then you repeat, using the opposite end of your egg. The object is to crack the other person’s egg while leaving yours intact. (For obvious reasons, kids adore this tradition.) Another benefit to the game: You can nibble on the egg while waiting for your meal.

And then, finally, it’s time to eat. People at the front of the line take their heavily laden plates and plop down on chairs, the sofa, even the floor and quickly begin eating. Those at the back of the line, craning their necks to make sure food will still be there when it’s their turn, are reassured by Skoulas. “Don’t worry, there’s more coming!” she yells as another pan of lamb and a large bowl of dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) are carried to the table.

This year, the two D.C. women will again host their feast to celebrate Greek Easter, on April 19. Because the Eastern Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar, its followers celebrate Easter (or Pascha) on a different day from the Western Catholic and Protestant churches. The two Easters are usually one to five weeks apart, though sometimes, such as next year, they fall on the same day.

Poulakidas and Skoulas, both 42, grew up in Northern California and met as girls at summer camp. They have been doing this since 1993, shortly after they moved to Washington. That first year, they cooked some Greek dishes for about 20 friends. The next year, the circle was a little larger. And it kept growing as the women made more friends, couples got married, babies were born. By the time friends here offered their home for the event, the guest list had grown to well over 150 people.

Cooking begins about a month before, as Skoulas bakes and freezes trays of cookies and pastries, and Poulakidas makes several huge pans of spanakopita (spinach pie) and tiropita (cheese pie). Friends and neighbors lend freezer space to store the food. On the Friday and Saturday before the big day, the cooking reaches a frenzy, with Poulakidas buying, marinating and then on Sunday morning cooking nearly 70 pounds of lamb and 30 pounds of potatoes, thanks to six neighbors who let her use their ovens.

The success of the event is not surprising. The two women are like small suns, exuding warmth and an irresistible pull toward their orbit. Paul Brown, 44, of Takoma Park, Md., who has known Poulakidas since they were graduate students at the University of Texas, calls her “profoundly energetic and welcoming, with millions of friends.” Brown, who is not Greek Orthodox, says that coming each year to the party has taught him that “Greeks have a rootedness in their home country, but they’re not exclusionary. They embrace everyone and want to teach us about their traditions.”

Both women are slim, with dark brown hair and brown eyes. Skoulas is taller and slightly quieter, but with a disarming way of questioning people that gets them to spill their life story five minutes after they’ve met her. Not surprisingly, she works as a mediator in negotiation and conflict resolution in Washington and Boston. Poulakidas is more gregarious, which suits her government relations job with the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

Although the women, who live near each other here, admit that cooking and organizing for the Easter event is a lot of work — “Each time we wonder, ‘What were we thinking?,’ ” says Poulakidas, laughing — it helps give them a sense of family when their own families are across the country.

There’s also no question that the food must be made from scratch. “When you are Greek, especially if you’re a woman, you learn to cook. That’s just the way it is,” Skoulas explains. She and Poulakidas each have a collection of smeared, stained, lovingly used recipes passed down to them from their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and friends that they use every year. Although she undoubtedly knows it by heart, Skoulas carefully keeps a piece of paper with her mother’s recipe for melomakarona (honey-spice cookies) on the counter as she mixes the dough. Poulakidas uses her own mother’s recipe to make koulourakia (butter-cookie braids).

They do get some crucial help with the preparations. Friends Michael Wroblewski and Phil Karsting lend them the use of their home for the party, including the driveway where Poulakidas’ cousin, John Pappas, cooks an entire lamb on a spit. (This, by the way, is a huge hit with the kids, who help “paint” the lamb as it turns with a brush dipped into garlicky marinade.)

A Greek friend, Nick Maduros, makes dozens of homemade dolmades, as well as a huge platter of keftedes (Greek meatballs). And probably the messiest job — using red Rit dye to color the 12 dozen hard-cooked eggs — falls each year to friends Mike Bretz and Bob Ormsby.

The preparations for this year’s party are under way, with an anxiety-producing twist: Wroblewski and Karsting are having their kitchen renovated and are hoping the contactor finishes in time for the holiday.

In the meantime, Brown is already worrying about next year, when the Western and Eastern Easters will be on the same day. “Of course I’ll celebrate Easter with my own family,” he says, “but I’m really going to miss this.”

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