The Greek connection

It’s May, the month for what’s now known as the International Greek Food Festival at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock.

The festival long has been among my favorite annual events in Arkansas.

Almost 30,000 people turn out each May for the three-day event (May 20-22 this year), which began in 1984 to raise money for the church.

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church was founded in 1913 to serve a growing Greek population in the state. The congregation purchased its first building (at 15th and Center streets) a few years later from Winfield Methodist Church and stayed at that location until moving to the current location at 1100 Napa Valley Drive in west Little Rock in 1983.

“Thanks in part to the money we raised from the food festival, we had the mortgage paid off on the new building by 1989,” said Little Rock construction executive Gus Vratsinas, one of the event’s founders. “At that point, we began giving to various charities. Those charities, in turn, started supplying us with volunteers for the festival.

“We’ve got this thing pretty well figured out after 32 years, but you’re always tweaking things. When we designed the current church, we put in a big kitchen that could handle our baking needs. The ladies who make the pastries now start work in December. Last year, we made 24,000 pieces of baklava and sold out. This year, we’ll have 30,000.”

In addition to food, there’s music, dance and other activities. It’s a way to celebrate the rich Greek heritage in Arkansas.

Vratsinas’ father came to the United States in 1912 at age 12 but later went back to Greece. He eventually returned to the United States and wound up in Little Rock, where an uncle operated a downtown café. Vratsinas’ mother came to this country from Greece in 1939. Gus Vratsinas is quick to list the Little Rock restaurants once owned by those who came from Greece — the Post Office Café, the Maxell House Café, Miller’s Café, the Palace and others.

Helen Hronas has a well-documented history of Greeks in Arkansas on the website of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

“Though small in number compared to other immigrant groups, Greeks and Greek-Americans in Arkansas have had a notable impact upon the state,” she wrote. “From their beginnings as laborers, Greeks in Arkansas quickly became entrepreneurs and business owners, and many of the children and grandchildren of these original immigrants went on to business, academic and medical careers. Many Greeks who come to Arkansas today are in the medical or research fields. Emblematic of the acceptance of Greeks by the state has been the popularity of the Greek Food Festival, one of the most well-attended culinary fetes in the state.

“Immigrants from Greece began arriving in Arkansas in the late 19th century. Most were single young males who left their homeland for the United States full of hope for a more prosperous life. Greece was very poor at the time, and some parts of northern Greece had not yet won their freedom from the Turkish Ottoman yoke. It was a dangerous and difficult three-week voyage, and many left with little more than the clothes on their backs and a few coins. The first priority of those who were married was to earn enough money to send for their wives and children. Most immigrants became permanent residents, but others saved their money and returned to Greece.

“Most families settled in Little Rock. The earliest immigrants to Little Rock came mostly from villages and small towns of the Peloponnesus (southern Greece), particularly from Olympia and Sparta, and usually headed to places where they knew someone who could help them get established. The first to reach Little Rock was Anastasios Stathakis, who arrived in 1892 from Sparta. In 1902, Pete Peters was the first child born of Greek immigrants in Little Rock. Pelopida and Eugenia Kumpuris frequently housed new immigrants at their Little Rock home.”

The Stathakis family name is still well known in Hot Springs.

And the Kumpuris family name is still well known in Little Rock.

“The newly arrived usually worked for a time for those who came earlier while picking up enough English to get by,” Hronas wrote. “Few had an opportunity for formal schooling, although some were well educated in Greece before immigrating. Many did hard labor such as building railroad tracks, and as was common with immigrants who spoke little or no English, sometimes the employer refused to pay once the job was done. Such discrimination and abuse provided the Greeks an incentive to go into business for themselves as well as educate their children. The Greeks were soon running fruit and vegetable markets, hot dog stands, candy shops, grocery stores, cleaners and shoeshine parlors. Most gravitated toward food service.”

In 1905, a group of Greek immigrants in Arkansas created the Homer Society, which served both religious and cultural purposes.

Hronas wrote: “At first, visiting priests from Memphis were invited to celebrate the divine liturgy and perform sacraments. In 1913, members arranged for a permanent priest, Father Kallinikos Kanellas, and services were held in an upstairs meeting hall over a high-end grocery store near Ninth and Main streets for the next eight years. A small chapel was arranged for liturgies and sacraments, and another area was used for social gatherings. Research by Rev. Father George Scoulas in the 1960s indicated that Kanellas probably was the first Orthodox priest of Greek ancestry to come to the United States. He died in 1921 and is buried in the historic Oakland Cemetery in Little Rock, where most of the early Greek immigrants were interred. Early church leaders included P.G. Johnson, Pelopida (Peter) Kumpuris, Joe Stathakis, Anastasios Stathakis, Peter Stathakis, George Lianos, Basil Peters, Sam Stathakis, George Stathakis and Harry Hronas.”

A 1952 story in the Arkansas Democrat stated that the first Orthodox church in Arkansas was a Russian Orthodox church at Slovak in the southern part of Prairie County. Two Russian priests founded the church in 1894.

“Annunciation in Little Rock is the oldest continuous Orthodox church in Arkansas,” Hronas wrote. “The parish of the Annunciation, under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Detroit, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, received a state charter on June 8, 1920. A church building at 1500 Center Street was purchased from the Winfield Methodist congregation in 1919. The parish outgrew this building.”

Now, only about 30 percent of the Annunciation congregation is of Greek ancestry. Other members are descended from immigrants from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Russia, Romania and elsewhere.

The chairman of this year’s food festival is Jason Chacko, a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley whose name central Arkansas residents will recognize from his morning financial reports on the radio.

Chacko’s family came to this country from India. The family history has been traced back to the first century when the apostle Thomas converted the Pakalomatom family to Christianity.

“I’m standing on the shoulders of the giants who built this festival,” Chacko said during a recent breakfast. “I was five months old when the first festival was held. It has changed a lot since then. Our goal is to be among the best family events of the spring in Arkansas.”

With 22 nationalities represented at Annunciation, the name word “international” was added to the International Greek Food Festival.

“It has truly become an international event,” Chacko said. “You can eat Mediterranean food while watching Russian dancing.”

Vratsinas was the president of the parish council at Annunciation when the new facility was built in 1983.

“It was a no-brainer,” he said of the decision to create the food festival. “This kind of thing had been going on in other cities for decades. Our church had been selling gyros since they started Riverfest so we decided to create our own festival. We bounced around with the dates on which to hold the event and finally settled on the weekend before Memorial Day weekend. It keeps getting bigger. Last year was our largest event yet with about 30,000 turning out over three days. That’s obviously more than a 200-family church can handle, so now we rely a great deal on volunteers.”

Chacko said the organizers like to “show off the church.”

“We have icons painted by priests out of Greece,” he said. “People can walk through on their own, and we also offer formal tours during the festival.”

The hours for this year’s festival are from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Friday, May 20; 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 21; and 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 22.

Food can be eaten at the festival or picked up at a drive-through location. The foods offered range from gyros to calamari to Armenian pizza.

There’s also a market at which visitors can buy items such as Greek olive oil, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, salad dressing and cheeses. The market also will offer Russian collectibles such as nesting dolls and eggs along with ceramics, scarves, stained-glass lamps, jewelry, Middle Eastern coins, European artwork, wooden toys, rolling pens and other gift items.

Do you know what pastitsio is (long macaroni layered with seasoned ground beef and then topped with a thick cheese sauce)?

Do you know what tiropeta is (cheese puffs)?

Do you know what spanakopita is (spinach cheese puffs)?

You can learn all of that at the festival.

The festival again will team up with Chef Shuttle, which will allow people to have meals delivered to their homes and offices. The menu will be posted at chefshuttle.com the weekend of the festival.

Volunteers for the festival, such as ROTC students from Catholic High School for Boys (who clean the grounds), will earn about 4,000 hours of volunteer credits.

Among the charities that will benefit from this year’s event are Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arkansas, Community Connection, Easter Seals of Arkansas, the Harmony Health Clinic of Little Rock, Literary Action of Central Arkansas, Youth Home and the Wolfe Street Foundation.

“It’s truly a community event,” Vratsinas said.

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