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Baltimore Greek festival serves up food and culture

Beneath a massive white tent on West Preston Street, Maria Brown served up cups of hot Greek coffee, thick and foamy, made with Arabica beans ground into a fine powder.

The proceeds from the coffee stand would benefit the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, which hosted the 45th annual Greek Food and Cultural Festival over the weekend. Brown and others who volunteered at the coffee stand Sunday send their children to the Greek school connected with the cathedral.

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"We really want this for our kids, to teach them about Greek religion and culture, so we're here," said Brown, 46, of Baltimore. "Most of us are either from Greece or our parents are from Greece, and we want to make sure our kids learn the language. You won't find a Greek who's not connected to the culture."

Geli Ioannou, the chair of the festival, said attendance this year was up over last year.

"I've been overwhelmed by this year's turnout and watching the effort and energy and love and spirit and faith that our parishioners have exhibited during this process," he said.

The festival added live streaming this year so family members in Greece or elsewhere could watch attendees at the event. Ioannou said he was telling an older member of the church that his family in Greece watched his daughter dance at the festival.

"He looked at me in amazement, and he started crying," Ioannou said. "It's why we do this."

The cathedral opened its doors to the public. Christine Miller of Towson learned about a black Madonna imported from the island where a lot of people in Baltimore's Greek community came from.

Miller said she attended the festival in part to learn about the state of the local Greek community. Greek immigrants were once concentrated in East Baltimore. As the community prospered, families moved to the suburbs, giving way to newer waves of immigrants from Latin America.

"I hope there's still some Greek community left here, because that has really changed in Highlandtown," said Miller, 64. "They do have a church there on Eastern Avenue. We were told that as with this church, many of the parishioners live elsewhere now: the changing face of immigrant communities."

Patrons wandered through the white tent to peruse stands offering Greek T-shirts, flags and ceramic plates with images of the Parthenon. Traditional Greek music played over loudspeakers while different groups — children, young women — took turns dancing.

Food stands lined the sides, serving gyros, chicken souvlaki, spanakopita and desserts such as galaktoboureko, a custard covered with phyllo dough and infused with lemon-honey syrup.

Bob Horst, 77, said he had been coming to the festival for 20 years. He spent Sunday preparing chicken for the souvlaki.

"I've been cooking the chicken, cutting it up, having a ball," said the Rosedale man, whose wife, Despina, is Greek.

"It's just fun," Horst said. "We meet everybody, we talk to everybody. And we all get together."

Denise Chilis said the festival was full of kefi, a Greek word meaning a feeling of excitement and joy.

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The Towson woman said she came for the food and to see old friends. She sampled the Greek salad, meatballs and spanakopita.

"There's a lot of kefi here," said Chilis, 58. "A lot of excitement, people seeing their neighbors and friends. They're dancing, enjoying the food. It's a wonderful atmosphere here."

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