Summer is festival season in Wheeling, and this week organizers from St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church are gearing up for their annual four-day Grecian Festival from July 28-31. After canceling last year’s festival due to COVID-19, the event will return this year to celebrate 20 years of sharing Greek food, music, and dancing with the community.
West Virginia’s Greek Heritage
Wheeling’s Grecian Festival is one of many Greek celebrations that take place throughout West Virginia and the Ohio Valley – but why? That’s because West Virginia’s Greek population expanded at the turn of the 19th century as Greeks immigrated to the United States with the hope of gaining employment. The growth of West Virginia’s mining and steel industries at the time provided ample job opportunities for those looking for a new start. In fact, according to Census data, West Virginia’s Greek population had expanded from 787 in 1910 to over 3,000 just 10 years later. A majority of these people lived in Harrison, Hancock, and Ohio counties.
Given the prominence of Greek immigrants throughout the Ohio Valley, it’s no surprise that Greek heritage and traditions are still celebrated today. Food is especially important to these celebrations as recipes are handed down from one generation to the next. As immigrants left their home countries behind, cooking traditional food is a way of preserving culture regardless of location.
Whether you plan to satisfy your sweet tooth with Baklava at the pastry table or enjoy a gyro sandwich from the outdoor tavern while watching the Greek dancers perform, Wheeling’s Grecian Festival is your chance to get a taste of the Mediterranean in West Virginia. We spoke with the event’s organizers to see what guests can expect at this year’s festival.
What’s New This Year
If you’re a fan of Grecian desserts then you won’t want to miss these new additions to this year’s menu: baklava cheesecake and ladopsomo. While we tend to think of cheesecake as a modern delicacy, it’s actually been a beloved dessert for centuries. In fact, it’s believed that athletes were served cheesecake during the first Olympic games in 776 B.C. since it was thought to be a good source of energy. If that’s not enough of an excuse to try a slice at this week’s festival, then perhaps the crumbled baklava topping with honey and salted caramel drizzle will!
Another new menu item this year is ladoposomo – a warm, chewy and lightly crisped fried bread topped with sugar and cinnamon. You can cool off by sipping on their new whipped coffee frappe drink that will be served at the outdoor kafenio (Greek cafe).
If you’d like to stick to the classics, the Greek pastry and cookie table will be in its usual location inside the church, along with several traditionally prepared Greek cuisine offerings. One notable difference to this year’s festival is that there will be no indoor dining inside the Hellenic Center. Food will be served grab-and-go style, with extra dining tents set up outside.
While you wait for your food upstairs, you can check out the Greektown display set up in the center of the dining hall. This display will feature past and present Wheeling businesses that were owned by Greek immigrants. It’s sure to be a nice walk down memory lane for long-time Wheeling residents, and an opportunity for newcomers to learn more about Wheeling’s rich history.
Crowd Favorites You Won’t Want to Miss
The Outdoor Taverna is a popular spot to grab a quick bite while enjoying all of the activities happing outside of the church. A crowd favorite is the classic gyro sandwich, made with shaved lamb and beef topped with tomatoes, cucumber and tzatziki dressing. If you aren’t a fan of the traditional gyro, you can opt for a chicken or sausage filling. If you like your food served with some flare – and flames – then you will definitely want to try the saganaki; a flaming Greek cheese served with lemon and pita. This fun treat wlil be offered daily beginning at 4 p.m.
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Every year, the Greek dancers are the heart of the festival’s entertainment, and this year is no different. You can catch the Agape dancers perform daily at 6 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. The Evzone dancers perform saily at 7:30 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. Both groups will be dancing to the sounds of The Greek Company Orchestra, who will perform daily from 6 – 10 p.m.
If you want to enjoy traditional Greek food all year long, then you won’t want to miss this year’s cooking demonstration – Fun with Fillo. Maria Kayafas will lead cooking demonstrations at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the balcony of the Hellenic Center. Kayafas will be showing attendees how to make Bougatsa, a traditional Greek cream-filled phyllo pastry.
You can learn more about the Greek church by attending one of three different church tours that will be offered throughout the week. On Orthodox Iconography, held daily at 12:30 p.m., will share information about how the church uses icons to assist in worship. At 3 p.m. daily you can learn more about the impressive architecture of St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church on a walking tour through the chapel. You can also get an introduction to the history and traditions of The Orthodox Christian Church with daily tours at 5 p.m.
Whether you are celebrating your Greek roots or simply appreciating our area’s Greek culture, the 20th Annual Grecian Fest is a celebration you won’t want to miss! “We are happy to share our faith and culture and welcome everyone to come to partake in this special celebration,” said festival organizer Gus Kayafas. You can check out all of this year’s festival offerings by visiting Grecianfest.com or following the Grecian Festival Facebook page. Opa!
• Alex Panas is the Program Manager for Wheeling Heritage, where she works with artists, small business owners, and community stakeholders to provide technical assistance and create meaningful programs that enhance Wheeling. She also serves as the managing editor for Weelunk. Alex lives in St. Clairsville with her husband where they raise four cats and four spunky backyard chickens.