Rice, Beef, Tomatoes, Love and Prayers Go Into Greek Grape Leaves

There’s a practical reason Lesa Tustin wears her apron inside out. It’s one of perhaps a million tweaks in the city’s ever-unfolding presence of Greek immigrants and food inspired by sea and sun.

“It this rice?!” the tech guy demanded on the day she decided to make the flip. Tustin, whose maiden name is the more Greek Vasiliou, peered down at her smartphone as the man picked bits of rice and, well, spiced meat out of its inner workings.

She nodded in weary understanding. The phone had been stored in the front of an apron Tustin was wearing while she processed some 180 pounds of meat filling at a clip as part of the run up to Grecian Fest.

Ground beef, tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, dill, parsley, mint, salt, pepper, uncooked rice and “lots of love and many prayers.” Yep. All sorts of things could have gotten into that phone honestly.

Now, the apron’s embroidered St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church can be read only backwards. Her phone — a new one — is safely tucked against her body.

“I love my church,” Tustin said with a shrug, a laugh and a quick glance at what would soon be the filling of yet more grape leaves. “This is what I love.”

The meat filling and the grape leaves await the next stages in the process.


Tustin’s not alone, in spite of the fact the kitchen air conditioner couldn’t quite keep up with the combined heat of summer and blazing stove burners. Alongside her this particular Monday was Annette Vidis.

Vidis was managing a line of tall blanching pots, lifting a sodden mass of leaves out now and then to check for that blackish-green that indicates a leaf is softened enough to fill but not so soft as to dissolve. She’s was wearing elbow-length orange gloves to keep her hands safe.

Annette Vidis, another cook at the heart of Wheeling’s Grecian Fest, blanches grape leaves in the kitchen of St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church. Church members are preparing and freezing as many as 8,000 stuffed grape leaves to be baked up each day of this year’s Grecian Fest, July 24-27.
Annette Vidis and Lesa Vasiliou Tustin display a properly blanched grape leaf. Vidis, the blancher of the day on a recent Monday preparation session, said she judges doneness by color. A blackish-green is what she’s seeking.

The blanching brings up another tweak in the festival prep that’s sadder than the apron flip.

“We used to have a lot of old timers who … went down to the river,” to pick leaves, Tustin reflected on a tradition the food preppers miss. “But, they’ve passed away, and now we buy them.”

Vidis grimaced at the loss, but acknowledged buying the leaves is a bit easier even if it does dip into festival proceeds, which help fund the church’s Open Door food ministry.

“They would bring stacks of them in in little bags,” Vidis said of the four or five men who used to gather. The church ladies would clean them, sort them by size and freeze them for later blanching. “Sometimes some of the leaves were too small,” and had to be patched together to make a roll.

Patching might not be much of an issue in a home kitchen, but the St. John’s crew is turning out 6,000 to 8,000 stuffed grape leaves for each year’s festival. Even a few minutes make a difference.

Outside the kitchen, two church members were working like they knew all about that. Martha Mamoukos Busack and Rodney Skaggs were carefully pulling apart blanched leaves before snipping off the last bits of stem.

Martha Mamakos Busack and Rodney Skaggs trim the last bits of stems from blanched grape leaves.

“It’s very tricky stuff,” Mamakos Busack said as she expertly peeled off a single leaf from what appeared to be a solid mass of green limpness.

One table away, Paul Markos was at work at the next step in the process. He flattened leaves, adding bits of other leaves if needed, to reach the set diameter needed to make a roll. A pre-measured meatball was placed in the center and a roll was swiftly made.

It’s not just church ladies behind the massive food preparation for Grecian Fest. Here, Paul Markos, assembles a stuffed grape leaf, using more than one leaf to make sure the final product is a uniform size. Uniformity is critical to preparing food for the public, cook Annette Vidis said. “Every cookie the same,” Vidis said of measuring and even weighing festival products.

With enough workers, empty trays soon filled up with the rolled leaves. Tustin said the filled trays are frozen, uncooked, until the festival. Each day of the event, trays are removed, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil and baked about an hour.

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This particularly Monday, the focus was on grape leaves, but the group had been preparing for the festival since mid-January. (That was after a holiday break that followed the church’s Christmas bake sale, also a multi-month preparation.)

The church’s walk-in freezer and a dozen standing freezers were already overflowing with bread and cookies, baked by the hundreds of dozens.

“We never have enough room, but we manage,” Tustin said, ticking off a list of what’s already ready for the festival.

The honey-soaked layers of baklava, sugar-powdered crescents of kourambiethes, finikia flecked with orange and cinnamon and cloves, butter-filled koularakia and the sweet braids of tsoureki bread.

It’s all done, all ready, she said.


Not to say that it’s been easy. Even having worked since January, supplying the large Grecian Fest is no joke.

Lesa Tustin

Tustin — who now lives in Washington, Pa., and was formerly an attorney and CPA — puts in about 25 volunteer hours per week. Her husband, Jim Tustin, adds to that with time spent buying supplies and hauling them to the church. Vidis is there much of the time, as well.

“Mondays are set aside for baking,” Vidis said of a weekly schedule she has adhered to since retiring from 40 years teaching in Marshall County schools.

Not to mention the hours of another dozen or so core volunteers. Tustin, who has a family background in restaurants, whips up a lunch each Monday in hopes most will stay the day. There’s copious coffee, leftover cookies and her fresh stuffed peppers or lasagna.

There’s also a lunchtime scripture reading, lest anyone forget the faith at the foundation of the event.

“We do this for the glory of God,” Vidis said.

There’s also the fellowship, Tustin continued, motioning toward the adjacent tables filled with workers. She noted some have actually volunteered first and so enjoyed being a part of the work, they later joined the church.

“Just getting together, everyone loves it,” Tustin said. “And, it’s part of our stewardship. It’s not just money. It’s our time, our talent, our treasure.”

That treasure spills out. At the group’s most recent event, the annual Christmas bake sale, more than $8,000 was raised to fund the church’s Open Door food ministry to the poor.

Volunteers work on the stuffed grape leaf assembly line.


While the food for Grecian Festival 2019 is all but locked up, Tustin suspects changes will come in the future.

“The older ones are the ones who show up every week, but they’re slowing down,” she said of a core of about 12 volunteers, many of whom are also members of an Orthodox women’s charitable group called Philoptochos.

The church’s younger women are either, “full-time mommies or have full-time jobs,” she said of efforts to broaden the group, whose age range is currently mid-50s through early 90s.

Toward that effort, she recently reversed a long-standing rule of no children in or near the kitchen. If moms can keep children safe and occupied, she said they are more than welcome.

“We worry about that. We really do,” Tustin said of keeping up with the festival in the future. In the last two years, the prep group lost six key women — four to death and two to relocations as they moved away to live near their adult children.

She noted the festival may have to scale down as more volunteers die or decline, but does not believe it will ever shut down.

“I see us continuing to do this in some fashion as long as we’re here,” Tustin said. “Our church will always be here.”

This year’s Grecian Fest is 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily July 24-27. All events — which include music, dance performances and cooking demonstrations in addition to food sale — take place at St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church, at the corner of Chapline and 22nd streets. More festival details can be found at www.grecianfest.com.

A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household.