PORTLAND, Maine — Tim Morrell flipped the sizzling gyro, 6-inch-long slices of the famous Greek meat food, while his 16-year-old son Matt gathered a stack of thin pitas to be heated on the grill next.
Someday, it will be Matt flipping the gyro and his son preparing the pitas.
The Greek Food Festival, now in its 30th year by the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on Pleasant Street, has become more than just the church’s biggest annual fundraiser. It’s a key component in keeping alive Greek cultural traditions, with roots dating back hundreds of years and thousands of miles, in Maine’s largest city.
“All the dads and all their sons are here,” said Tim Morrell. “I’ve been here for 20 years and I learned from my elders. … A lot our families came from the same villages at the turn of the [20th] century.”
The youngest kids in the church community are “runners,” Tim Morrell said, learning the names of the foods and how they need to be stored while keeping the many serving stations supplied with ingredients. When they reach their teens and 20s, they begin helping their parents, aunts and uncles prepare the food.
The Greek Food Festival runs from Thursday to Saturday under a massive event tent situated next to the church, where traditional foods are served up by the plateful.
There’s Lamb Souvlaki — Tim Morrell’s favorite — which is marinated in olive oil, lemon and herbs. Or dolmades, grape leaves wrapped around ground beef and rice. Or pastichio, moussaka or any number of other main courses, followed by pastries named baklava and loukoumades, among other treats.
Tim Morrell said his gyros team distributes between 400 and 500 of the folded sandwiches during the lunchtime stretch, and double that amount in the evening, when Pleasant Street is closed to vehicle traffic and live music and dancing begin in the neighborhood.
“Last night there was a line down to High Street,” Morrell said Friday. “There was a two-hour wait.”
Helen Blewett, who is in charge of the pastry tables at the festival, said the festival is “the single thing that brings the community together in a very significant way.”
“It brings together all ages,” she said. “It’s really a way to pass down Greek cooking and Greek presentation to our young men and women.”
But the event doesn’t simply attract family — the Portland festival has become a pilgrimage point for fans of diverse, traditional foods.
“Some of the best cooks in New England are at this festival,” said Morrell.
“It’s colorful and it’s fun and it’s labor intensive to prepare,” Blewett said, “because we only use the best ingredients and everything is made by hand.”