The running joke at the 18th annual Greek Festival in Thousand Oaks went something like this: What happens when you get two Greeks together?
They start a restaurant.
And when you get several hundred together?
Well, you get a festival like the one celebrated at the city’s Conejo Creek Park over the weekend.
Organized by St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Camarillo, the American Hellenic Educational and Professional Assn. and the Daughters of Penelope, the two-day event attracted more than 20,000 Southern Californians to sample a feast that would have made Dionysus himself proud while celebrating a culture that has given the world democracy, philosophy and the gyro.
“We’re so proud of our heritage and we like to see people enjoying aspects of our country like the food,” said Joann Koumbaroulis-Durham, a volunteer at the festival. “Besides, this food is to die for.”
She helped prepare the mezethes, or hors d’oeuvres, for the festival. In addition to the finger-size grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice, she doled out plates full of feta cheese, spinach pastries and the always popular saganaki, a slice of sharp, salty cheese, sauteed in olive oil and doused with rum and lemon juice.
Other volunteers prepared gyro and souvlaki sandwiches slathered in creamy tzaziki sauce with roasted ears of corn or sold desserts such as baklava and buttery koulourakia cookies.
“These are great coffee dunkers,” a volunteer advised. “They just melt in your mouth.”
When not eating, celebrants danced the traditional syrto to traditional Greek music played on a twangy bouzouki guitar or sampled glasses of Metaxa brandy and licorice-flavored ouzo.
Elsewhere, vendors sold traditional wool fishermen’s hats, clay pottery embossed with Greek script and gilded religious icons.
“This is such a wonderful family event, and it’s a great support for the community,” county Supervisor Frank Schillo said while waiting for his saganaki. “One thing’s for sure though: If you’re going to come to one of these, you’ve got to forget your diet.”
While for many it was a pleasant way to spend the day with family and friends, for others it has become something of a hobby.
Bill Wede, a self-described “Greek Festival groupie,” came all the way from Anaheim on Sunday to gorge himself on food and dance. He said that compared with all the other festivals he has attended, this was one of his favorites.
“Sure, there are some that are a lot bigger, but this one’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I’ve been to it before and it just keeps getting better.”