Cultural festivals celebrate SLO’s diversity with a world of tastes

Dancers in traditional clothing perform at Mission Plaza during the Greek Festival in 2010.
Dancers in traditional clothing perform at Mission Plaza during the Greek Festival in 2010. jmellom@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo’s Mission Plaza will fill this weekend with the sight of colorfully clad dancers, the sound of strumming bouzoukis and the smell of freshly baked baklava in a scene straight out of “Zorba the Greek.”

Now in its fifth year, the San Luis Obispo Greek Festival celebrates one of the world’s oldest cultures with traditional foods, folk dances and a raffle.

The Greek Festival is just part of a packed cultural calendar that begins in January with the Central Coast Scottish Society’s Burns Night Supper, honoring poet Robert Burns, and continues with a variety of events throughout the year.

This weekend’s free event is sponsored by St. Andrew the Apostle Greek Orthodox Church in San Luis Obispo.

The only Greek Orthodox church between Santa Barbara and Salinas, St. Andrew is home to 60 families from Bulgarian, Ethiopian, Greek, Lebanese, Romanian and Serbian backgrounds.

“When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we say it in all those languages,” event organizer Susan Gerakaris said.

According to master of ceremonies Paul Geor-ghiou, the Greek Festival was inspired by another annual fundraiser hosted by St. Andrew: “An Evening in Greece,” which features a sit-down dinner and floor show.

“There were so many requests from people to do a food festival,” he recalled, adding that it’s a big challenge for the small church community to tackle.

The Greek Festival focuses on two key aspects of Greek life: entertainment and eating.

Children and adults will perform centuries-old folk dances native to the Mediterranean nation, from Asia Minor to the Ionian islands. They include the Pan-Hellenic syrto, the Turkish-flavored zembekiko and the tsakonikos, a line dance representing the ancient myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Dance instructor Larraine McBride and Georghiou will be on hand to teach onlookers a few easy-to-follow steps. McBride crafted the dancers’ elaborate costumes.

“We have large crowds gather to watch the performance,” Georghiou said. “What we love even more is when they join in.”

Food production is overseen by Demetra Kaperonis, who took over from her father, Nick Kaperonis, former owner of The Brambles restaurant in Cambria.

“She went back to her father’s village in Greece and spent a month learning how to cook traditional recipes,” Gerakaris said, adding that the entire congregation helps out with cooking and baking.

The delicacies for sale range from cookies and pastries to savory dishes including keftedes (meatballs), moussaka (eggplant casserole) and spanakopita (spinach, onions and feta cheese in flaky phyllo dough).

Festival proceeds benefit day-to-day operations at St. Andrew as well as two charities: the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County and the Prado Day Center in San Luis Obispo.

Following the Greek Festival, two events during the summer pay tribute to the county’s Portuguese population: the Portuguese Celebration, July 14 and 15 in Cayucos, and St. Anthony’s Celebration, Aug. 18 through 20 in Pismo Beach. The Obon Festival, Aug. 4 in San Luis Obispo, honors Japanese art and culture.

Folks fond of beer, bratwurst and polka can attend the German festival Oktoberfest on Oct. 6 in Cambria and Oct. 28 in Los Osos and Baywood Park. There’s also Oktoberfest on Oct. 6 at the Avila Beach Golf Resort.

“People who don’t know the community will say they don’t think there’s much cultural diversity in San Luis Obispo County,” Georghiou said. “I think that’s quite untrue. We have a very rich ethnic mix.”