For 31 years, Anastasia Karastamatis has stood in a kitchen cooking traditional Greek dishes for residents of Santa Cruz County and beyond.
Surrounded by fellow members of Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church of Santa Cruz, Karastamatis, 73, has logged long hours preparing dishes such as Youvarlakia Avgolemono — lamb and rice meatballs in an egg-lemon sauce; Pastitsio — pasta layered with a meat sauce soaked in béchamel; and Moussaka with ground beef — an eggplant and cheese dish that may also be prepared meatless.
This September will mark No. 32 for Karastamatis as the church hosts the 32nd Annual Santa Cruz Greek Festival, held on Church Street in Santa Cruz and believed to be the longest continuously running cultural event in the county.
However, for those who can’t wait until September for the fun- and food-filled event, the church is hosting the festival’s “little brother” in May. A fundraiser for the church, the Seventh Annual Greek Food Faire will be held in the church’s back parking lot from Friday, May 17, to Sunday, May 19.
And for those who don’t want to wait even that long, the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Markets in Aptos will be hosting Karastamatis and her fellow volunteer cooks on Saturday, May 11, for a special “Eat Like a Greek” event espousing the benefits of following a Mediterranean diet.
“We cook like we’re at home,” said Karastamatis, a native of Volos, a coastal port city in Northern Greece, who came to the U.S. at 11. “We use pure olive oil and we keep it simple.
“Delicious meals can be prepared without spending a lot of money,” she continued. “Put things together. If it tastes good, leave it alone. If not, garlic, Greek oregano and a nice olive oil will do it.”
Dips, dolmas and appetizers will be available for purchase at the Aptos market. Samples will include “Jimmy’s World Famous Rice Pudding.” Greek Coffee with Koulouraki, a traditional butter cookie served with the coffee, will also be available.
“Traditional Greek cooking uses organic, very basic food that is seasonal,” said Sophie Moore, who’s volunteered her time in the church’s kitchen for nearly all the festivals. “We do a lot of greens in early spring and then we cook with bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini in early summer.
“The farmers market tends to mimic the small Greek village feeling for us — people there plant their own vegetables,” Moore continued. “We’re lucky to have the MBCFM support our food faire with their generous donations of fresh, seasonal vegetables.”
For Karastamatis, growing up in post-World War II Greece came with serious challenges, yet also helped hone her approach to cooking.
“My mother had to cook outside because our house was burned down in the war,” said Karastamatis, relaxing in the church on a recent afternoon after making Moussaka with ground beef with other volunteers in the kitchen. “My father was a fisherman, so we were lucky to have fresh fish every day. He would bring it in a bucket, and they were still alive.
“My mother cooked a lot of lentils, beans, garbanzos and fava beans that were fresh in summer and dried in winter,” she continued. “We were lucky to have enough land to plant wheat, lentils and beans.”
Upon her arrival in the U.S. — she moved to Redwood City to live with an uncle — Karastamatis said she learned to cook from the elder Greek women preparing dishes in the kitchen of Prophet Elias’ sister church in Belmont, The Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross.
The kinship of cooking meals together, plus their shared backgrounds, attracts between six to eight of Prophet Elias’ members on any given day.
“We have fun cooking in the kitchen,” said Karastamatis, a San Carlos resident who commutes to Santa Cruz. “We have a lot of conversation and sing and say clean jokes — clean jokes because the kitchen is just behind the altar.
“These people are my family here,” she continued. “We’re happy together.”
Along with other members of Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church of Santa Cruz who cook for the Greek Food Faire and the Santa Cruz Greek Festival, Anastasia Karastamatis will be at the Aptos market on Saturday, May 11, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. The group will have traditional dishes for sale and to sample. Bouzouki player Yanni Chronopoulos will also perform.
The Greek Food Faire at Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church of Santa Cruz runs from Friday, May 17, to Sunday, May 19. Admission is free. Location: 223 Church Street, Santa Cruz. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m., Friday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday; and 12 to 8 p.m., Sunday.