Today, March 25th, Greeks all over the world are celebrating blue and white pride in honor of Greek Independence Day. On this day in 1821, Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the Greek flag with a cry “Freedom or Death”, and a revolution against over 400 years of Ottoman Empire rule was born. Other European countries joined in the fight, and a treaty ended it all with an independent Greek state in 1829.
Greeks live all over the world today. In fact, the highest concentration of Greeks outside of Greece–approximately 3 million–live in the United States today. Greek Independence Day is celebrated with parades, flags, and traditional folk dress, but it is also a holy day honored with church services. This day is celebrated in the Christian liturgical calendar as the Feast of Annunciation, the day the angel told the Virgin Mary she would bear the Christ child. Many Greeks celebrate their independence by also celebrating the holy day in church services.
Greek culture is about far more than a Mediterranean diet or grabbing a gyro for lunch. To learn about Greek culture, we went to Isaak’s International, a marketplace catering to imported Greek, Italian, and Middle Eastern food at 308 East Southerland Street, Wallace, NC. The Greek owners, Isaac and Soteria Georgiadis, took time to tell me about life as a Greek and shared their culture through food, music, and pictures. It was the kind of hospitality that makes you homesick for a country you have never been to. Isaak’s International is open 11AM to 6PM Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 910-665-1464 or email the store at email@example.com.
Finding authentic international culture in the middle of a small, southern town, is not as odd as it may seem, but this location was the result of a direct need. The owners moved to North Carolina from New York and had to make trips to New York to purchase the products they cook regularly with. After years of dreaming of opening their own store, in April 2021, they finally got the opportunity to do so. Isaak’s International is an oasis for imported foods used in many European cultures.
Greeks have a saying that “food is life.” The very flavor of the earth itself transfers into the food it creates–even the processed foods coming out of Greece. Olives grow better there. Lemons are happier there. Even the pasta tastes different. Food is a celebration of life that transcends nationality, but the Greeks make it a social event.
Greeks are everywhere and in more of us than you may think. Greek culture has been influenced by invading cultures since 350 BC. Those influences later became the cultures of Italy, England, Turkey, and other European countries. As we immigrated from those countries to America, we brought the ancient Greek roots with us. Many of those influences can be seen in our food from the tall hats chefs wear to much of the vegetarian cuisine we eat today. Like many clean eating diets, Greek cooking involves food cooked in season and with little to no preservatives.
For my attempt at Greek food, I asked for guidance at Issak’s International, bought authentic Greek ingredients, and made Greek Manestra. Click here for a recipe to make your own.
Though it is officially a secular state, 98% of Greeks identify as Christian and associate with the Greek Orthodox church. The Greek Orthodox Church has many conservative beliefs, but one that is pervasive is the idea that life is not separate from the church. Therefore, Greeks tend to be deeply devout people throughout the week–not just on Sundays. Orthodox faith is focused on the ancient roots of the Christian faith. For more about what they believe and how the church as a whole came to America, check out the Orthodox church website.
In Greece, people work to live not live to work. As a nation made of over 2000 islands, many Greeks were traditionally farmers or fisherman. Today, Greeks can be found in all available commercial occupations, and many of them work multiple jobs. Work shuts down from 2-6pm for afternoon meals and rest time called “messimerino”. Most work days start at 8 or 9am and resume from 6-8pm after the afternoon break.
Family comes first in Greek culture, and they show that by how they spend quality time together. For example, it is traditional to welcome guests with a spoon sweet: a thick flavored sugar that is usually offered by spoonfuls in a glass of water to guests. The spoon sweet flavors the water and is eaten slowly off the spoon while you sit and talk.
When Greeks get together, it is usually coupled with food, music, and dancing. The type of dance and music differs slightly based on the region, but all Greeks can say hello and goodbye with a simple “Yassou!” It is the Greek version of “aloha”.
Here’s an example of traditional Greek dance that is recognizable to most cultures today. The Zorba dance seen here is actually from an older all-male dance, the Syrtaki, celebrating the butcher guild and connecting the dancers with aprons, napkins, and a butcher knife.
In Northern Greece along the Black Sea, dancers wear traditional dress involving tobacco, smokers, pouches, a knife, a prayer box, and a cross charm.
In mainland Greece, traditional dance involves kilts and tights, and the instruments include clarinets.
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