Greeks With Gifts

Eat the food of the gods at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church's weekly luncheon

What are you doing for lunch Friday? You been to the Greek church before, the one in West County, near I-270 and Manchester?

They have a cafeteria in the gym once a week that's just great. They have these huge salads loaded with feta cheese and kalamata olives, topped with that tangy Greek dressing. They serve them with this sweet Italian bread. The spanakopita is a big slice of spinach-cheese pie, baked between two crusts of flaky phyllo dough.

They have lots of other goodies they rotate on the menu. Everyone likes the lamb gyros, served on a warm pita with sliced tomato, onion and a healthy dollop of sour tziziki sauce, all rolled up in a tinfoil sleeve. They also have pastitio, a casserole of macaroni, hamburger and a cream-caramel sauce; moussaka, a casserole of eggplant, hamburger, zucchini and potatoes; a chicken-shishkebab sandwich; meatloaf with potatoes and mushroom sauce; baked chicken over orzo; pork tenderloin; stuffed tomatoes and peppers; and beef kapama, braised beef cubes in wine-and-tomato sauce, over noodles.

Dessert maven Despena Stergen at the Assumption Friday luncheon
Valerie Dratwick
Dessert maven Despena Stergen at the Assumption Friday luncheon

The biggest seller is the shrimp saganaki. This colorful dish features bright-orange shrimp and sauce on bright-yellow saffron rice. It's so popular that they have to bring in double the number of volunteers to handle the crowd on saganaki days, says volunteer Kevin Tully.

It wouldn't be right to skip the dessert table. Although the baklava is the most popular dessert, the church also serves kataifi (rolled phyllo pastry with almond filling), walnut cake and ravani (Greek sponge cake). If you've never tried the galatobouriko, prepare to be transported. It's a pastry with sweet, firm custard between layers of the ubiquitous buttered, flaky phyllo dough. The custard is made with milk, sugar, Cream of Wheat, eggs and vanilla, and the syrup topping is made with water, sugar, lemon and cinnamon. Galatobouriko is indulgent and divine.

While you dine, you'll notice the Greek travel posters (Thrace, Crete, Olympia, Athens) and the Greek folk music coming from the PA system. Efficient volunteers, often senior citizens, bus tables as if they're on a mission from God, so don't walk across the room to greet a friend and expect your half-finished meatloaf to still be on the table when you return.

One of these volunteers is Despena Stergen, who drives 80 miles round trip from Augusta, Mo. to the Des Peres church each Tuesday and Friday. The dessert maven contributed a number of her own recipes to the pastry table and masterminded the addition of sugar-free galatobouriko to the menu for the diabetics. Stergen, who says she is sometimes called the "dough lady," explains, "At one time I used to make most of the pastries, me and a group of ladies, but now I'm 80 years old. I'm too old to be going back and forth, back and forth, so I've cut down quite a bit."

The 2,000-or-so meals the church sells each month pay the mortgage, says Tully, and the food is bargain-priced. Gyros are $3.50, saganaki is $5 and desserts are $1.50.

"We have good portions and reasonable prices," says Stergen, "and when you have that combination, you've got it made."

 
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