If you've lived in Anchorage for even a short period of time and have not yet gone to the Greek Festival held every year at the Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, you are missing one of Anchorage's best moments. And I'm not just talking about the dessert tent, though that alone could occupy a full page of superlatives.
I go with friends each year who understand that first we have to stop at the dessert tent before all the best pastries are gone and then we go eat the wonderful Greek dinners, salads, gyros, etc. available from cooks who clearly understand Greek cooking. While you sit under a tent devouring grape leaves, lamb, mousaka and just about every other tasty Greek dish, you have the pleasure of watching young people onstage dancing in traditional Greek dress. This is when my mind starts to wander and instead of being in an Anchorage summer in the year 2013, I am in a Ducktown autumn just about anytime in the 1950s or early 60s.
Ducktown was the Italian section of Atlantic City back in the day when Italian immigrants and the first generation of their American children still tended to settle down in well defined communities where hearing Italian spoken was as familiar as hearing English. The grocery stores were all Italian grocery stores selling foods from the "Old Country" in a day when people still prepared their meals from scratch with all fresh ingredients. No one operating one of those stores thought of themselves as upscale purveyors of exotic cuisine. That would come decades later; long after most of the fathers I knew who ran these stores were dead and buried. For them, the large provolone hanging from an iron bar overhead was simply cheese.
In order to support our parish church and school, the women of the Mary Help of Christians Sodality held spaghetti dinners. The whole neighborhood would show up to eat a meal they could have probably gotten in their own home on most nights. But everyone showed up because it supported the church and school and there was simply not much else in our world as important. The money raised helped to pay for children whose parents couldn't afford the cost of Catholic schooling. In our neighborhood, not only education, but specifically a Catholic education was considered critical to a child's future success in life.
Watching the young people at the Greek Festival dancing in traditional dress impressed me greatly because I know how hard it can be to keep kids interested in old traditions while the wider world calls. When the Tarantula was played at any Italian celebration, all my contemporaries and I rolled our eyes and avoided contact with our parents and grandparents for fear they'd drag us up into the circle of the dance. We were clearly way too cool for that kind of stuff.
But at the Greek Festival, cultural pride is clearly on display throughout the generations, from the older people cooking to the younger people willing to dress in traditional garb and dance on stage. I'm not sure if my grandmother chasing us with a wooden spoon would have gotten any of my cousins or me to willingly get up at a public venue to do that.
Living in Bush Alaska for as long as I did made me very aware of the cultural depths that exist here. It also made me very aware of how close some of our Alaska Native people came to losing a large part of their culture due to Western influences and rules. I was privileged to live in Barrow as a cultural renaissance took place in which Native dance and other art forms were revived and pride in culture became the norm. Watching the dances at the Greek festival, remembering those long ago spaghetti dinners, experiencing the intensity of Kivgiq drumming during the Inupiat Messenger Feast, it became clear to me that connecting to our past, holding on to our roots, understanding where we came from, is critical to knowing who we really are. We all seem to have a deep-seated need to connect to something larger than ourselves.
So here's to gyros, lamb kebobs, meatballs and spaghetti and maktak and ugruk. And here's to the celebration of all of the cultures that make our state fascinating, colorful and wonderful.
Elise Patkotak's new book, "Coming Into the City," is now available at alaskabooksandcalendars.com and local bookstores.