One of the joys of traveling Arkansas on a regular basis is the chance to attend the many food-themed events across the state. These include annual events that celebrate ethnic cuisines (such as the International Greek Food Festival at Little Rock) and festivals that celebrate products (such as the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival).
When a group of us formed the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame, a decision was made to include a category called Food-Themed Event of the Year. In the first three years, we inducted two watermelon festivals (at Hope and Cave City) and the famous Gillett Coon Supper. This year's selection was the International Greek Food Festival. The Pink Tomato Festival was among three other finalists (along with the Tontitown Grape Festival and the Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church spaghetti dinner at Lake Village), and will no doubt be inducted in the next several years.
This year's International Greek Food Festival at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock will be held May 15-17. Almost 30,000 people turn out each May for the three-day event, which began in 1984 to raise money for the church.
Annunciation was founded in 1913 to serve a growing Greek population in the state. The congregation purchased its first building at 15th and Center streets in 1919 from Winfield Methodist Church and stayed there until moving to the current location at 1100 Napa Valley Drive in west Little Rock in 1983.
"Thanks in part to the money we raised from the food festival, we had the mortgage paid off on the new building by 1989," said Little Rock construction executive Gus Vratsinas, one of the event's founders. "At that point, we began giving to various charities. Those charities, in turn, started supplying us with volunteers for the festival. We've got this thing pretty well figured out after all these years, but you're always tweaking. When we designed the current church, we put in a big kitchen that could handle our baking needs. The ladies who make the pastries start work in December."
About 30,000 pieces of baklava are served each year. In addition to food, there's music, dancing and other activities. It's a way to celebrate the rich Greek heritage in Arkansas.
"Though small in number compared to other immigrant groups, Greeks and Greek Americans in Arkansas have had a notable impact upon the state," Helen Hronas wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "From their beginnings as laborers, Greeks in Arkansas quickly became entrepreneurs and business owners, and many of the children and grandchildren of these original immigrants went on to business, academic and medical careers. Many Greeks who come to Arkansas today are in the medical or research fields. Emblematic of the acceptance of Greeks ... has been the popularity of the Greek Food Festival, one of the most well-attended culinary fetes in the state.
"Immigrants from Greece began arriving in Arkansas in the late 19th century. Most were single young males who left their homeland for the United States full of hope for a prosperous life. Greece was very poor at the time, and some parts of northern Greece had not yet won their freedom from the Turkish Ottoman yoke. It was a dangerous and difficult three-week voyage, and many left with little more than the clothes on their backs and a few coins. The first priority of those who were married was to earn enough money to send for their wives and children. Most immigrants became permanent residents, but others saved their money and returned to Greece. ... The earliest immigrants to Little Rock came mostly from villages and small towns of the Peloponnesus (southern Greece), particularly from Olympia and Sparta, and usually headed to places where they knew someone who could help them get established."
Anastasios Stathakis arrived in Little Rock in 1892 from Sparta. In 1902, Pete Peters became the first child born of Greek immigrants in Little Rock.
A 1952 story in the Arkansas Democrat stated that the first Orthodox church in Arkansas was a Russian Orthodox church at Slovak in southern Prairie County. Two Russian priests founded the church in 1894. Annunciation in Little Rock is the oldest continuous Orthodox church in the state. These days, only about 30 percent of the congregation is of Greek ancestry. Other members are descended from immigrants from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Romania, Russia and elsewhere. With so many nationalities represented at Annunciation, the word "international" was added to the name of the festival.
While the International Greek Food Festival takes the spotlight in May, the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival will be the state's premier food-themed event in June. Most activities will occur June 12-13. Bradley County farmers have been raising tomatoes for sale since the 1920s. The first festival in 1956, established by Warren merchants in an attempt to promote the industry, was a one-day affair. It featured musicians, a carnival and exhibits. A parade and beauty pageant were added the second year.
County extension agent Loran Johnson and county home economist Jean Frisby came up with the idea of holding an all-tomato luncheon at Warren's Young Men's Christian Association building. Only 25 people attended the first luncheon. By the second year, there were more than 100 attendees. Soon there were tomato auctions, a street dance and tomato-eating contests (a must for Arkansas politicians in election years).
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 03/21/2020