This weekend, the 33rd Annual International Greek Food Festival will serve up thousands of gyros, Greek salads and souvlaki over a three-day period. And yet, no food served at the city’s top food festival is more beloved than its baklava. Tens of thousands of pieces of the traditional Greek dessert will be sold, all of it made by hand over a period of months. At the center of this monumental job is a Greek woman, her daughter and her two granddaughters, a family that has made the festival’s signature dessert its annual tradition.
Evangelia Ging, or “Lea” as she’s known at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, was born in Athens, Greece, and moved in 1980 to Arkansas with her husband, who served at the Little Rock Air Force Base. That first year, she began making gyro sandwiches and baklava for the church’s food station at Riverfest, which was then held at Murray Park. When Riverfest eventually moved to Riverfront Park, Lea and her friends followed, but it soon became apparent that their food needed its own venue.
“The neighbors here were just getting to know us,” said Ging. “So the first year was small, but a success. The second year was even better, and the third year was, ‘boom.’ We could not keep up with the food.”
Ging went from preparing just 10 pans of baklava in 1980 to working with a team of women that makes close to 20,000 pieces. It’s a labor of love that starts in the winter, when the group begins by mixing the nuts together that will go in the center of the dessert. The nuts are crushed while the women work together to layer paper-thin filo with clarified butter, pan by pan, over and over again. Once the entire dessert is assembled, it gets wrapped tightly and goes into the freezer until the weeks before the festival, when it is thawed and baked. The hot baklava is then dipped in a honey syrup as the final touch.
“I’m telling you my secrets,” laughs Ging. “But it’s just a basic recipe, you can find it anywhere. People always think we have some secret recipe, but I’ve told TV and newspapers over and over.”
The team that Ging works with includes her daughter, Fofe Vasquez, who has been helping make the baklava since she was just five years old, standing on a stool and using a brush to spread clarified butter onto sheets of filo dough. Vasquez says it’s an honor to introduce her daughters to the work she’s been sharing in for just as long as her mother.
“It’s important to me to pass it on,” said Vasquez. “Mom passed it onto us, and I want to pass it onto my girls (Kristina and Alexia). Both of the girls love to cook, so I love that we can share in the traditions of the church and pass on everything that we’ve done for years and years.”
Ging is one proud grandmother; her eyes light up when she sees her grandchildren and her stories about them could fill up hours of conversation. The connection her family shares is part of what makes the baklava at the Greek Food Festival so special. Every piece is a lesson handed down from history to the next generation of little women, whose earliest memories will include brushing butter onto filo dough surrounded by family.
“It’s all made with love,” said Vasquez, and Ging added proudly, “Love, and ladies. It’s a ladies dish, baklava, actually made by the ladies.”