Austin, TX -- With lines of Greek dancers yelling “Opa,” and with yummy tastes of Mediterranean specialties like baklava, gyros and shish kabob, Austin’s Mediterranean Festival makes its 84th annual appearance September 23rd and 24th. The outdoor festival of Mediterranean culture will take place on the grounds of St. Elias Orthodox Church on 11th Street between Red River and Trinity, just east of the Texas State Capitol.
The venerable “Medfest” – known as the longest continuous festival anywhere in Central Texas – turns 84 this year with an ever-expanding fare of Mediterranean foods and cultural experiences.
The festival began in the early 1930s as a fundraiser for St. Elias, now a landmark, historic house of worship in downtown Austin. In those early years, parishioners hoping to raise enough money to build the church prepared classic Lebanese and Greek entrées and pastries and sold them at the historic intersection of Sixth and Congress in downtown Austin.
In 1934, the cornerstone was placed on the then-new St. Elias structure, and the doors of one of Texas’ first Eastern Orthodox Churches opened. The festival was then moved to the church, and over the years has become an Austin tradition.
Today’s festival is held on the church grounds, with rows of food and beverage booths, two stages featuring the music and dancing of the Mediterranean region, and a Mediterranean marketplace featuring everything from hand-painted Ukrainian Easter eggs to Greek sailor hats. There’s fun for the family including the Kids’ Oasis. Tours of the historic church are offered, with guides on hand to answer questions about the Orthodox faith.
“Hundreds of thousands of Central Texans have enjoyed our festival over the past eight decades,” the 80th festival chair Gene Attal, said.
The festival will be open for lunch on Saturday, in addition to evening hours on Friday and Saturday. “We want Austinites of all ages to have an opportunity to be Mediterranean for a day,” Attal said. Admission ticket prices will be waived from Noon to 4:00 p.m. on Saturday to encourage family participation.
The Festival is famous for its savory and unique food. Among the Middle Eastern favorites will be kefta, a ground beef dish served with parsley and onions; kibbee, football shaped bulgur, stuffed with beef, onions and pine nuts; and falafel, a vegetarian delicacy made with garbanzos and spices, rolled in pita and topped with tomatoes, parsley, and tahini sauce.
Greek favorites include souvlaki (Greek shish kabob), gyros sandwiches hot off the spit, and spanakopita (cheese and spinach pie).
Traditional hummos and tabbouleh will be available by the gallon according to Julie Bechara, who chairs the food booths at St. Elias. “Over the past few years, hummos and tabbouleh have become household words in America,” she said. “But you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted ours.”
“Many of the volunteers hosting the festival represent third generation St. Elias families,” David Jabour, president of Twin Liquors, a lead sponsor for the festival, said. “But today’s festival has grown and evolved as the church has grown and evolved, so we now feature foods from countries like Russia and Eritrea, as well as the Middle East and Greece.”
Festival entertainment will be as varied as the food. Guests will enjoy dancing and live music from Andre Ibrahim as well as LAAND, Texas’ most renowned Greek entertainers, who will play both Friday and Saturday nights.
“After 80 years, there is one thing we know for sure,” Attal said. Our visitors who attempt the Greek dancing always have the best time. It’s everyone’s chance to be Zorba”!
Named one of Austin’s most delicious traditions and Central Texas Top 10 Food Festivals by the Austin Chronicle, the Mediterranean Festival will be open from 6:00 -11:00 p.m. Friday September 23, and again from 12:00 noon until 11:00 p.m. on Saturday September 24. Admission tickets are available for a $5 donation at all Twin Liquors locations, at the gate, or from St. Elias members. For more information, visit www.mediterraneanfestival.org. Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/MedFestAustin and Twitter at https://twitter.com/MedFestAustin