In Baltimore, Worries over the Lost Art of Pastries

Reporter Melody Simmons noticed something strange at her Baltimore church's annual Greek festival — nearly all the women making the festivals' prized pastries were elderly. Do today's younger Greek-American woman even know how to make the traditional Greek delicacies? She decided to find out.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

At festival time in Greek churches across the country, women bring family recipes to make dozens of pastries, but younger women rarely take part, and the older bakers are wondering if their art has been lost on the microwave generation. Melody Simmons went to her church's kitchen in Baltimore to investigate.

(Soundbite of women talking)

MELODY SIMMONS reporting:

You have to pass a clump of dough the size of a hamburger bun through the machine at least six times to get it right. That's how construction of a crunchy pastry called asseepilla(ph) begins.

Ms. HARRIET PAPPAS: My mother used to make asseepillas and she was very good with doing it the hard way opening ...(unintelligible) around table.

SIMMONS: Nearly 60 years ago, back in Sparta, Harriet Pappas(ph) first learned to make the delicate cookie at her mother's side. It used to take hours using a hand crank to turn the dough.

Ms. PAPPAS: Now we have all these machines that makes it much easier to work.

SIMMONS: But even with machines, it's not easy to carry on tradition. Making these delicacies still requires time and skill, especially working with the signature of Greek pastry, phyllo dough. Many in younger generations have married non-Greeks. They have busy jobs; their children play soccer and video games and eat fast food.

Ms. PAPPAS: I hope our kids and my grandchildren, they have something to look forward to, to come here and have the pastries.

SIMMONS: The bakers' hands move at a quick pace by rote. They've worked together for so many years, easily spending eight hours at a stretch in the kitchen. There's little room for a novice to learn here. Over at the stove, a team is frying asseepillas in hot oil. At 58, Carrie Agathoklos(ph) is one of the youngest bakers.

Ms. CARRIE AGATHOKLOS: They roll the dough and then they deep-fry it, dip it into the honey or the syrup, which is made from honey, and their secret spices that they put in there, which they will never tell us. They all have their own recipe, yes. Most of them guard it till the bitter end.

SIMMONS: Alice Yuwanu(ph) retired years ago. She's in charge of the pastry. To her, this is a ritual that's good for the body and the soul.

Ms. ALICE YUWANU: All I can say is that I go home exhausted but so happy and there's such a feeling of togetherness, and I think all my ladies feel that way, by the way.

SIMMONS: With the Village Festival at Baltimore's Greek Orthodox Cathedral now in full swing, thousands of pastries drenched in honey, nuts and powdered sugar are lined up on trays. They're for sale in an otherwise drab church meeting room that, once again, has been converted into a very sweet state.

Unidentified Woman #1: Did you put more flour in that one?

Unidentified Woman #2: No.

SIMMONS: For NPR News, I'm Melody Simmons in Baltimore.

SIMON: Twenty-two minutes before the hour.

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