There's a whiff of pungent-sweet onions in the parking lot, a sign of what's cooking inside the Hellenic Center on Race Street.
The smell leads up wide wooden stairs into a long kitchen where shiny stainless steel freezers and a brawny Vulcan stove keep company with homey wooden cabinets.
A large, deep commercial sink holds a briny sea of salted eggplant slices. The salt is supposed to draw out their bitterness. Katie Bohren doesn't care if experts say that "modern" eggplants aren't bitter -- she's not taking any chances.
It's April 16, three weeks before the annual Greek Festival in Charleston. A choreography of food is unfolding at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity. Parishioners gather inside this kitchen for marathon cooking sessions to prepare for the three-day event. They know that authentic Greek food "butters the bread" of the festival, which will net about $50,000 for the church and a charity, God willing and weather permitting.
Among the traditional dishes and pastries they will make are spanakopita, moussaka, pastichio, kourambiethes, bougatsa and baklava, a perennial favorite that most non-Greeks actually can pronounce.
For 40 years, the women of the church have borne the responsibility of the cooking for the festival. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters, at times aided by their menfolk, see to it that the freezers get filled with food.
It is no small task.
Katie stands slightly on tiptoes before a very tall stockpot on the stove. With both hands on the handle of a giant wooden spoon, she stirs the thick meat sauce simmering within. "If we did this every day, we'd be skinny," she says.
Each dish has a "chairman," and Katie is the boss of this one, moussaka.
Behind her is today's supporting cast of cooks, slicing yet more eggplants. They introduce themselves: Melva Zinaich, Rosie Anastopoulo, Sophia Demos and Lynn Satterfield, "the Baptist," someone says, and everyone laughs.
Three years ago, Lynn came to the festival for the first time. She marveled at the food and remarked to some of the women about the amount of work involved. "Of course, they agreed," she says.
So Lynn called Sophia, who oversees the kitchen along with Melva, and offered to help the next year. She's been volunteering her time ever since.
"We cook, we laugh and we fellowship," Lynn says. "It's a blessed time for me. Everybody gets along well. It's important to laugh."
Oversize sheet pans are lined up the length of a stainless-steel table. The women lay eggplant slices, one by one, into the pans and brush both sides with olive oil. The trays go into the ovens, and the eggplant soon turns soft and tender. It will be layered with breadcrumbs, the meat mixture and bechamel, a white sauce.
"Oh, those eggplant aren't going away," says Melva as she carries another pan to the oven. "They're multiplying like bunnies."
Meanwhile, Katie has started to make a large pot of roux for the bechamel sauce. She is whisking flour and butter together, her arm whorling like an electric beater. When the roux cooks long enough to become nutty and lose its floury taste, she will blend in milk, parmesan cheese and eggs to turn it into a creamy bechamel.
Katie says she normally doesn't add eggs, "but Sophia likes it the old Greek way," and so it is, without fuss.
Cooking large quantities is not new to Katie, who ran Niko's Mediterranean Grill in Moncks Corner with her family until the restaurant closed three years ago. When she left Greece as an 18-year-old, she didn't even know how to boil water.
Watching her parents cook "planted the seed," says Katie, her English still resonating with her native accent.
After coming to the States, she picked up recipes here and there, developed her confidence and, ultimately, her own style. Now, she says, "cooking relaxes me."
"She knows exactly what she's doing," says Rosie.
Church members used to make dishes at home and bring them to the festival, but that became impractical as the event grew larger, Sophia says. At one point, the festival was drawing 10,000 people to Middleton Plantation. Now it's smaller and held on the church grounds, which some say makes it more intimate.
Still, much food is required, and it all has to happen in advance.
The women have learned how to work as a group over the years. It's best to have one person in charge of each dish and for the other volunteers to follow along. Otherwise, egos could flare or conflicts arise, and there's no time for that.
Melva recalls when she started supervising the dolmades, grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice, and keftedes, Greek-style meatballs. In the beginning, she says, "Twelve women were telling me do this, don't do that." One elder tasted the keftedes and griped, "These no Greek, these Turk!"
"Then I would get the 'shrug,' " Melva says with a laugh. She frowns, hunches her shoulders and splays her hands in imitation.
They're no longer making the meatballs, but the dolmades remain popular fare. A hundred pounds of meat and rice are to be individually hand-rolled inside grape leaves. More than 2,300 dolmades will be produced for this year.
"I love doing this. Sophia calls me and I'm here," Melva says.
Fast forward a week. It's a Thursday, and the task at hand is bougatsa, a custard made with Cream of Wheat that is sandwiched between 14 layers of filo dough, each one painted with melted butter. This pastry clearly is not for the faint of heart.
Koula Kordonis is in charge of the cooking today, which will result in 500 pieces of pastry by day's end. Sophia, Melva and Rosie are back on the assembly line, along with Frances Carroll and Mary Larry.
Meanwhile, Christine Homer is watching over two retro-looking Sunbeam stand mixers at one end of the kitchen, which are whirring away beating eggs and sugar. "These are about as old as we are," she quips. "We wouldn't know what to do with anything more modern."
Bonding in the kitchen
Laughter bubbles up easily between old friends in this kitchen. Small talk about the hows and whys of recipes, families and other concerns weaves its way through the day. An old story or two is certain to be told and there will be some whispered exchanges. And things can get boisterous if the jokes begin.
By the end of the day, feet will ache from standing all day -- Lynn says she treats herself to a pedicure when it's all over. Hands will be wrinkled from constant washing. The bending, reaching and lifting will leave everyone a bit weary, but good feelings prevail.
"You can't be in a bad mood and cook," says Katie. "This is a happy job."
There is respect and admiration for those who have given many years of service, like Sophia, who has run the kitchen since 1996, the year she retired from her regular job. She had always helped in the festival cooking before that.
"Sophia will be here for every preparation," Melva says. "She's our unsung hero. She never stops, never worries about who comes, who doesn't."
Sophia says this kitchen is "where I learned everything. When I got married, I wasn't interested in cooking. Now I love the kitchen."
It's not all about the food, either.
"We've done a lot of bonding up here. It's a good family kind of thing."
Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.