This weekend is pandemonium in Astoria. All along 31st Street people hustle in and out of Greek bakeries and grocery stores and butcher shops, buying traditional tsoureki bread and lamb.
“It’s our busiest weekend of the year.” says Michael Kallas, manager of Titan Foods, a Greek grocery store and sweet shop, before darting off to help a cashier with a line of customers.
This Sunday is Greek Easter. The Greek Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar, which differs slightly from the Gregorian calendar used in many other Christian faiths. For Greeks, Easter (or Pascha) is the biggest holiday of the year, far surpassing Christmas in importance. For Greek businesses in Astoria, the holiday means many overtime hours and big business.
“Easter is very important here for every Greek,” said Floridia Christodoulitou, one patron at Titan. “We all drop anything to celebrate.”
Christodoulitou emigrated from Cyprus in 1981. This weekend she is planning a big feast for her children and grandchildren, and she visited Titan with a shopping list of cheeses, olives, artichokes, green peas, salads, and of course, lamb. She put one loaf of bread in her cart then quickly took a second for good measure. “Being a doctor I have no time to shop,” she said. “So today I spend the whole day shopping for Easter Weekend. We have to be prepared.”
Timothea Andreou has worked at Titan for 15 years. She’s been clocking overtime hours selling pastries and cookies, plying sweets on customers she says come in from as far as Connecticut or Pennsylvania. She even pushes cookies on Christodoulitou, who isn’t sure she wants any, but soon has two full boxes. “These ones are just to taste, they are really good,” insists Andreou in Greek.
Down the street is another Greek shop, Yaya’s bakery, literally Grandma’s bakery, which offers bread pudding, various traditional Greek cookies, and phyllo pies. This weekend they are churning out thousands of Easter tsourekia— braided brioches made with mastic and mahlab, topped with a hard-boiled Easter egg dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ.
Baker Maria Kapourani estimated Yaya’s has dyed about 1,500 eggs red. On the evening of Good Friday, she was baking more tsourekia. The bakery is staffed five people deep instead of three to accommodate for the influx of people. As customers came in and out, she kept her eye on the oven full of tsourekia which she soon had to take out, top with eggs, package up, and stack them on the counter-front.
“I’m going home soon I hope,” said Kapourani, exhausted behind the counter. “But we have to cook the baklava because everyone wants it.”
Up 31st street in the other direction, Regina Katopedes bustles around her shop Artopolis, chatting with customers and urging her team of bakers to keep going. “The staff are making tsoureki non-stop all weekend” she said.
Katopedes is very proud of the authenticity of her bakery, explaining that the recipe for every pastry there comes from someone’s kitchen in Greece. “The whole bakery was made in Greece and brought here in containers,” she said, “from the marble Athenian floors to the lights in the ceiling.”
Katopedes estimates Artopolis will make about 5,000 tsoureki breads for Easter weekend, for customers all over the tri-state area. “If you come in around noon on Saturday all we have left to sell are the refrigerators,” she joked.
Artopolis will stay open Easter Sunday for Greeks to come and make sure they have all the pastries they need. “The season is like no other,” said Katopedes. “If you want the full experience you have to go to Greece. But I feel like we’re contributing to the preservation of Greek culture.”
Titan Foods will not stay open on Easter. Michael Kallas hopes to spend the day with his children and grandchildren, barbecuing lamb chops and enjoying the holiday. He has been in the United States since 1969 but misses the big celebrations in his native Cyprus. “Ever since I came the only thing I miss is to have Easter with my family,” he said. “As a kid, it was the most fun day of the year. Here, it’s hard to realize it’s Easter because you’re constantly working.”