Q&A: Emily Wheeler, Pastry Chair for the 34th Annual GreekFest

Emily Wheeler is the pastry chair for the 34th Annual GreekFest at Saint George Greek Orthodox Church. The event runs September 20-22 at 4070 Kingston Pike.

How did you come to be in charge of pastry?

I started out chairing kourambiedes—pastry—when a mother of one the families I grew up in the church with called and asked me in 2004 or 2005. I could never tell Mrs. D "no" and I have been involved ever since. I am the pastry chair during the festival but different ladies step up to chair the preparation of each pastry throughout the summer. We start mid-May, baking about once a week, usually six to eight hours on a baking day, making great use of our walk-in freezer. Eighty-eight pans of baklava with 140 pieces per pan is an example of the amount. We also bake through the actual festival and there is a group that comes in the evenings to pack the pastries.

Who taught you Greek pastry?

All of the ladies of Philoptochos (the women's charitable group at most every Greek Orthodox Church nationwide) have taught me.

What's your first GreekFest memory?

I have been in the church since I was 4. I grew up dancing at the festival, just as my boys do now.

What's something non-members might not know about the religion?

The Eastern Orthodox Church dates back to the church that Christ's disciples established. Father Anthony Stratis is an excellent resource to use to learn about our faith. He gives many talks during the festival in the church.

How many layers in the baklava—and how much butter?

There are 4 pounds of filo dough and four cups of clarified butter in each pan.

Do any of the men bake?

Quite a few men and the generation of younger ladies who are around college or graduate school age come help when they can. The backbone, though, are the Yiayias—grandmothers. The eldest lady, Fotine Psihogios—this is our first year without her assistance—is 96.

How do sales help the church and its causes?

The money raised goes partially to the church, but a huge chunk funds our Philoptochos chapter's budget, which is a charitable organization giving to many local and some national charities. A large part stays in our region funding charities such as Wesley House, Adam's Project, which puts emergency defibrillators in area schools, and many more.

Do you eat a lot of Greek pastry, or do you get tired of it?

I do not have much of a sweet tooth, but I love Pasta Flora, a sweet bread pastry topped with apricot or strawberry, which are my favorite preserves.

Does anything funny ever happen when the group is baking?

The funniest thing to me about preparing for the festival is that every year I find out people I have known my whole life are also brother and sister or related and I had no idea. Also, I can pretty accurately predict different people's exact comments, expressions, and questions at every stage of preparation. It makes me feel that these people, even though I see them year 'round, are the family I get together with for a specific holiday. This experience continues to strengthen my connection to my church and faith, and gives me a sense of purpose, love, and belonging that warms me.

For more info: saintgeorgeknoxville.com