There were about two dozen people in Uptown Minneapolis on Saturday who just missed the opportunity to see just how bad a dancer I am. I would have danced in close quarters with strangers, around this central table fashioned like a raffle prize display with baskets and little jars of various liquids. The music was bouncy, I would’ve been bouncy, and there would’ve been nowhere to hide. I might have even broken a jar, made it a real party.
This was a Greek Easter celebration, held on the corner of Lyndale and Lake at a restaurant called It’s Greek to Me. We’d decorated pascha candles, learned Greek Easter greetings, and heard about evil eye talismans. Mati, they’re called: eye-shaped pendants that ward off “evil eye” curses like anger and jealousy. The mati dates back to the sixth century B.C., when it began to appear on drinking vessels. If your mati breaks, I was told, that means it just saved you from something.
So who saved everyone from the wrath of an uncoordinated, overweight dancing Finlander at this Greek Easter party? Athena Ginakes Karos, what’s who.
Ginakes Karos owns It’s Greek to Me with her husband, Nicholas. While the music plays, pours me a little taste of Chios Mastiha Liqueur back at the bar. This crystal-clear, sweet song of a drink dates back about 1500 years, when the sap of ancient mastic trees was first distilled. These ancient trees only grow on the Greek island of Chios; and if this Wikipedia page is to be believed, the island’s mastic production is governed by a co-operative of medieval villages called the Mastichochoria.
The liqueur I’m drinking is made by the K. Psychis & Sons distillery.
“Everyone knows about Ouzo,” says Ginakes Karos, “but there’s so much more.” She also pours me a sample of Otto’s Sweet Vermouth. Its tagline is “Crafted in Athens, Enjoyed Under the Sun.” The bartender tells me it’s what old Greek men drink. It’s a sweet vermouth, but not sweet in a gimmicky way, and goes down real easy.
“If you go to Athens right now,” she says, “they’re on fire with this vermouth right now.”
The restaurant itself dates back to 1982, but the Ginakes Karos family purchased it from the original owners in 2016. Athena grew up in Canada and Nicholas grew up here in Minnesota. Athena’s parents came to North America in the 1950s, after Greece spent the previous decade either under German occupation or in civil war.
“They didn’t have fond memories of Greece,” she says. “Fast-forward to about 22 years ago, they finally made their journey back with us. Once we did that, they saw Greece in a different light and were happy to be back in their homeland.”
The Athenos Karos family has a residence over there, and make frequent trips back to pick up ingredients for the restaurant. Athena’s daughter is over there right as we speak, picking up pastas and Greek mountain tea. Last summer, Athena took two trips: one to grab cheeses and pastas, and another run to northern Greece to visit winery owners with a Twin Cities-based company.
“There are some things we have a selfish passion about and we’re trying to bring back here,” she says.
So, why am I celebrating Easter at a Greek restaurant on April 27 when I had just celebrated Easter the previous weekend by wearing a bunny ears headband and eating twice as much ham as necessary? That’s because the Greek Christian Orthodox Church bases their Easter date on the Julian calendar, rather than the Gregorian calendar Roman Catholic churches use (hit up Newsweek for more details and history). This year, Greek Easter fell on April 28.
Michael Tsakistos is seated to my immediate left. He grew up on the island of Cyprus, nearly 700 miles from Greece, and first came to the States on business in 1975. He stopped back stateside frequently before moving here permanently with his wife Jeanette in 2008. The Tsakistos live in Edina now and Michael works with small businesses (including CultureTastes, who hosted this event) as a mentor at SCORE.
He says Easter celebrations are “Bigger than Christmas” back in Greece and on the islands. He talks about big bonfires, big meals, church services that run late into the night, and tsougrisma: red-dyed hard-boiled eggs that symbolize the renewal of life.
Before being eaten, these eggs were subjected to a test of strength. One would be tapped against another, and the unbroken egg would “advance” to challenge another winner. This would continue until one egg, the champion, was left unbroken.
Tsakistos says tsougrisma was serious business back in those days, and some kids got creative in their efforts to win.
“At one point, some kids began using their grandmother’s or their mother’s sewing wooden egg,” he recalls. “This would be painted in colors. At a given point, it was obvious that the egg wasn’t breaking and progressively we would find out the egg was a fake.”
Greta Alms runs Pickle’s Travel Blog, and is seated to my right with her husband and son. The Almses came into the Cities from Mankato for this, and they’re making a day of it. They made an extra Pascha candle and offer to let me use it for a demonstration of a Saturday night midnight service. I’m glad they did – I was also back talking about booze while the candles were being decorated.
When Alms began her blog back in 2011, the plan was to write her way across the globe – she’s lived abroad in Spain and Costa Rica, to name a couple countries, and visited many more – but the Midwest just kept calling her home.
“There’s so much to see here,” says Alms. “People don’t focus on where they live. I wanted [the blog] to focus on what’s nearby rather than going places just because someone else told us to go.”
State parks are their jam, that and food. The most recent posts on Pickle’s Travel Blog are a list of Father’s Day gift ideas, a review of a golf course hotel in New London, and a guide to outdoor family destinations in Grand Rapids (Minnesota, not Michigan).
Not to brag or anything, but we play Tsougrisma at our table and I beat Greta in the opening round.
We’re interrupted during our chat by a cut of roast lamb that could almost be a Greek island itself. The roast lamb is given a tour of our tables and met with, ooh, aahs, and phone cameras snaps before being carved up and passed around – and just like we might at our own family dinners, Greta’s husband and I keep that stack of lamb slices hidden at our end of the table for a good while.
I might be unfairly implicating him. It might’ve just been me doing that.
With our roast lamb comes lemon potatoes, and I’ve never had anything like them before in my life. They’re a family recipe, says Ginakes Karos, something they installed onto the menu when the family purchased the restaurant. The potatoes are drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil, slow-roasted, dashed thoroughly with oregano and a few secret spices, and are simply phenomenal.
“There’s a reaction we get to a couple things [on the menu] we grew up with,” she says. “One of them is lemon potatoes.”
Then she really starts driving me wild talking about a Greek mac and cheese they whip up using cheese Nicholas ages at home. “When people have it,” she says, “[with] those potatoes, chicken, and a good Greek village salad is like a complete Sunday afternoon.”
Nicholas ages the cheese for four months using the same method his grandmother used to. Athena wouldn’t tell me what kind of cheese, or how exactly it’s aged. If it’s anything like the Feta cheese used in the salad I ate, though, people who eat with me won’t be getting much of that, either.
I manage to eat a big piece of chicken while we chat, and get a slice of tsoureki in before that disappears. I say my farewells (multiple, because I’m Minnesotan) and we decide we’ll be speaking again soon.
“We’ll feed you!” she says with a big smile.
I don’t know how big my eyes got at the sound of that, but I’d bet they grew to the size of a stomach. If anyone can spare me a Mati, it might need to save me from my own appetite.