This morning was the ordination of a young man who went from Deacon to Father. What a joyous morning! All kinds of hot-shot priests flew into town to officiate. I knew my brother-in-law’s brother would be on the altar. My Jimmy had mentioned that Father Alex is the young man’s spiritual father, helping and guiding him through life as a young boy, through Hellenic College, the Seminary and now, priesthood. The entire church would witness his vows, vows that are forever. Our son, James, was on the altar also, in his black robes…I call them “big boy robes”. There was a wonderful Psalti chanting in Greek throughout the entire ceremony, his voice rising and falling in hypnotic notes while the priests on the altar sang and chanted their designated parts. Then came the deep, baritone response “…through the ages of aaaAAAges”. Jimmy turned and whispered in my ear, “Yup. Father Alex is here.” That low, rich timbre catapulted me back 23 years to when Jimmy and I were to be married. When we first made plans to marry I got all the paperwork from St. Anthony’s parish church. MY church. The only church I knew. The only church I wanted. Turns out the Miami Archdiocese would have to annul Jimmy’s previous marriage in order to be married in the Catholic church. Jimmy was furious. “I am NOT having a panel of strangers in Miami pass judgement on me. They don’t even know me.” Well. Okay. I’m strong. What matters is what’s in my heart. I can marry in a church that’s not necessarily mine. The Greek church is not THAT different from the Catholic church so it was decided we would marry in the Greek church. But I told Jimmy, “You need to know RIGHT NOW I’m not doing anything. I’m not taking any classes, I’m not going to any counseling, I’m not doing anything.” He said that was fine and that he would take care of everything. The day came when we were to meet with the parish priest whom, as yet, I had not met. I recall it was a hot day but I was modestly dressed, my years at St. Anthony ingrained in me the appropriate way to dress in ANY church. Jimmy and I were shown into the priest’s office. Manners kicking in I immediately stretched out my hand and smiled as the introductions were made by Jimmy in Greek and English. My heart just sank. I knew, I KNEW, we were doomed. The priest didn’t even stand up from behind his desk to greet me. He just looked at me. I knew he was judging me, categorizing me, grouping me with that brand of no-faith Anglo Philistine parasite that just takes up space on this planet and breathes other people’s fresh air. Well, guess what? I WASN’T that girl. Yes, I was a “bad girl” but I was a “bad GOOD-girl”. My stomach went into knots. I looked at that man and thought, “Oh, God. OH, GOD. This is a bad man. A bad, bad man.” The priest’s eyes narrowed when he looked at me, he pursed his lips and spoke down at me. I broke down. My heart was screaming, SCREAMING I tell you, “This man cannot marry us. He cannot marry me.” Jimmy and I had been through so much. It had been difficult and rocky from almost the moment we met. The priest spoke Greek to Jimmy knowing full well I spoke not a word. I turned to Jimmy knowing the fateful words had to come from me. After all we had been through and now this? In a low voice I choked the words out to Jimmy, “I can’t do this with this man. This man cannot marry us.” There. It was out! I struggled unsuccessfully to control my tears. I couldn’t breathe. I knew if I did I would completely break down. Every pore of my being felt an odious spirit emanating from this man and I couldn’t stand by and let this most precious of sacraments be condemned. I bowed my head so he couldn’t have the pleasure of witnessing my grief but Jimmy saw the heartbreak and anguish building up inside me. He leaned across the desk and in a cold, rapid fire burst of Greek Jimmy said something to the priest ending with, “Get Father Alex on the phone. TORA.” Tora means “now”. The tension could be cut with a knife and the priest was furious. I had never even met Father Alex, I only knew him as my future brother-in-law’s brother who happened to be a priest. I barely knew Jimmy’s family. WELL. The priest made the fated call. Jimmy spoke into the phone, in Greek, then handed me the phone gently saying, “Here. Just talk to him”, and then he and the priest left the office. I couldn’t speak. I was too busy trying to contain the flood of pent-up tears and snot. I took the phone and scarcely let out a small “hello?”. What came next I will NEVER, EVER forget. A deep, booming voice took over the phone and asked me, “Alicia, what’s wrong? What is the problem?” Trying desperately to curb my sobs and manage some sort of composure I explained my position and thoughts. That I didn’t know this man but that I felt he wasn’t a good man. He wasn’t a kind man. He wasn’t a man of God. I had never been married. I wanted the priest at my wedding to be a spiritual, insightful, loving man. I told Father Alex I couldn’t have this man marry us. Then came the deciding question. “Alicia,” he said. “Do you want to marry in the church or do you want to get married by some justice of the peace in some office somewhere?” Are you kidding? I’ve always felt if you ain’t married in the church then you ain’t married. I squeaked out a pathetic, “In the church.”, and Father Alex’s rich, baritone voice answered, “Good. I’ll take care of it.” He blessed me then asked to speak to Jimmy. A few weeks later we set the date. And Father Alex HAD taken care of everything! We were to be married the end of July. The day before the wedding Jimmy mentioned in passing, “Oh, you need to have some crowns made for us.” Crowns? “Just something with some flowers on them or something. And they have to have a ribbon connecting them. ‘K?” Sure, I thought. There were a couple of gay guys that had moved into the apartment below me. I had spoken to them already about the boutonnieres…what’s a couple of crowns?? The day came. Jimmy had already moved into our house. I wasn’t there yet. The night before the wedding was spent at my parent’s house. The day of the wedding we had champagne in huge, silver goblets while putting on our makeup and getting dressed. My little sister, Pamela, did my hair. Mama gave me her beautiful silver rosary, the one she carried on her wedding day. My bff, Dana, took video. It was very surreal. Slowly everyone left the house to get to the church, St. Demetrios. I looked around and realized there wasn’t anyone left at home to drive ME to the church except my parents and my godfather! Everybody just left. The last time I had seen my godfather was at my baptism. I guess it’s safe to say I really didn’t know him. But I liked him. A lot. He and Dad had had loads of adventures that I had heard about all my life and besides, he had on a pale, lemon colored linen jacket with lavender pants. Loafers, no socks. My godfather drove me to my wedding. What a darling man. My glorious Jimmy was waiting at the altar with a wonderful NEW priest who was kind, gentle and loving. Jimmy had arranged for a Psalti to chant at our wedding while we took OUR vows. Vows that were forever. And I have Father Alex to thank. Pandote! Forever!
A sublime Greek dish, Spanakopita is pretty easy to prepare, completely satisfying and freezes beautifully. An authentic Spanakopita is slim with spinach and other greens surrounded by diaphanous sheets of phyllo that shatter in a burst of crispy heaven when baked. Yes, I am a big fan of phyllo. It is found in the frozen section of your grocery store usually in the pie section. Some people butter every sheet, my preference is every two sheets. Sometimes I use butter and it would be a good one. Plugra and Kerrygold are both good products. Often I use Greek olive oil in it’s place. It’s just as rich and fulfilling but much better for you. In tandem with the spinach I like not only fresh dill but also fresh mint. I always use a high quality feta and sometimes jack the flavor up by adding a bit of freshly grated parmesan cheese. Your choice. Regarding eggs, whites are totally fine but use whites from eggs you cracked. The ones in the cartons are just too thin and the filling oozes and spills all over the place. I think I’ve covered everything. Let’s get started!
Spanakopita, Greek Spinach Pie
- 1 roll phyllo. Most phyllo comes two rolls per box. It will be frozen and MUST defrost in the refrigerator. If you leave it on the counter to defrost the dough gets wet, mushy spots and tears when separated.
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup olive oil or butter, separated into 1/4 cups
- 4 boxes frozen spinach, defrosted and drained of as much liquid as possible. I have an old, cotton tea towel I use only for squeezing the moisture out of spinach, grated cucumber, zucchini etc.
- 2 grocery store bunches of fresh dill, washed and finely chopped
- 1 large bunch flat leaf parsley, washed and chopped. Curly’s fine if that’s all that looks good.
- 1 bunch of mint, leaves washed and chopped
- 3 eggs or the equivalent in whites
- 8 ounces sheep’s milk feta cheese, more or less. Already crumbled is NOT an option.
- 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, optional
- Preheat oven to 350°.
- Heat 1/4 cup olive oil or butter in a large pan over medium heat.
- Add onion and saute until softened and somewhat clear.
- Add spinach, dill, parsley and mint. Stir until well combined. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Crumble feta by hand into a small bowl and add eggs. Stir to combine.
- Butter or use nonstick spray on a 9X13 pan.
- Set up your counter assembly line style with your phyllo covered with a damp, not wet, tea towel, the sprayed pan, a bowl with 1/4 cup olive oil or melted butter, and a clean basting brush or paint brush.
- Line pan with 2 sheets of phyllo and lightly brush dough with butter or olive oil.
- Continue using 2 sheets at a time alternately stacking and oiling until half the roll is used.
- Pour egg/cheese mixture into spinach and mix to combine well.
- Spread evenly over phyllo in pan.
- Continue stacking and oiling phyllo over spinach mixture until all the phyllo is used. Finish last layer of phyllo with a light painting of the oil or butter.
- Using a sharp paring knife, cut serving size pieces in the shape of diamonds or squares through just the top layer of phyllo.
- Spray a fine mist of water over the entire pan or use your hand to sprinkle water over it. This will keep your pie from falling apart and the phyllo from curling up. No one will tell you this but trust me on this one.
- Bake for 45 to 60 minutes.
- Allow to cool 15-20 minutes then serve. I use a plastic knife to cut through the pie so as not to scratch my pan.