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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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Mary Nenos Is A One-Woman Baking Goddess [Tampa’s Greek Festival Starts Today ... Opaaaaaaa!]

Posted Nov 9, 2012 by Jeff Houck

Updated Nov 9, 2012 at 08:47 AM

Mary Nenos of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

As long as there has been a Greek festival at St. John Greek Orthodox Church, Mary Nenos has been baking for it.

That means working with dozens of other church members to make thousands of cookies, pastries and bread during the weeks before the Greek Festival at the Swann Avenue church.

The event starts Friday and runs through Sunday. It also includes live traditional Greek music, dancing, a children’s play area and the Opa! Party Tent.

Nenos, 85, has been a church member since 1956. She says this year will be the last that she will lead the baking of more than 7,000 pieces of buttery koulourakia pastry twists, 2,500 finikia honey-dipped spice and walnut cookies and 2,000 sugary kourambiethes wedding cookies. Then there are the 85 loaves of tsuraki, or Greek sweet bread decorated with slivered almonds. Next year, she plans to hand the reins to the next generation of bakers in the congregation.

“I like to see people happy,” Nenos says. “I am happiest when I see other people happy.”

Tampa Greek Festival 2009

If anyone knows how to get the most out of the festival, it’s Nenos. We asked her the top four items she suggests visitors try this weekend. Here are her tips:

1. The Greek Combo Platter — Includes three dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves), three keftedes (Greek meatballs), pastitsio (beef pasta dish, pictured above) and spanakopita (spinach in crispy phyllo dough).

2. Lamb shank dinner — A great festival food. “You can eat them with your hands,” Nenos says.

3. Koulourakia — Buttery pastry twists, usually made for Easter. “I like to eat them with coffee,” she says. “They’re so good.”

4. Baklava sundae — The honey-flavored pastry is crushed and sprinkled on top of vanilla ice cream with a chocolate drizzle on top. “I have to have one every year,” Nenos says.

St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church


When: 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

Where: St. John Greek Orthodox Church, 2418 W. Swann Ave., Tampa, (corner of Swann and Armenia Avenue)

Tickets: $2 at the door; free admission for military and families in honor of Veterans Day; children younger than 12 also are free; (813) 876-8830 and

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