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In the kitchen, only men

On Wednesday, only half in jest, the scribbled sign went up outside the Saint John Greek Orthodox Church kitchen: "No women allowed."

For the men of the church, it was time once again to begin preparing food for the several thousand people who attended the 11th annual Greek Festival, held Friday and Saturday at the Tampa Convention Center.

The ingredients were pure, fresh and simple. The recipes were in their heads. There wasn't a measuring cup in sight.

"It's a collection of ideas. It's hard work," said Emmanuel Houvardas, 67, who leaves his 400-seat restaurant in Bartow each year to volunteer at the Tampa festival. "You make wonderful things by being united."

For almost a month before the final cook-a-thon, the women of the church did the tedious work: rolling the grape leaves, boiling noodles for the cinnamon-touched Pastisticho. It is the women who make the delicate pastries. They ordered in the home-grown oregano in gallon jugs.

Home, in this case, is Greece.

"You look and you see here nothing artificial. All the fresh lemons, too, we use," said Peter Panagakis.

By mid-afternoon Saturday, as the festival was in full-gear three miles away at the convention center, the men of Saint John's were fighting exhaustion as they geared up for dinner.

There were 700 pounds of lamb to cook for the dish called Arni. There were 250 pounds of rice to steam and 1,000 pounds of chicken to marinate in lemon and herbs.

Panagakis dumped white rice from a 50-pound sack into a trough-sized pan. Another set of hands poured in a mixture of olive oil and lemon, rich with golden chicken fat.

"That's it," yet another cook called, as the oil splashed in by the cup. They grabbed oregano, salt and pepper by the fistful, tossing it liberally over the marinating chicken. They pulled simmering pans of potatoes out of the oven, and the rich odor of hot lemon drifted up with the steam.

"A boss? You count how many Greeks are here? Seven. There are seven bosses," said George Paul, 71.

University of South Florida microbiology professor Jim Halkias, doing his annual stint as a cook, checked the work. Their efforts, still hot, were whisked out the door to waiting vans.

"Let me tell you, when it's over, you can't move for three days. Your legs are tired, your back hurts," Paul said. "I was supposed to go to the festival, put on a suit and see what it looked like from outside. But I said no. If I go, they need help. I'm going home to have a scotch."

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