We’re all familiar with recipes for a Christmas feast but what about recipes for a Christmas fast? For many parishioners of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church in Bluefield, West Virginia, the 40 days before their Christmas feast are spent fasting. It’s basically a vegan fast, excluding eggs, meat and dairy. But that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy something a little sweet.
“I’m sifting six cups of flour and four teaspoons of baking powder,” said Bluefield native Ginny Chryssikos, as she started the first step of a special cookie recipe. Chryssikos is Orthodox Christian, and she’s also Greek American. She makes these cookies every year for her church’s St. Nicholas Day bake sale.
The recipe she uses for these fasting cookies is from a Greek cookbook. But it’s a variation of her grandmother’s cookie.
“This particular cookie is a fasting cookie,” said Chryssikos, as she mixes plant-based margarine, sugar and peanut oil. “In the Orthodox tradition, we fast before we feast. We prepare ourselves for the Nativity of Christ by some abstinence from dairy and meat products. It’s a kind of self-emptying in a way, in preparation for bringing Christ into our lives at Christmas.”
“The people in Asia Minor have a different name for it but in Greece we call them Melomakarona.”
She said the name is a synthesis of the Greek word ‘meli’ which means honey, and ‘makaria’ which was the word for a bulgar wheat mixture served in ancient Greece at a meal for the departed, after a funeral.
In Chryssikos’ small home kitchen, a dish towel embroidered with “Thessaloniki” hangs above the kitchen sink. It’s a reminder of the years Chryssikos lived and worked in Greece. She recently retired as a social worker and is presently in the middle of translating a book from Greek to English.
There’s not much counter space, so her cookbook is propped up in the window sill, in front of lace curtains and alongside several Orthodox icons. This is the house where Chryssikos and her brother grew up with their parents and grandparents — three generations cooking and eating together.
As she added orange zest to the flour, she said, “Recipes that don’t have the dairy ingredients in them, you have to put some flavoring in it like a citrus, to sort of compensate for what’s missing in the dairy.”
A Holistic Fast — More Than Just Abstaining From Food
These cookies are part of Chryssikos’ fasting tradition, an ancient practice and something she sees in a holistic way to prepare for the Nativity. “It’s more than just a fasting from food. It’s a fasting from anger, you know, the passions that make our lives difficult in a relationship with God and our relationship with others.”
And thus it goes hand-in-hand with other practices of prayer and giving to those in need, she said. “The good things in life don’t always point us to God. Sometimes you have to restrain or empty yourself to see the true value of things,” she said.
Reaching for a circa 1960s hand-cranked nut grinder her mother used, Chryssikos starts making the walnut filling that will go into the cookie. She’s also kept the cast iron grinder her grandmother used, and demonstrates how it attaches to the countertop.
Chryssikos used to sit on a stool in the kitchen and watch her grandparents cook many Greek dishes, including this cookie. “My grandmother’s admonition was ‘Watch me, watch me. Watch what I do and that will help you learn,’” she said.
Immigrant Greeks Drawn To Southern West Virginia
Chryssikos’ family brought their skills with them when they immigrated from Greece.
“My grandfather came to McDowell County in 1910. He was a baker in Greece in the village area, so I always think of him when I’m doing some of these recipes,” Chryssikos said.
Her grandfather went back to Greece to fight in the Balkan Wars in 1912 but returned again to this country. He married Chryssikos’ grandmother when she arrived from Greece at Ellis Island. They moved to Welch, the county seat, where Chryssikos’ mother, Alexandra, was born. Chryssikos’ grandfather, Demetrios Gianelos, helped run the popular Capitol Lunch restaurant with a fellow Greek.
“There’s a joke — when Greek meets Greek, they open a restaurant,” Chryssikos said. “I don’t know if it’s in the genes or what, but that’s something we’re known for.”
In fact, Chryssikos’ father, Paul Chryssikos, also worked in restaurants as a young man.
“He came here under very different circumstances because he was in the Greek army. And when the Nazis invaded and occupied Greece, he went with the government into exile,” Chryssikos said.
He traveled from Egypt to South Africa and to Argentina but eventually arrived in America, where his brother lived, in Bedford, Virginia.
He got jobs as either a cook or manager at five of Bluefield’s numerous Greek-run restaurants: the Spanish Grill, the Ideal Lunch, the Matz Hotel Grill, the Pinnacle, and Paul’s Grill, which he owned.
It was the owner of Jimmy’s Restaurant in Bluefield who introduced him to Chryssikos’ mother. They married and she taught elementary school and he eventually became a language and literature professor at what is now Concord University. His interests were always academic, Chryssikos said, but he also cooked Greek specialties for faculty picnics.
In their south Bluefield home, fruit trees and a backyard garden supplied the family cooks with plenty of fresh produce for their Greek dishes. Chryssikos learned Greek early, before she entered grade school.
“Lessons were in that little breakfast nook with my grandmother on Saturday mornings. We had lessons, my brother and I. It was the Greek version of ‘Tom, Dick and Harry,’ you know. I have the book in fact,” said Chryssikos.
Back in the kitchen, Chryssikos takes the chilled cookie dough out of the refrigerator and kneads it by hand. She pinches off small pieces to flatten into oval shapes. She puts a teaspoon of the nut mixture in the middle and folds them closed. She crimps the top for decoration, and puts them on a cookie sheet and into the oven.
The front porch door is open and it conjures up a memory of Chryssikos’ grandfather. He learned his baking skills as an apprentice in the Pintas Mountains of Greece, she said.
“I think he liked West Virginia because it was all mountains here. And he felt at home. You know, he would sit on the porch — it faced East River Mountain — and he would say, ‘Look, just like my village.’ He enjoyed the mountains here. He loved this area,” Chryssikos said.
Cultural Diversities Come To Appalachia Alongside Orthodox Faith
Shortly before Ginny’s grandfather immigrated from Greece, another group of immigrants with Orthodox Christian roots had come to these southern West Virginia mountains. They came from the villages of the Carpatho-Russian mountain range, in eastern Europe and parts of Ukraine. They came to work in the coal mines. They made a home in McDowell County and they organized the first St. Mary’s parish.
“Families arrived there in the late 1800s, and they built this little church, which had to be rebuilt in 1913 because of a fire,” said Chryssikos. The Elkhorn parish had more than 100 families.
The onion-shaped gold dome of St. Mary’s was easily spotted by cars and coal trucks traveling in and out of the coal fields on Route 52. Services were in the old-church Slavonic language.
The church became part of the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox diocese in America and in 2000 moved to Bluefield, West Virginia. The three gold domes of the new St. Mary’s are silhouetted against East River Mountain. The parish has become more multi-ethnic, and its services are now conducted in English.
Over the decades, the parish has added converts with Anglo-Saxon roots in the Appalachian region, to those members with roots in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Belarus, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Romania, Lebanon, Palestine, Ethiopia, Greece, and Russia.
“Many of these are countries that have historically had an Orthodox presence,” Chryssikos said.
“It’s interesting that St. John Chrysostom, who wrote the liturgy, lived in a time when there were many cultures and languages,” Chryssikos said. “He spoke often about the commands to love your neighbor. So there’s always been that aspect of orthodoxy, with language and cultural diversity.”
Bringing Ancient Practices And Patron Saints To The Present
Father Michael Foster, priest of St. Mary’s, announced the beginning of the Nativity fast in a Sunday service in mid-November.
Fasting, prayer and almsgiving are seen as complementary spiritual “pillars” he said.
“One of the things I always try to tell people, the money that you’re saving from your fasting, give it as alms; the time that you’re saving, worried over food, use it for prayer,” Foster said. The intention of fasting, he said, is to reorient our hearts toward a love of God and others.
One historical figure who serves as a model for many Othodox, Foster said, is the beloved St. Nicholas. This early Christian bishop was Greek, lived in Turkey, and is known for his secret gift giving — which might be why he is considered the early model of Santa Claus.
He’s the patron saint of children, travelers and prisoners, and is commemorated on Dec. 6, Foster said.
“I think the thing that I’d love people to remember is he’s more than just a stand-in for Santa Claus,” Foster said. “But instead, he means so much to all of us. In almost all Orthodox churches, there’s a special part of the wall that’s dedicated to a saint that means a lot to that community. And in almost every single church that spot is reserved for St. Nicholas, because he is so beloved and respected.”
“I think one of the most impactful things was just how much giving that he did to the poor and to prisoners,” he said. “And this was out of his heart, as well as his pocket, to be able to help these people that were disadvantaged and had never gotten any sort of help before.”
And to let the community learn more about the true identity of this real St. Nicolas, the parish began holding a dinner and bake sale several years ago. Every year, Chryssikos makes her fasting cookies. As we’re waiting for the cookies to brown, Chryssikos pulls an icon of St. Nicholas off the window shelf and tells me its story about St. Nicholas.
“He helped save three sisters from prostitution when their father was completely destitute by putting bags of gold at the window sill of their room,” and that act, she said, may be the origin of the Christmas tradition of wrapping chocolate coins in gold foil.
Chryssikos then offers to sing one of the hymns of the season. “There’s a beautiful Greek Orthodox hymn that I know in Greek, that talks about the birth of Christ,” and she began to sing it in Greek.
The timer goes off, and the cookies are done but Chryssikos will hold off on the last step — dipping them in hot honey syrup — until she’s ready to take them to the church. “That’s really what gives it its character,” she said.
Her treats will join a tablespread of others that show the ethnic roots of the parish: Romanian truffles, Greek baklava, Slavic nut horns and — not to be forgotten — Appalachian fried apple pies. On Christmas Day, the day of the Nativity, the fast ends and the special feast begins.
You can learn more about St Mary’s traditions of community, culture and faith in their recently published Savor the Flavor of St. Mary’s cookbook. It includes family memories of ethnic ways, special prayers, and fasting recipes, including Chryssikos’s recipe for melomakarona.
Cookie Steps In Pictures
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Projectis made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.