What’s the first picture that pops into your mind when you think of Greek food? My guess is that it was probably a gyro. This iconic sandwich of sliced meat carved off a rotating cone of beef and lamb and served with tzatziki and vegetables in a pita is what is ingrained into America’s mind as the quintessential Greek food.
I’m Greek, and yes, we do eat gyros and other meaty dishes often throughout the year. We love our meat. In fact, we have an entire festival dedicated to meat, and it is truly a glorious sight.
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This festival, called “Tsiknopempti,” is a day where Greeks gorge themselves on meat and party like there’s no tomorrow. It’s essentially a Greek version of Mardi Gras and is based in long and deep Greek traditions.
Tsiknopempti is always celebrated on the Thursday before Meatfare Sunday occurs in the Greek Orthodox church. Meatfare Sunday occurs a week before the start of Lent, and marks the beginning of the fasting preparation for the great fast. Traditionally, this Thursday is the last day to eat meat before Lent begins in the Orthodox church since Orthodox Christians abstain from meat on Fridays throughout the year, and Meatfare Sunday marks the start of fasting from meat as a preparation for Lent the following week. Every day during Lent, Greek Orthodox Christians won’t eat meat, fish, dairy, alcohol, or olive oil.
Thus, we cook and eat as much meat as humanly possible on this day since we know we won’t be able to for the next couple of months. All of the smoke and smells of the grilled meat on this day give it the name “Tsiknopempti,” which literally translates to “Thursday of the Smell of Cooked Meat.”
Apart from all of the meat that we dig into, Greeks also dress up, dance, and party deep into the night to celebrate this massive festival. The partying and traditional dress comes from the tradition of Greek villagers often dressing up and going around on this day to different houses to enjoy wine and treats from their neighbors. Customarily, those who gave wine to the partygoers would join them along the route, leading to the massive parades and festivities that Tsiknopempti is known for today.
If you’re traveling in Greece on this day, expect to be greeted everywhere with wine, dancing, music, and LOADS of amazing, delicious grilled meats. And of course, everyone will be shouting “Ώπα!” all day long.