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Greek cook taught a generation about culture and food

Published February 13, 2013 9:40 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Whenever a Utah cook makes a successful pan of baklava or rolls a plate of stuffed grape leaves, they most likely have Ellen Vidalakis Furgis — or one of her many time-tested recipes — to thank.

The Salt Lake City cooking instructor and cookbook author, considered by many to be the doyenne of Greek food and culture in Utah, died last week at the age of 86.

"She used cooking and food and hospitality as a way to share her culture and educate people on the beauty of it," said George Furgis, the youngest of her four children.

In the early 1970s, Furgis began offering cooking classes through the Salt Lake City School District's community education program, handing out typed recipes so students could practice at home.

Salt Lake cooks were eager to learn about the food and the culture of this Mediterranean country, said the younger Furgis. "Men and women, young and old would sign up for her cooking classes that were held in the home economics room at Clayton Jr. High."

By 1975, Furgis had compiled her well-tested recipes into a pamphlet. That small publication eventually became the basis for the spiral-bound "Greek Cooking at Its American Best." Initially published in 1982, it has become the go-to cookbook for a generation of Greek cooks living in Utah and beyond. It is still in publication and remains a best seller at the annual Salt Lake City Greek Festival.

"My mom would get calls, literally day and night, from all over United States, about the book," said Furgis.

Up until a few years ago, Furgis also led the festival's cooking demonstrations. Stationed in a secluded corner of Hellenic Memorial Hall, Furgis would teach people how to handle paper-thin phyllo dough and fold cheese-filled triangles. In 1986 and 1987, she co-chaired the event, helping to bring in the covered tents and make it the large-scale production it is today, said her son.

Furgis learned early on to cook. At the age of 8, her mother died and, as the oldest of four children, she began to cook for her father and siblings.

"At a young age she saw that her culture and food gave her encouragement and confidence," said Furgis.

Through the years, Furgis and her husband George became well known among family and friends for throwing big parties that often featured lamb on a spit. Furgis' New Year's Eve tradition was to make deep-fried scones, called loukoumathes, at midnight.

"My mom always loved a bigger party," said Furgis.

Furgis' work went far beyond food. She devoted time to improving education, working as a parent volunteer in the Salt Lake City School District and helping to institute kindergarten in the Jordan School District. She served on the board of trustees at Westminster College, where she received an honorary degree. She also helped raise funds for numerous charities, including Odyssey House, the Utah Symphony, the American Cancer Society and Camp Kostopolous.

Funeral services for Furgis will be Saturday at 11 a.m. at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 279 S. 300 West in Salt Lake City. A viewing will be held Friday, from 5 to 8 p.m. at Deseret Mortuary, 36 E. 700 South, Salt Lake City.

kathys@sltrib.com