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Omaha Magazine

The Hellenistic ‘Dynamic Duo’: Helen Amlin and Helen Nick Bring Xenia, Traditional Fare to St. John’s

May 23, 2023 03:30PM ● By Julius Fredrick
hellenistic duo Omaha Magazine June 2023

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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Since the times of ancient Greece, when reality was saturated with myth and gods mingled with mortals, a cultural phenomenon called ‘xenia’ has remained in the hearts of the Greek people. While the term is derived from ‘Zeus Xenios,’ one of the thunder god’s many epithets—in this case, the protector of travelers—the concept itself is simple: generosity toward strangers. Though remote in time, distance, and belief from Mt. Olympus and its pantheon, xenia is not only alive at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Midtown Omaha, it’s palpable. And with ‘the Helens’ overseeing the parish kitchen, it’s even edible—and served fresh with a dollop of tzatziki. 

“You have to feed them...feed the strangers,” exclaimed Helen Nick, 90, on the importance of hospitality in her native Greece. 

“They bring a whole bunch of sweets on the table, and say ‘eat, eat, eat,” added Helen Amlin, 81. 
“Exactly! My girls, when they’d be home from college, I’d say ‘eat, eat, eat’ and they’d call me ‘eat, eat, eat’ every time—it was my name,” Nick laughed.

Both first-generation immigrants, Amlin was born on the island of Crete 100 miles south of mainland Greece, while Nick was born in Athens but grew up in the village of Kopanaki, nestled between the Tetrazio and Kyparissa mountains in northwest Messenia. Nick learned the culinary staples of her homeland tending the village garden and helping her mother in the kitchen.

“Original from home—we never learned anything from here (the United States), everything we cook is from home (Greece),” Nick said. “My mom was the head of the family and all of us by her side, she showed how to start and finish anything we needed done [for meals], and we grew our little garden. Every family back home, in small towns, they have their own gardens and grow the salads.”

“The lamb and the potatoes and the chicken, they’re prepared in a little different way [in Crete], a little bit different seasonings and stuff,” Amlin noted of regional styles. “I learned mostly in church the way they do it here.”

The memories are bittersweet, the idylls of family life framed by a country embroiled in foreign conflict, economic stagnation, and a military coup in 1967 that saw Grecian civil liberties deteriorate under the dictatorial ‘Regime of the Generals.’ 

“Yes, life was tough in Greece in those days,” noted Mary Strom, church secretary. “My mom said—I’ll never forget her saying this—she said that she will ‘kiss the ground’ here in America for everything it has helped with.”

“We have to honor this country,” echoed Nick.

As political tensions rose, the women departed Greece only a few years before the junta, with Nick arriving stateside in 1962 and joining the St. John’s community by 1963—its ornate, Byzantine cupola representing the oldest, and frequently only, Greek Orthodox congregation in the city. Meanwhile, Amlin’s marriage to a US servicemen involved frequent moves when she arrived in the US in 1964, settling in Omaha after her husband’s retirement.

“I’ve been here [in Omaha] for 45 years, and for the last 30 I’ve been cooking [at St. John’s],” Amlin said.

“Who knows? Maybe over 25, 30 years?” Nick said. “I’ve only been [in Omaha] for 61!”
While they aren’t alone in the kitchen—fellow parishioners are eager to lend a helping hand, offloading heavy baking sheets or chopping greens—the Helens’ command of temperatures, seasonings, and sides (especially baked goods) is unparalleled.

Strom affectionately refers to the pair as the ‘dynamic duo,’ because “they’ve cooked for everything, for every meal, for years. They’re both excellent cooks, I can tell you that right now.”
Whether it be flaky cod and spanakopita during Lent, or everyday favorites like baklava and the lemon-roasted chicken riganato served during Omaha’s annual Greek Festival in August, Amlin and Nick are nearly always behind the knife—ensuring each dish is not only authentic, but delicious.

Greek Orthodox Easter, or Pascha, includes the church’s most sacred religious feast of the year, wherein garlic-roasted lamb and tsoureki sweet bread provide a rich, tantalizing reward after 40 days of fasting. Needless to say, the Helens work holidays.

“For the lamb, we pour whole garlic in it, marinate it with salt and pepper and oregano,” Nick said. “Sometimes people put lemon in it, sometimes they don’t. And we cook it until it’s 260°, and then we slice and we have the roast potatoes the same way.”

“A lot of garlic,” Amlin added. “A lot of garlic and lemon juice and olive oil.”

“And of course, home made yogurt. And we make special milk pudding, galatopita!” Nick exclaimed.

While feast days and festivals see the Helens at their busiest, Nick stressed the importance of preparing meals outside of church functions. As members of the Omaha chapter of the Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society, all three women not only practice xenia, but something altogether more active: ‘philoptocos,’ or ‘love for the poor.’ 

“Somebody who doesn’t have a family? You always think of that,” Nick said. “Also, if you think somebody’s sick—take them a dish. Any kind of occasion, not only for Easter. Just this year we sold koulourakia (Greek cookies), and the benefits went to the poor.” 

To support St. John’s, the area Philoptocos chapter, and Omaha’s Greek community at large, Amlin and Nick encourage locals to attend the Omaha Greek Festival on August 19th at the St. John’s community fellowship hall. The event features live music and traditional dance performances, historic tours, kids activities, and of course, authentic Greek cuisine.

“You better come to the festival,” Nick encouraged. “I’m gonna be at the pastry booth…if I don’t break another leg!” 

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This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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