Ask anyone at the Greek Festival in downtown Salt Lake City why they came out to the event and they'll tell you: the food.

Oh, they might tell you they came to see the folk dancers or the cooking demonstrations. They might say they came to hear the Byzantine Cathedral Choir or to see a travel film of Greece - but they'll tell you all of that with their mouth full of Greek food.Baklava, diples, melomakaronas, loukoumades, kalamaria and gyros. These and about 20 other items made up the menu at the 12th annual Greek Festival at the Hellenic Memorial Cultural Center, 279 S. Third West.

As many as 70,000 people are expected to attend this year's three-day festival, which began Friday and runs throughSunday from noon until 11 p.m.

"We're not Greeks, but we love the Greek atmosphere and the food," said Carl Condie of Salt Lake.

"This Greek Festival is so much more outstanding than the one we went to in Arizona," said his wife, Verna Condie.

"We've always wanted to come to this. This is our first year here, but the food really is good," said Lawrence Mayhew of Salt Lake City.

Former festival chairman Ellen Furgis said the festival has a great reputation in Salt Lake and people tell her when they come to the events, "they feel like somebody's minding the store.

"The Greek people are very nurturing and caring," she said. "At the festival, they have the feeling that mother's home and you'd better behave." She said people often feel uncomfortable at events such as the Arts Festival because they do not appear as organized.

"No matter what their culture, all people feel comfortable here," she said.

Furgis said a great deal of preparations go into making the festival an important tradition for the Salt Lake Valley. In the festival's first years, she would spend most of the year preparing food for the event. "Then, a small group of women could take care of it."

Today the festival is more complex. More than 1,000 volunteers each day help prepare food and drinks, take money, supervise, perform, clean up and much more. At least 4,500 pounds of chicken are cooked and sold, 2,000 pounds of squid and 1,000 pounds of rice, she said.

One of the main goals of the festival, however, is to share the Greek culture with the community, Furgis said. "Many of my close neighbors really didn't know me before attending this festival, but now they know a lot about me and my culture.

"The Greek people historically are extremely family oriented and very serious parents to their children," she continued. "They're very hard workers and good contributors to their community."

Furgis said it is important for people of all cultural backgrounds to learn from each other. The Greek Festival provides the means for such learning to take place.

A portion of the money raised at the event will go to the poor and underprivileged of the community, Furgis said. The Rescue Mission, St. Vincent's Soup Kitchen, Camp Kostopolus, the Sara Daft House, Merelick House, the Alliance House, the University of Utah library and Westminster College are some of the recipients of the money raised, she said.

"We give away nearly $36,000 to $40,000 each year."