It takes work and perhaps a dash of eccentricity to be named “One of the 9 Oddest Festivals in Alabama.”

The Athens Grease Festival fits that description to a T – as in T for toga. The Spirit of Athens, a Main Street organization, hosts the festival in historic downtown Athens to celebrate the Greek origin of the city’s name and all things fried while advising eventgoers to eat responsibly the other 364 days of the year.

The fundraiser supports SOA’s financial investment in downtown improvement projects, such as enhanced lighting and electrical support for vendors and concerts.

“I would say in Athens we have people with more than just a dash of eccentricity. They have a pretty good dose,” Mayor Ronnie Marks said. “When the idea was first tossed out in 2012 to wear togas on The Square and celebrate fried foods, there were probably some skeptics, but a group of mostly women got together and figured out a way to make it happen and make it successful.”

The fourth annual festival (the 2015 festival was rescheduled for 2016) will be June 11 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Marks has signed a proclamation declaring June 5-11 as Greek Week in Athens to encourage support of the “quirky fun family event.” He signed the proclamation at Isom’s Orchard among grape vines with Athena-Grease Goddess and her court decked out in their togas.

This year’s Athena is Marlene Isom, and her court is other women who were nominated for the award for their volunteer efforts in enhancing the quality of life in Athens. Isom has held Dinner in the Orchard events that have benefited the local hospital, local library and High Cotton Arts, a nonprofit art incubator. She also oversaw the Threads of Honor quilting project that raised about $40,000 for the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives building expansion project.

Spirit of Athens Director Dana Hickman suggested this year the Athena-Grease Goddess honor should also include the nominees who would then become Athena’s court. Hickman said that would give recognition to all the women nominated by the community.

The court is comprised of Karen Middleton, Deborah Gill, Martha Jo Leonard, Olivia Carter, Trisha Black and Diane Lehr. These ladies volunteer with activities ranging from church to art to youth programs to fundraising.

Athena and her court will be honored during opening ceremonies at 11:30 a.m. with a parade featuring the Cool Bone Brass Band. Marks said Athens is indebted to these women who have seen a need and have given of their time and talents to address it.

“It is remarkable when you look at the contributions Marlene and these other women have made because they love this community and they have the gumption to take action,” Marks said.

Grease Festival events

During Greek Week, businesses, churches and other groups can get involved by hosting their own mini-toga parties and sharing their photos on social media and include #TogaTweets or they can email them to hhollman@athensal.us. Limestone Health Facility plans to host a toga contest and toga party on June 9 for its residents. The facility’s Activity Director Mary Nelle Clem said the party will include fried pickles, fried cheese and fried Oreos.

The Athens Grease Festival will give Southern food lovers the opportunity to taste fried dishes ranging from fried deviled eggs to fried shrimp puppies to fried alligator. Food isn’t the only attraction, however. There will be musical entertainment including Lillian Glanton and The Elk River Boys, Kush and Microwave Dave and the Nukes.

Athens Arts League will have artists painting in togas outside of High Cotton Arts just east of the festival grounds on Washington Street. Athens Arts League also is sponsoring a tent for the Kids Zone, which will have various activities.

There will be contests such as a Frozen Turkey Toss, Dub’s Burger Eating Contest and Toga Contest. The mechanical bull will also be back for children and adults who want to attempt to ride 8 seconds while wearing a toga.

SOA organizers are debuting new decorations this year. Athens High School arts teacher Tavia Slaton and her students have created an Athena and Trojan horse and repurposed a homecoming float’s golden eagle. The students also painted and touched up Greek columns used in previous festivals.

Outrageous food contest

Do you have an outrageous food recipe that actually tastes pretty good? If so, you're invited to participate in the Most Outrageous Food Contest, which will again be featured at the festival.

The winner of the contest, sponsored by The News Courier, will receive a $50 gift card and have his or her recipe printed in The News Courier's annual “Seasons Eating” publication.

“The idea is just to submit the most outrageous food, whether a dessert, vegetable or just an old family recipe,” said Robbin Hines, chairperson for this year's festival. “It may be crazy, but it must taste really good.”

Despite the nature of the festival, the dishes also don't have to be fried. A panel of judges will pick the winner, but the ingredients of each dish must be disclosed to prevent food allergies.

The cost to participate is $5, but entrants will be granted free admission to the festival. Interested parties should preregister for the contest by emailing Hines at robinhines@live.com and put “Most Outrageous Food Contest” in the subject line.

On the day of the festival, entrants should bring their prepared dish to the Grease Festival information booth. They will then be directed to the Most Outrageous Food Contest tent.

Grease facts

Cost for the festival is $5 for adults, $4 for children ages 3-12 and 2 and younger free. Wear a toga and get $1 off admission. For more information and updates, go to www.athensgreasefestival.com.

And did you know?

• Keep Athens-Limestone Beautiful recycles the cooking grease used by vendors;

• Athens Saturday Market will move to The Square for the festival and operate on Jefferson Street from 8 a.m. to noon;

• You can try to win free tickets by going on Facebook to “Athens Grease Festival” and by listening to Kix 96;

• Don’t have a sheet or table cloth to make a toga? Buy a Toga Pack online through Eventbrite through June 9 and pick up your festival shirt, toga and ticket at the Spirit of Athens office during Greek Week.

Marlene Isom is the 2016 Athena-Grease Goddess.

Marlene Isom will don her first toga on June 11 when she graces the Athens Grease Festival as Athena.

“I'm afraid,” said the woman who works tirelessly at the family business, Isom’s Orchard in Athens. “I wish I were taller and had long beautiful hair.”

Isom was one of seven women the public nominated for Athena-Grease Goddess for the festival sponsored by Spirit of Athens, a Main Street program. The Athens Grease Festival touts itself as a quirky event that honors the Greek origin of the city’s name and is a celebration of all things fried. Organizers embellish the blending of Greek and Southern to create a family-friendly event on The Square to support downtown revitalization efforts.

In 2013, Promotions Committee Chair Holly Hollman created the Athena-Grease Goddess contest.

“The mythical Athena was known as a wise Greek goddess who loved and protected the City of Athens, could be a warrior, and had a creative side and interest in the arts, crafts and agriculture,” Hollman said. “Likewise, the Athena–Grease Goddess should demonstrate similar qualities through her willingness to give back to the city.”

Isom’s nomination form notes her “sacrificial giving,” her love of Athens and her creative abilities. In 2011, she created a Dinner in the Orchard event for Athens-Limestone Hospital Foundation and raised $11,000. In 2012, she hosted Dinner in the Orchard for the Athens-Limestone Public Library and raised $11,500. 

In 2014, she incorporated the Athens-based band Alabama Shakes with Dinner in the Orchard, and despite rain storms that moved the event indoors, $40,000 was raised for High Cotton Arts, a non-profit downtown art incubator. 

In 2015, she focused on one of her passions, quilting, and with the help of family and friends, made the Threads of Honor Quilt by selling blocks for veterans’ names, raising $40,000 for the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives.

Her nomination form also noted her culinary skills in frying potatoes, okra and apples. The contest includes extra points for nominees who have a best fried dish. Like many Southern women, she learned to cook from her mama, granny, and mother-in-law.

“I can make a mean Thanksgiving dressing thanks to my granny, some awesome mac and cheese from my mama’s recipe and fry up some bad okra per my mother-in-law,” Isom said.

Students who are members of TRAIL (Together Renewing and Improving Limestone), chose Isom as Athena based on her community activities and cooking skills. TRAIL, supported by the Dekko Foundation, provides grants in the community and approved a $2,000 grant to the Athens Grease Festival. As top sponsor of the festival, the group got to name the 2016 Athena. 

“Thanks so much for the opportunity to choose Athena-Grease Goddess,” said Susan Wales, Athens High School counselor who works with TRAIL. “Students enjoyed reviewing the applications and chose Marlene Isom. Her generous heart and love of southern cooking put her application on top.”

Isom said she admires the City of Athens for involving students in important activities.

“When you told me that students selected me, I thought, ‘Wow. That means they are paying attention to things happening in their community and that happening things must be important to them,’” Isom said. “That makes me proud of the youth in our community. By seeing the importance it means they will carry on involvement in our city for years to come. I’m proud to be part of that example for our younger citizens.”

Isom said Athens is blessed with numerous strong women, and the public could have nominated more than seven.

“We could choose an Athena every week if we began looking,” Isom said. “I can think of so many more deserving than I, and that's a good thing for our Athens town.”

The other nominees this year were:

• Karen Middleton – A writer, actor and artist who volunteers with various organizations.
• Deborah Gill – A retired business owner who volunteers with her church and community.
• Martha Jo Leonard – Who volunteers with Group Dekko, Limestone County Sports Hall of Fame, Foundation for Aging and more.
• Olivia Carter – An Athens Bible School student who serves with the Athens Mayor’s Youth Commission.
• Diane Lehr – Who volunteers with Athens Arts League and provides art opportunities to underserved youth.
• Trisha Black – Former Spirit of Athens executive director who now works with Main Street Alabama.

Isom said these women are examples to the youth to stay involved in their community.

“There is always something to do, something that needs to be done from simple tasks to the complex,” Isom said. “My advice to our youth is to, ‘Go ahead. Jump on in. Don’t be afraid. Be a part of something.’”

As Athena-Grease Goddess, Isom will lead the opening ceremonies for the Athens Grease Festival on Saturday, June 11, at 11:30 a.m. on The Square. She will be given Greek-Southern attire that includes a toga, battery-operated torch, burlap sash and head piece. She will oversee festivities from a tacky throne sitting atop the Limestone County Courthouse steps.

“I'm glad that you were looking for someone who loves their community and willing to do things rather than a beauty queen,” Isom added. “I'm proud to receive this honor.”


Maria Taylor was born and raised in Peru and spent several years in New York and New Jersey before calling Athens home in 1988.

She said her move to Athens felt “like embracing family.”

“No one in New York and New Jersey said, ‘Good morning,’ to you,” Taylor said. “I moved to Athens, and it was so nice to see people waving at you as they drove by, and hear people saying, ‘Hello,’ to each other. From the very beginning I felt this city was my family.”

Taylor is now representing her City of Athens as this year’s Athena – Grease Goddess for the third annual Athens Grease Festival, hosted by the Spirit of Athens. The community nominated Limestone County women who give back to the city, and the festival’s two main sponsors, Fox 54 and WZYP, scored the nominations.

The sponsors based their scoring on the premise that Athena of Greece was known as a wise goddess who loved and protected the City of Athens, could be a warrior, had a creative side and had interest in the arts, crafts and agriculture. The Athens, Ala., version is someone who protects her city through her willingness to give back to Athens through community service.

As Athena – Grease Goddess Taylor will lead the opening ceremonies at 11 a.m. on Saturday during the Sept. 27 festival in downtown Athens. She will meet and greet guests and rest on a wooden thrown bedecked with laurel and red felt. Festival organizers will also provide Taylor with a toga, a torch, and for a Southern touch, a beauty queen sash made from burlap.

“This is such an honor,” said Taylor, who is so community minded, she has plans Saturday to volunteer with an event in Huntsville. “I guess I can take a few hours to be Athena and then go work.”

Shirley Crutcher, the Red Cross Disaster Program Manager, said Taylor is a perfect choice for Athena because she is a wonderful volunteer. Crutcher works with Taylor, who serves on the Red Cross board.

“She is a superwoman,” Crutcher said. 

Although born in Peru, Taylor was not allowed to join the Peruvian Army. She immigrated to America and joined the military. She served 4 years in the Army and 20 years as the International Programs Manager for the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command in Huntsville. Her service took her to Afghanistan and Iraq, where she received several awards. 

Since moving to Athens, she has become a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Hispanic Ministry at St. Paul Catholic Church, an instructor with Learn-To-Read and a member of the Athens-Limestone Public Library Board of Trustees.

For Red Cross, Taylor serves on the Disaster Action Team, a group that rotates responding to house fires to provide for victims’ immediate needs. Taylor also conducts community presentations on tornado and fire safety and serves as a Spanish interpreter for Red Cross. Crutcher said Taylor goes to other counties during disasters to help, such as when Marshall County had a tornado about a year ago.

“She truly does feel like Athens is family, and she believes that people should treat each other like family,” Crutcher said.

Although Taylor calls Athens home, she strives to remember her heritage while embracing the customs of her Southern city.

Taylor helped organize the Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration in Athens. The festival has been held the past two years during October as a way to encourage sharing and understanding of Latino cultures with the community. 

Mayor Ronnie Marks said Taylor promotes diversity by encouraging the Latino community to become involved in Athens through volunteering and by sharing Latino customs with Athens citizens.

“She is an asset to our city, and I am thankful she decided to call Athens home,” Marks said.

Taylor said the friendly actions such as waves and hellos are not the only reasons she loves Athens.

“I love The Square, all the trees and flowers throughout our city, our schools, and that there is so much to do like the Grease Festival,” Taylor said. “When I moved here and my kids started school here, they told me I did the right thing choosing Athens. They said going to school here helped put them on a good path.”

Since the Athens Grease Festival is a celebration of all things fried in addition to the Greek origin of the city’s name, those nominated were given extra points for having a best fried dish. Taylor’s best fried dishes are chicken, empanadas, which is like a fried pie, and milanesa, which is a thin cut of beef or chicken that is breaded and pan fried.

“I am amazed at the women like Maria who live in our community and work to enhance our already wonderful city,” said Athens Grease Festival Chairwoman Betsy Hyman. “We received nominations that included an Athens High student who works in many programs at her school, another lady who spends nearly all her weekends cooking stews for fundraisers, and other women who volunteer on multiple projects.”

Toga Tidbits

● What: Athens Grease Festival
● Where: Downtown Athens
● Time: 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
● Opening Ceremony: Starts at 11 a.m. with short parade led by Athena – Grease Goddess.
● Guinness Book of World Record Attempt: This is for largest toga party. Must wear white toga. Line-up at 2 p.m. at corner of Marion and Washington streets. Attempt starts promptly at 2:30 p.m.
● Cost: $5 for adults, $3 for ages 3-12 and free for 2 and younger. $1 off for toga wearers.
● Out of the Frying Pan VIP Party: 7 p.m. at The Loft 1880. Go to www.eventbrite.com. $20.
● Vendors: Food, beverages, crafts, etc. Vendor prices are not included in ticket purchase.
● Parking: Public lots around and near The Square and marked side street parking. Handicap parking will be designated on Jefferson Street.
● Major sponsors: Fox 54, WZYP, City of Athens, Limestone County Commission, Athens-Limestone Tourism Association and Athens State University’s Livingston Concert Series.


by Holly Hollman

Savor a spoonful of blues. Relish a helping of reggae. Sample the soothing strains of classical.

The third annual Athens Grease Festival will offer music lovers a feast for a variety of tastes. 

“We are a food festival, but we offer so much more including musical entertainment,” said Festival Chairwoman Betsy Hyman. “Our festival appeals to all your senses.”

The festival is Sept. 27 from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in downtown Athens. It is hosted by the Spirit of Athens as a celebration of all things fried and the Greek origin of the city’s name.

This year’s line-up involves:

● Steelism
Nashville-based instrumental duo Steelism comprised of guitarist Jeremy Fetzer originally from Ohio and pedal steel player Spencer Cullum originally of England. Steelism blends an eclectic array of vintage and modern influences to create instrumental music that truly sounds like nothing else.

“Steelism allows us to musically explore in our writing and take performance chances we couldn’t get away with in any other project,” Fetzer says.

Their debut EP “The Intoxicating Sounds of Pedal Steel and Guitar” was met with critical acclaim with American Songwriter’s Sean Maloney calling Steelism “instantly recognizable – surf, country, blues, all steeped in soul and heavy on the grooves – but astoundingly outside the contemporary vernacular.”

● Promised Land Sound 
This group emerged from the Nashville garage scene and developed a country and soul sound. Bassist and singer Joey Scala and his younger brother Evan (drums) moved to Tennessee from Virginia. Joey connected with guitar player Sean Thompson while hitchhiking after high school. Keyboard player and pianist Ricardo Alessio was classically trained in Michigan. Luke Schneider sometimes guests on pedal steel. 

● KUSH  
This Huntsville-based reggae band formed at the request of a DJ when a group of friends and family met to play for a Bob Marley birthday celebration program. The group performs across the Southeast. KUSH’s influences include Sade, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Sean Paul and Santana.

● Microwave Dave and The Nukes
This band has performed for 20 years in the U.S and Europe on cruises, in soccer stadiums and at neighborhood saloons. As Microwave Dave puts it: "Blues is America's first-and still best-self-help program."  The band received the Alabama Blues Society’s Blues Achievement Award in 2001, "for accomplishments in performing, writing and preserving blues music." 

● Huntsville Symphony Orchestra string quartet (in collaboration with Athens State university's livingston Concert lecture series and the huntsville symphony orchestra)
The orchestra owes its beginnings to the Wernher von Braun and his team moved to Huntsville in 1950, they found lush surroundings and agreeable weather in this cotton mill town with a population of some 16,000. While their professional lives were dedicated to realizing visions of flights into space, many of them were skilled amateur musicians who shared a deep-seated passion for classical music.

NOTE TO MEDIA: Here are some contacts if you would like to interview and feature some of the bands. Please do not release this contact information. Thanks

For Steelism contact Matt Bury at 615.664.1167 (ext. 27) or by email at  matt@thirtytigers.com
For Promised Land Sound contact Reece Lazarus at reecelazarus@gmail.com 
For Microwave Dave call 256-519-9993 or email  micdave@hiwaay.net

Toga Tidbits

What: Athens Grease Festival

Where: Downtown Athens

Time: 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Cost: $5 for adults, $3 for ages 3-12 and free for 2 and younger. $1 off for toga wearers.

Out of the Frying Pan VIP Party: 7 p.m. at The Loft 1880. Go to www.eventbrite.com. $20.

Vendors: Food, beverages, crafts, etc. Vendor prices are not included in ticket purchase.

Parking: Public lots around and near The Square and marked side street parking. Handicap parking will be designated.

Major sponsors: Fox 54, WZYP, athens limestone tourism association, athens state university's livingston concert lecture series, City of Athens and Limestone County Commission

The Loft 1880 at Village Pizza
222 West Market Street
7 PM
Tickets: $20 (limited quantity)

Join us after the festival to celebrate another successful event.  Rub elbows with sponsors, kick up your heels with festival organizers, and enjoy live music.

Click here to purchase tickets.

Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks will declare the week of Sept. 21, 2014, as Greek Week to honor the Athens Grease Festival, which brings thousands to downtown Athens. It is a celebration of all things fried and the Greek origin of the city’s name. Money raised supports downtown projects. As part of Greek Week, the festival’s Promotions Committee wants to hold a FACS Fried Food Contest among our local schools. Here are the details:

Date/Location: Sept. 25, 2014, at noon at the Limestone County Career Technical Center. Sheila Lightfoot has graciously offered the use of her facilities.

Participants: Any junior and senior high Family and Consumer Science class from the Athens City and Limestone County school systems, Athens Bible School, and Lindsay Lane Christian Academy

Awards: Will choose first, second, and third place in the junior division and senior division.

First Place: First place will receive: a quirky trophy; a hamburger and/or hot dog lunch made by the Athens Gas Dept. Grillers (will work out a lunch date in October with junior and senior high winners); and free vendor space at the Athens Grease Festival on Sept. 27, 2014, held from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. You can use your space to sell your winning food item as a fundraiser, sell other fundraiser items, and hand out information about your program.

Second and Third Place: Prizes to be determined. May get gift certificates so you can shop at a local store for items your class needs or to buy items to throw your class a small celebration party.

Judging: Submission can be a dessert, vegetable, fruit, meat, etc. Use your imagination. Item must be fried. Will judge based on taste, appearance, and creativity. Our judges are Mojo from the Mojo Radio Show on WZYP, Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks, Superintendent Tom Sisk and Sheriff Mike Blakely.

Recipes: Please include your recipe with your submission. Local media will cover event and may run winning recipes.

Togas: Since this event helps sponsor the Athens Grease Festival, presenters are asked to please wear a toga.

Sign-up: If you plan to participate, please send an email to Holly Hollman at hhollman@athensal.us or call her at 256-262-1399. Please notify her by Sept. 19, 2014.

Organizers of the Athens Grease Festival are searching for a woman to serve as Athena – Grease Goddess for the Sept. 27, 2014, Athens Grease Festival. This woman will receive a toga, torch and recognition during the festival and lead the opening ceremonies.


Athena was known as a wise Greek goddess who loved and protected the city of Athens, could be a warrior, and had a creative side and interest in the arts, crafts, and agriculture. Likewise, our Athena – Grease Goddess should demonstrate similar qualities through her willingness to give back to the city. She must be a Limestone County resident who works to improve the city. This could be through volunteering with non-profits, with the arts, with youth, on a city board, or through environmental efforts. She can earn extra points for being known as a good cook. If you know of a woman who should serve as our first Athena – Grease Goddess, please complete the application