Photo by Chelsea Minton

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The Flavors that Bind Us

Those early years, the cultural shocks were almost as frequent as the fried chicken dinners. I had left an exuberant, extended family in Greece to study in the American South. Decades later I came to recognize that the transition from my high school, Anatolia College of Thessaloniki, to a small college in North Carolina was a mercy; a large university would have been too much of a shock for a sheltered girl of sixteen. Even so, the differences could have defeated me had I not been young, optimistic, and surprisingly resilient.

Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo by  Niko Alexiou.

Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo by Niko Alexiou.

I had grown up in a city, surrounded by familiar faces, a watcher and an observer. In those days we didn’t enclose ourselves in cars, so we walked everywhere in the central streets of Thessaloniki. Venizelou Street, named for the finest statesman modern Greece produced, took me to Egnatia Street, known by St. Paul and the evangelist Luke. I climbed to what had been the Turkish part of the city to see my grandparents and admired the fifteenth-century White Tower at least once a week at our waterfront. History enveloped me. On those walks, I saw the same faces, recognized them on the evening promenades, and knew who belonged to which parea, the in-group that always moved together. Our apartments breathed through their balconies, and there we sat in the late afternoon, watching the people passing by, knowing their style of dressing, the peculiarities of their walks. I suspect that those watchful hours were the first hints of the writing to come.

I was rarely alone; eating by myself would not have occurred to me. The meals were communal experiences: tasty offerings, scintillating conversations, laughter, and argument.

Then, suddenly, with very little preparation, I found myself in a country where air conditioning isolated families in the summer, and cars cocooned them from one place to the other in the winter. I had gone from a European city where everyone seemed visible to small-town America where neighbors were miles away; from historical references covering twenty-four centuries to a near veneration of Civil War mementos.

I became even more of an observer; mystified, I tried to find a key to this new country, something to connect me and remind me of home. The closest I came was at church, where the hymns and prayers were familiar to this Protestant Greek. But church was too organized, too limited by time constrictions. Even church, such an intimate part of my childhood, was not home.

During breaks and holidays I was invited to people’s homes. I would like to pretend that I remember the meals they offered, but the only ones that come to mind are fried chicken with mashed potatoes, roast beef with vegetables, and the occasional cookout with the tantalizing aroma of steaks or hamburgers on the grill. Conversations were subdued, and arguments nonexistent. In the quiet that enveloped the table, I wondered what would help them digest their main meal which in the South those days was eaten at midday. It was called dinner, not lunch. And after they ate it, they did not lie down for a siesta! Strange.

In the small Southern towns of the 1950s, foreign-tasting dishes with exotic names would have been an oddity had they been offered, but they simply were not. Although I missed so much, I found many customs I did admire. The hospitality of my Southern hosts reminded me of my own Greeks. Eating at least one meal a day as a family was a habit that was honored in the homes I visited. I liked being greeted by people I passed by on campus or in the street, people I didn’t know, just because their natural friendliness said, “I acknowledge you.” Undergirding all this was an unfailing politeness. Years later, when I traveled widely in the United States, I recognized that these good manners and friendliness were not necessarily as American as they were Southern.

Iced tea was sweet and a new experience for me. Coffee was rather terrible. Hush puppies were interesting, biscuits comforting, bacon a new and welcome taste. Finishing a meal with dessert instead of fruit was a temptation I could have done without, but a hot apple pie with ice cream did not have its equal back home.

So the years of college living passed. I was a full participant in the life of my schools and dormitories and a watcher outside the campus, whenever I visited homes or traveled.

In the 1960s, in my own home now, I invited neighbors and guests to sample new tastes. The question of a young woman who asked, when I offered her spanakopita, “Are these collard greens?” became a neighborhood joke. Feta may have smelled strong to those who had never eaten any cheese beyond Velveeta, but as an accompaniment to my flavorful fresh green beans, it was a huge success. At church suppers my beans, with olive oil, onions, tomatoes, parsley, and dill, became famous. In the American South I was using Greek flavors and longing for flat-leaf parsley, phyllo dough, and leeks.

When did the 1980s arrive, and when did they disappear? All of a sudden, there were packages of phyllo dough in local supermarkets, Kalamata olives became a staple, and a rather poor version of feta cheese was sold, hermetically enclosed in plastic. What a gift these were to someone like me who lived in towns where I was perhaps the only Greek, the one who loved to invite guests for an extended dinner time. Friends and guests succumbed to the new tastes I offered. And Greece herself, the country, the land of incomparable beauty, was discovered by American tourists. It was inevitable that when they returned home they wanted to taste again the tzatziki and souvlaki they had enjoyed in Greek tavernas.

I enjoyed cooking for a small number of friends, but my husband, proud of my cooking, urged me to invite enough people to fill the living spaces. So I produced papoutsakia—eggplant halved and stuffed with meat sauce and topped by béchamel and feta; psari mayonnaiza—bass cooked and served cold in a mold of potatoes, carrots, capers, and homemade mayonnaise; dolmathakia—rice wrapped in grape leaves; and countless variations of layered pitas. Even though I never ate baklava in restaurants or bought it in shops (no Greek thinks another’s baklava is good enough), I made my own, and the lightness and aroma of it delighted my guests. Friends commented that in my home there was a perfect blend of Greek flavors with an overlay of Southern hospitality and manners.

It was obvious that food, the sacrament of breaking bread together, was the tie that bound me—a thoroughly Greek woman—to my new home, the American small-town South. It was inevitable that I would start remembering my childhood kitchen, its aromas and ambiance, and in the remembering I would both cook and write. One time, I dared to challenge the North Carolina supremacy of barbecuing pig and anointing it with vinegar. The essay I wrote for the Raleigh News and Observer made a big splash, and my fellow citizens would bring it up whenever we met. One friend, a farmer, stopped me on my way to the post office and said, “I will provide the pig, if you do the cooking.” I laughed and said, “Make sure it’s small.”

So I invited twenty-five or so friends and started the preparations. We dug a hole in the yard and another friend supplied the hickory wood for the fire. He even offered to do the turning of the spit. I showed him how the Greeks skewered the whole dressed pig lengthwise and his job was to turn it and baste it with lemon juice whipped with olive oil and oregano. Among many Greek dishes I made a salad of large butter beans cooked in my own sauce, baked tyropitakia for the starters, and roasted potatoes in lemon and oregano. That meal was eaten nearly thirty years ago. A friend from those days who now lives near me in Louisville, Kentucky, still talks about it with nostalgia. For me, those hours spent cooking and serving were a gift; it was as if I were living in a Greek village sharing my cooking with those who crowded its square. A delightful blend of two cultures has sustained me through the decades, and my life has been enriched by both.


A recipe to accompany my story

The one recommendation I have for roasted pork meat is to use the simplest flavors: olive oil whipped with lemon juice for basting; oregano or thyme may be added together with salt and pepper. To accompany this I offer potatoes which are a hit wherever and whenever I serve them. These earthy flavors compliment each other.

Photo by Katerina Katsarka Whitley

Photo by Katerina Katsarka Whitley

Patates to fournou, riganates

Peel and slice lengthwise six potatoes, Yukon gold or russet work the best. When serving a lot of people figure one potato per person. The potato slices should be at least twice the size of what you would use for French fries.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Wrap potato slices in a clean towel to dry them as much as possible. Place them in a large baking pan or an iron skillet. If you are serving many, you may need two pans because they do better spread as a single layer. Sprinkle olive oil on them and toss them until the potatoes are glistening with the coating. Then sprinkle the juice of a whole lemon on them. Salt and pepper them and add a tablespoon of dried oregano. Toss them so the herbs and lemon juice bless them sufficiently.

Place them in the hot oven and bake for at least half an hour. Taste one for tenderness. The potatoes should be crisp on the outside and soft inside. If you want crispier slices raise the temperature to 450 and watch them carefully. Serve them with slices of lemon.

A green salad and crusty bread is all you need with the pork and potatoes. But if you want to add a green dish, try this.


Summer string beans:

2 lbs fresh green (string) beans
½ cup good olive oil
1 medium onion or 6 scallions
3 large ripe tomatoes or ¾ cup crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon sugar
2 heaping tablespoons of fresh snipped parsley and equal fresh dill
Salt and pepper to taste

Photo by Katerina Whitley

Photo by Katerina Katsarka Whitley

String beans are tender and plentiful in the summer. Prepare two pounds of fresh beans by snipping off the stems and by washing them in cold water.

In a deep heavy pot, pour 1/2 cup olive oil. Slice and chop one medium onion or scallions and sauté in the olive oil until translucent. If you have ripe tomatoes, peel three large ones and chop them before adding them to the onion. Add a teaspoonful of sugar and salt and pepper to taste. Stir. Add the beans and enough water to almost reach the top of the beans. Cover, bring to the boil and then lower the heat. Keep them partially covered. You want the water to be absorbed so the sauce is red but not watery. (If all the water is absorbed before they are done, add a bit more water.) Near the end, add two heaping tablespoons of snipped fresh parsley and two more of fresh dill. The beans are done when you can cut them with a fork. Serve with good feta.