I was born into a Greek family. You’ve seen that movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, right? Yes, it’s true, except that was the Hollywood version. It’s even worse, or more amazing. Sometimes, I am not sure which, it’s either good crazy or just plain crazy, being in a Greek American family.
For years I have been hosting Pinup Workshops at the Retro Pinup Studio that I founded many years ago. These workshops center on why women are drawn to the retro era, specifically the WWII era.
Somehow the discussion would always come around to my family, specifically the most prominent women in my childhood: my mother and maternal grandmother. If any of the gals in the Workshop knew me, they would always ask me to tell stories about them. Laughs would ensue, and I would think: “Am I making this shit up?” No, I am not! And then I would laugh even harder at myself.
So, being Greek for me means that life centers around food. From the moment I wake up in the morning I am planning…OK, obsessing over… my meals for the day. If I am having people over, any type of gathering, there must be food. Even if someone stops by (Who the hell just stops by? I don’t know but it could happen), I must offer them food. I have officially turned into my great grandmother!
Just imagine a table that somehow seats about 25 people in a small brownstone in Astoria Queens, NY. The volume is at about 10, the table can barely fit the plates you are supposed to pile the food on, there will be yelling, arguing, laughing, crying, eating, drinking, yelling, arguing, laughing, and then possibly dancing, all at the table. This is a typical Greek get together.
Many of you from other Mediterranean countries may be saying: “Pssha, that’s totally normal for us too, you don’t have the market cornered on that.” And I would say: “Oh yes we do! We have more crying, more laughing, more dancing and… the food is different.” There is something very special about Greek cuisine, especially the cuisine I grew up with.
Greek cuisine has held onto its roots ferociously. You can find elements of African, European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern spices and dishes. As a matter of fact, my maternal grandmother was from a part of Greece that is now Turkey. She used to make a dish that is almost exactly like Istamboli, a staple dish for Persians.
Not only did we hold onto our roots in our cuisine, but we seem to have held onto the practice of freshness. We don’t just use fresh ingredients, but fresh flavors, as well. We are not ones for making heavy dishes; we leave that to the French and Italians. Our flavors burst with sunshine, the salty Mediterranean sea, fresh greens dotted around the coastline, and mouth-watering coastal creatures. You can literally taste the beauty of Greece in our dishes.
And most importantly, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, especially in the kitchen. Yes, we are descendants of gods and goddesses, of course, but we can’t help that. I learned at a young age never to take oneself seriously when cooking. “Smile when you cook” is what my great grandmother used to say. And I have potent memories of my great grandfather in the kitchen around holidays tying up the chicken for what we called “Orange Chicken & Rice,” nothing to do with the fruit, just the color.
I paint a beautiful picture, don’t I? You must be thinking: “Wow, your grandmother and mom must have been amazing cooks, as well.” You would be wrong, my friends. Very, very wrong.
My grandmother never really learned to cook until I was in my late teens, early twenties. My mother, oh man, nope, just nope. As a matter of fact, there is a classic story of a night at the dinner table. It was my mother, my little sister who was about 4, and me. Our mother put a pot of egg noodles on the table along with the Country Crock and said: “Let’s eat!” My sister stared at the table, put her hands on her hips, and said in her little Elmer Fud voice: “This is dinner?” We peed our pants we laughed so hard. It’s pretty bad when the 4 year-old expresses her discontent at the lack of selections on the table.
So after that, I started to take over. My mother had a few dishes she was really good at, but you could only eat those so much and you had to be in the mood. But what she did love to do was eat! She was a “professional” eater. And she had a nose! We called it “The Nose,” and I would find out as a young adult that I inherited this nose, and it’s a curse, believe me. She would smell everything before she put it in her mouth, and if it smelled and tasted bad, someone had to confirm that she was correct. It had to be a joint effort of grossness.
She still has an amazing pallet, and I would like to think that I inherited that, as well. So that is the origin of my obsession and passion for food and cooking. My mom loved that I was interested, curious, and capable of cooking at a very young age, and I think her nose helped me hone my craft.
You will hear many more stories about these women in my life and family dinners from my childhood.