Food Culture and Tradition

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Greek Food and Culture


Pleasures drive out pain and excessive pain leads men to seek excessive pleasures… – Aristotle

The above was spoken by a Greek, and more than twenty centuries later it is still the core truism of Greeks everywhere. No characteristic is more typically Greek than the inherent ability to balance pain and pleasure delicately and live life to the fullest.

Ten million Greeks living on the mainland and on 1,400 Greek islands suffer the daily realities of existence in a harsh meager land where political problems simmer and where poverty and hardship are old neighbors. But while the body may subsist on bread, cheese, and olives as rural daily fare, the Greek soul is spiritually nourished by the mystically dazzling landscape of endless blue skies, the clarity of a strong white sun, and the warmth of rustic red earth.

These are the same elements that bore witness to the “Glory of Greece.” This included a brilliant span of 200 years from 500-300 B.C.E. when Athens became the light-source of the western world and spawned a plethora of literature, philosophy, mathematics, democracy as well as a sophistication in style of living seldom equaled. While the rest of the world was gnawing on roasted meat, the Greeks were savoring many varieties of fruits and seafood, experimenting with cooked mixtures of meats and vegetables, developing sauces and dressings (white sauce, mayonnaise, marinades of oils and seasonings), blending seasonings, and even writing cookbooks.

Because reminders of Greece’s past greatness are everywhere visible in the civilized world of today, the past and the present are one reality to the Greek. It doesn’t matter what subject is under discussion, Greeks will have an opinion – and a word for it. It is the incredible blending of past greatness, living the present to the fullest, and unflagging faith in the future that makes simple survival the ultimate Greek pleasure. With bold words and classic gestures, with intense curiosity and endless enthusiasm together with an age-old ability to dramatize, the Greek brushes aside pain and troubles, gently disdains time, and plunges fully into the enjoyment of life.

Others may point to the closeness of Greek family life or to the stability of the Greek Orthodox Church as central to Greek optimism and self-confidence. But it is all of these factors and something more. It is an ancient tradition that Greece is somehow more than a land or a people but rather a special image that was nurtured by the ancient gods of Greece and preserved for all eternity by an
omnipotent “god of Greece.” That innate Greek faith is rooted firmly in the belief that while other gods may be alive or dead, the “god of Greece” will somehow forever intervene just when things seem hopeless. And a glance at Greek history bears out this philosophy.

When the great Hellenistic age came to a crushing end with the Roman Conquest of 197 C.E., Greek schools declined and Greek democracy disappeared, yet Greek language and culture survived. The novelty of Greek cuisine – varieties of wild animals, fruits, and seafood, the ingenious uses of sauces and seasonings, recipes and utensils – was a revelation to the Romans. They unabashedly adopted Greek foods, together with Greek art and architecture, Greek philosophy and refinements. And they valued their Greek chefs above all. While the Greeks helplessly watched as Athens gave way to Rome as the center of the western world, they must have also experienced some satisfaction in seeing that Hellenistic influence proved stronger than armies.

The embers of Greek language and culture that flickered during the Roman domination were fanned to a bright flame during the thousand years after the fall of Rome. The period of the Byzantine Empire with its center in Constantinople actually took its name from the ancient Greek community on which it stood: Byzantium. Christianity was introduced by the Emperor Constantine as the state religion of the Roman Empire around 325 C.E., much to the credit of the early Christian theologians who incorporated many Greek ideas into Christianity that the latter flourished even though Rome was later sacked by hostile pagan tribes.

Again, however, this Greek flowering of influence was abruptly cut off in 1204 C.E. as the Crusaders captured Constantinople and parceled it out to Frankish knights. The new rulers crushed everything Greek. Latinization was the goal, Greek ships and trade were turned over to the Venetians, and strong attempts were made to impose Catholicism. It did indeed seem that the Franks dominated every aspect of life, with one exception. Greek women quietly saw to it that the children they bore never forgot that they were Greek.

The continuing benevolence of the god of Greece was about to meet the strongest test. On Tuesday, May 29, 1453, the Byzantine Empire was crushed completely with the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. So deep is the memory of that terrible day that even to the present, Greeks consider Tuesday a bad-luck day and the entire month of May fraught with grim symbolism. Yet historians see a positive aspect in that the mass dispersal of thousands of Greeks throughout Europe (as a direct result of the Turkish conquest) may have been responsible for the revival of learning that led to the Renaissance.

The suppression and cruelty of the Ottoman domination lasted 400 years. And while the Greeks learned, among other things, to enjoy sipping Turkish coffee, smoking the narghile (water-filtered smoking pipe), and preparing meat on skewers, which they called souvlakia (from the Turkish sis kebab), the Turks, who were previously a nomadic people, very quickly developed a taste for Greek cookery Not surprising then, in the manner of all conquerors, they also gave Turkish names to classic Greek dishes.

It seems the Greek’s hopeful confidence, that age-old faith in the god of Greece, was to be renewed again. In their 400-year occupation, the Turks made two fateful errors: first, they gave the Greeks concessions in trade, shipping and administration, at once unwittingly creating Greek leadership and a Greek navy; and second, they decided to place the Orthodox Church leaders in charge of their communities. The Greek leadership and navy were the seeds of the subsequent Turkish downfall, while the authority and strength of the Church in small communities unified Greeks everywhere and served to preserve their language and culture. While the rest of the western world at that time became a blend of Roman and Turkish culture with only echoes of Greek taste apparent, to the Greeks themselves their vital roots remained strong.

When people are suppressed, their only daily concern is survival. They have neither the time nor freedom to devote to the arts, literature, philosophy, or the delicacies of the palate. Choice lands were cultivated by the Turks and the Greeks were forced to retreat to barren rocky lands and mountain areas, often surviving on cheese made from the milk of mountain goats, wild herbs, olives, and whatever crops they could nudge from the unwilling land. The Turks called the Greeks Rumis and it is from this bitter time that Greeks still refer to the noble and creative part of themselves as Hellene and any bursts of stubbornness or selfishness as Romios.

Of necessity, then, Greek cuisine became an art of the past. It was so successfully adapted, transformed, and renamed mostly by the Turks and Italians that its Greek origins were all but forgotten. Yet one piece of ancient writing remains: The Banquet of the Learned (Deipnosophists), written in 200 C.E. by Athenaeus, a Greek philosopher living in Rome. His detailed descriptions of foods eaten, their methods of preparation, and even cooking utensils and cutlery as well as menus for dinners and banquets are remarkable in their sophistication. It is from Athenaeus that we learn of kakavia. A seafood stew introduced to Marseilles by seafaring Greeks, kakavia later became world-renowned as bouillabaisse. The book discusses sauces in loving detail: that emulsion of eggs, lemon juice, and olive oil called mayonnaise; a thick white sauce called bechamel; and even cruets of oil and vinegar to be set on the table and used to dress fresh or cooked vegetables. The use of blends of curry probably was introduced in Alexander’s time after his conquest of northern India, but Greek cooks were already long familiar with fragrant thyme and oregano, mint and marjoram, and the Isle of Rhodes was noted for a ginger-flavored bread.

There is more. The general acceptance of small nibbles of food with drinks as “provocative to eating” not only added graciousness to dining but may even be the ancient root of the Greeks’ predilection never to drink without the accompaniment of food.

Athenaeus further describes many stuffed, baked vegetables and leaves, tiny meatballs called kefthedes, light crusty breads and thin crispy pastries, polenta and dumplings, capers and pine nuts, force-fed geese, herb-grilled fish and seafood, and unusual combinations of meats cooked with vegetables. The flavored beverage was a light drink of wine diluted with fresh water and sometimes flavored with honey or spices. It is incredible to think that these commonly known culinary cornerstones of today were part of daily fare even before 200 C.E.

The Greeks have been suppressed and forced to survive on meager rations for so long that it was often Greek emigrants rather than native Greeks who revived interest and pride in culinary pursuits. The first large wave of Greek emigrants followed that fateful Tuesday in May 1453. But other events in Greek history have spurred waves of emigrants, especially to North America. In 1891 a combination of serious crop failures, especially in Laconia and Arcadia, as well as fear of conscription in Turkish lands, sent emigrants out of the country in waves that continued even after the First World War. The combined shortages and suffering that the Greeks endured during the Second World War and during the subsequent civil strife once again sent them to seek a better, more peaceful life elsewhere. Arguably, it is this recent memory of pain that motivates Greeks in North America to take every advantage of the results of hard work, enterprise, and education.

Greeks know and treasure their deep roots in the past. Against a backdrop of painful history, their own pride and determination, together with the help of the god of Greece, have kept alive and vital a culture, language, and cuisine that have few equals. Despite an occasional fretful fingering of the worry heads, the Greek has learned to find pleasures in day-to-day living and to brush aside the painful events of the past with a hopeful sigh to the future. It is a feat of survival and pride that Aristotle himself would enjoy reading the many Athens newspapers of today, Greeks from the Byzantine Empire would be at home in the worship and rituals of the Greek Orthodox Church, and even Athenaeus would he happily familiar with today’s Greek table.

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