Food Culture and Tradition

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Greek Meals and Customs


Greeks don’t like being alone and don’t think that anyone or even any thing should ever be alone. For example, a drink must always be accompanied with food and food must always be enjoyed with friends. Greek men can always find an excuse to be with other men and consider it an unparalleled honor to have guests – even strangers – to share their home and food. Greek women seriously value their reputation as hostesses and the very finest will be provided to the guest even if it sometimes means that the family must do without.

So deeply valued is the concept of hospitality that it is closely interwoven with a sense of self-esteem in the Greek word philotimo. Since a part of hospitality is a display of generosity, members of the Greek family happily extend every courtesy and the best of their food to their guests. This, however, can have adverse effects. Greek women may be insulted if only one helping of food is taken; they firmly believe in the Arabic saying, “The food equals the affection.” Greek men may feel shamed if their offers of hospitality are refused. Moreover, it is often true that any failed gesture in the ritual of hospitality on the part of guest or host can be construed as either a personal insult, a family or communal insult, or even disdain of the ancient gods themselves.

Perhaps it is not even correct to suggest that the treatment of guests is any kind of “ritual” to the Greeks, for their enjoyment of people and their warmth of affection are sincere. Thus, if one’s appetite is limited, it may be best to visit during the late afternoon rather than at mealtime. In Greece, from five to nine o’clock is considered late afternoon when visitors would be treated to spoon sweets, fresh cool water, and perhaps Ouzo and pastries. The Greeks delight in their children and it is expected that visitors will admire the little ones and bring small gifts for them. But should the guests’ admiration extend to a particular object in their home — in the generosity of most Mediterranean peoples — the Greek family would probably make you a gift of the admired item.

Age-old tradition even accompanies the offering of refreshments to visitors. It is the Greek hostess who serves all food and drink while the host remains at all times to converse with the guests. The oldest guest is served first. Traditionally, a spoonful of the homemade sweet is taken together with a glass of water and, before partaking, the honored guest extends good wishes to the entire family and ends with the expression: “Yiasus!” This means, “To your good health!” Everyone then sips the water and tastes the sweet preserves. This will be followed by general conversation. Ouzo or whiskey may then be served accompanied by the tasty small pastries that Greek homes never seem to be without, especially when guests arrive.

The pattern of the day’s meals varies from rural to urban dwellers. The Greek farmer rises early, often with little more than grape juice or fruit brandy to start his day. His noon meal will be brought to the fields for him by his wife or daughter and the basket will contain a hot soup, bread and cheese, perhaps olives and raw onions, tomatoes and cucumbers and occasionally a sweet pastry or fresh fruit. The farmer eats his evening meal after sundown when the chores are completed. The meal is similar to the noon one except that a meat dish may be added if meat is available or if it is not a fast day. The table is set with colorful woodenware and the women place the meal on colorful cloths woven from goats’ wool.

Turkish coffee begins the city dweller’s day, while the noon meal may extend for much of the afternoon and even include a siesta. Many cosmopolitan menus are available to those in cities, and it is only in private homes that often the really authentic Greek dishes are preserved and treasured. Typically a visit to the coffeehouse or taverna ends the workday from the smallest villages to the cities, and is a habit continued even in emigrant countries – but only for men. Traditionally dinner is served very late in the evening – ten o’clock is considered the usual time. And even after dinner at home it is not considered too late for an evening visit to the taverns or kafeneion.

Although mealtimes form a pattern there is always time for snacking, always a place to provide what the mood dictates. The kafeneion is the Greek cafe where Turkish coffee in its many varieties will be individually, ceremoniously prepared in a long-handled pot called a briki. It is also a place where a man may enjoy animated conversation or a quiet snooze while sprawled out on several chairs. Zacharoplasteions are strategically located shops which offer tempting varieties of honeyed pastries, nutted sweets, and fabled candy confections to be enjoyed with Turkish coffee whenever the urge for sweets insinuates itself. Hunger, whether for a meal or a hearty snack, may be assuaged at the psistarya, eateries whose specialties include charcoal-roasted lamb rotated on spits and served with simple green salad, Greek bread, and the husky red house wine.

And then there are the tavernas, second home to most Greek men. Why not? For it is here that anything from a small drink to a complete meal can be enjoyed with conversation and often with debate and frequently with the insistent and soulful rhythms of the bouzouki. It is in the Greek tavernas that the guests are expected to walk directly to the kitchen to make their selections of food (a word or two of advice to the chef is in order too). Platters are placed on a table and diners help themselves or they may choose their foods directly from the cooking pots. The meal is always enjoyed with crusty white bread and wine. It is also in the tavernas that the lusty combination of good food and drink, good friends and music together well up in the Greek soul and burst forth in the controlled exuberance of impromptu dancing. The Greeks have a word for that impulsive ecstasy of the spirit – they call it kefi.

The Greeks are a people to whom the word zenos means both stranger and guest; to whom philotimo expresses the sincerely natural rituals of hospitality; and to whom the height of spiritual pleasure blends people, food, drink, and music into a spontaneously joyous burst of kefi. Why shouldn’t the Greeks have the right words for the things they do so well?

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