Saturday, January 16, 2016

Food is Love

Julia Child said, "People who like to eat are the best people." Thank you, Julia.

Let's face it. Food is love and we all want to be loved. My mother-in-law, Chevi, used to cook for me. It was a great feeling. She'd tell me--not her son (He's one of those people who forgets to eat), what she was cooking that day and what time we should be home to eat it. And she and I didn't even speak the same language! It was done with gestures and pointing and a few words in Greek.

Those who are thinking about what they'll have for lunch as they read this, which in my opinion is completely normal, will understand what I mean about this whole food-love idea. Back in the 1970s when television had a few major stations and no remote control, I used to watch a show with my older brother, Jim. It was called The Galloping Gourmet. The host, Graham Kerr, would prepare a dish and then at the end, he'd pull someone from the audience to dine with him for the last few minutes of the program. Jim and I would run into the kitchen at every commercial break to prepare tuna salad sandwiches. The tuna had to be mashed with the mayonnaise and chopped onions into just the right consistency. And the bread popped into the toaster at exactly the moment when the last commercial break began. We would have our little snack trays set up in front of the sofa, so we could run to them with our sandwich plates and have the first bite of sandwich coincide with the first bite of the showcased dish on television.
I don't remember anyone else sitting there in the den as we bit into our sandwiches and voiced our satisfaction or complaint, if perhaps the onions hadn't been chopped finely enough. Our other siblings were probably outside running around with the neighborhood kids. I'm guessing they didn't find this activity quite as fascinating as did Jim and I.

I'm pretty sure my first words as a child were something like,"Where's the salt?" 

The first Greek words, however, that I attempted aloud, (besides the filthy stuff my husband taught me while we were dating) were also about food. It was to a group of Greek cooks in the restaurant where I worked in the early 1980s on Long Island. I had confused the words for plate and glass and asked for a glass of meat. The laughter that ensued resulted in a two-year-Greek silence, only practicing the language in my head until I attempted to communicate again, using my formal-book-taught-Greek in the rural village of Margariti. Another disaster--different story.

In those early Margariti days I was always anxious to get away from the village at the midday meal time. Each meal came with a multitude of guests. It could be very overwhelming at times. The food was placed "family-style" in the middle of the table and though I had grown up inside a family of eight--a perfect training ground for holding your own when the food is placed on the table--I was too shy to grab what I wanted and so that food-love was rarely satisfied. Only in later years when Chevi's children and grandchildren were far from the village, and my own had left me in an empty nest, did I fully realize the importance of the dining experience in Greece. It was partly a social gathering and partly a means for satiety. But mostly it was an act of love.

Chevi quietly observed me and eventually figured out what I was inclined to eat from that array of food. When she'd make certain dishes, she'd say to me, "for you." It was a very nice feeling. 
Chevi making cheese from goat's milk

Anastasia with pita
As a cook, Chevi was a perfect example of the older generation. Her baked dishes (butter beans, okra, stuffed tomatoes, eggplant . . . ) were swimming in olive oil. And incredibly tasty.

Eftihia making pita crust
She was also well-known for her pita. Pita means pie in Greek. She would roll the dough out to an almost translucent thinness and then stuff the pita with whatever fresh ingredient was available from the garden. Many times, the milk from her goats accompanied the other ingredients. I did my best to learn her cooking techniques but my results were nothing like hers or her daughters'.  

But Chevi understood the message of love delivered through these dishes. In fact, as my husband and I made our way to Greece a few summers ago, one of the last things she said before a major stroke took her, was: "I have to cook for my son . . . and for my nifi."

I'd love to hear from you!


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