I am nothing without my Greek mother. It’s the reason why I created a cookbook based on all my mama’s Greek food recipes. My Big Fat Greek Cookbook is my love letter to her for the sacrifices she made to give us siblings the life she never had.
“I love you, my son,” never rolled off my mother’s tongue because she just wasn’t brought up to express herself that way. But her succulent comfort food, prepared with such unwavering focus, speaks volumes. The cookbook is a testament to the meme of food as love: feeding her family – my father, my three siblings, and me, the youngest – is the most meaningful way for mama to convey her devotion to us.
So for one year I braved a series of intense hands-on cooking demos with her, my baba and my sister, to capture an oral history of her gastronomical treasure trove, and I took some abuse along the way: “Teaspoon? What teaspoon? I go with my gut! Back off and just watch me, kiddo!”
Despite growing up in abject poverty, mama developed a wickedly beautiful and unusual connection to food. During the Nazi occupation of Greece from 1941 to 1944, she and her birth family assisted the local Greek resistance fighters by delivering home-cooked meals to their mountain hideouts. And after the war, she and her younger sister Dina travelled the country toiling on factory farms, sending all their measly earnings back home to feed her destitute family. My mother grew up fast into a bold and sly woman, dubbed “the Spitfire” by friends and family alike.
My father on the other hand, being the loveable conservative man that he is, always tried to burst my mama’s bubble by quickly sending their dinner guests on their way well before dessert was even served. Unlike her, who always thrives on entertaining, my baba just doesn’t like investing the effort to cook for others, nor the noise and laughter that goes with it. Probably because he owned a couple of restaurants himself, so that really zapped any real love for cooking he ever had. And I can’t blame him. They simply couldn’t be a more mismatched couple. But it worked. She was always a funny bird, my mama. One of a kind.
Matter of fact, my siblings and I learned our mischievous ways from my Greek mama. Like the time on Devil’s Night (Montreal, October 30, 1982) when she bought us dozens of fresh eggs from the local grocer so we can toss them on our neighbor’s (house) that she despised so much. A liberal at heart, she’s extremely open-minded, which completely contrasts her Greek Orthodox religious fervor. So no matter what color, creed, or sexual orientation, she welcomed strangers into her home from all walks of life, and more importantly, she never judged anyone. Why? She simply lived for kitchen-table visits from hungry guests just for the pleasure of seeing them stuff their bellies with her exceptional fare until they couldn’t eat any more.
Now, My Big Fat Greek Cookbook is the antithesis of those trendy Mediterranean diets, because most Greeks simply don’t eat that way. And certainly not the Greeks of the diaspora, which numbers more than six million people. We were brought up eating meat, stewed veggies, potatoes – big, hearty, simple meals from ingredients that my mama grew or raised herself. Freshness and intense flavor are key in this book. Those qualities mama knew well and loved, so they’re the basis of what she prepared for us as a family, wanting her kids to grow up “healthy and strong” as she had.
Her recipes are what I call “legit rustic mountain village peasant food.” My family is from Arcadia, Greece and that’s what I’m highlighting here: the life of the simple shepherd. It’s the life idealized by Romantic poets like Lord Byron, Shelley, Keats. Nature. Pasture. Utopia. Where the wilderness is unspoiled and the mountainous landscape so vast, it forces you to connect with the bounty that is… life. Not a single resident of my baba’s town has ever died of cancer, nor of heart disease. If you walk through the town’s cemetery, the average age of death is 95. It’s isolated as hell. The mountain roads are treacherous. Cell service is difficult, Wi-Fi non-existent. And the friends who I bring along for my yearly summer visits never want to leave. This is exactly the feeling and emotion my family and I have captured in this book.
My Big Fat Greek Cookbook is bigger than my mama and me. It’s our family’s gift to the world. So pull up a dining chair and join me on my journey sharing all of my mama’s delicious recipes, while bringing to light the real food history of the Greek working class recipes.