“It all began on a tennis court in the late 80s. I was co-editing a magazine for a Greek hotel chain and, since we were writing most of the articles ourselves under pseudonyms, we were searching for someone to do a food column. Whom to ask but my French tennis partner? You can always rely on a ‘Frog’ to be in the know where cuisine is concerned. Immediately, she shouted back over the net, ‘The eggplant lady!’” Diana Farr Louis
Eating Well Is The Best Revenge
By Diana Farr Louis
ATHENS Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—5/27/2013—Last year, Prospero’s Kitchen, a collection of stories, customs, not to mention recipes from the Ionian islands, experienced its fourth incarnation, no small feat for any book.
Last week a new bookshop in Kifissia, a northern suburb of Athens, Greece, offered to host a “delicious book presentation” to celebrate this event. June Marinos, my co-author, and I chose a few of our favorite dishes to entice our guests into coming and buying our cookbook. Before we served them, they had to sit through a short history of Prospero’s origins and subsequent career.
It all began on a tennis court in the late 80s. I was co-editing a magazine for a Greek hotel chain and, since we were writing most of the articles ourselves under pseudonyms, we were searching for someone to do a food column. Whom to ask but my French tennis partner? You can always rely on a “Frog” to be in the know where cuisine is concerned. Immediately, she shouted back over the net, “The eggplant lady!”
This mysterious person turned out to be an English woman named June Marinos, who was gathering recipes for a cookbook tentatively titled “Around the World with the Eggplant.” With her economist husband, Themis, she had indeed lived in many exotic spots, including Thailand, Ethiopia, and Iran, but she had also made a point of sitting in kitchens on Themis’s home island of Zakynthos since their wedding in 1951. In those days, in the immediate aftermath of ten years of war and civil war, Greece had no flesh on its bones so it was an ideal time for listening to stories and watching how her in-laws and their friends drew on customs and traditions when putting food on the table.
By the time I met her, June had collected hundreds of recipes and even produced a tiny, literally palm-sized booklet on the cooking of Zakynthos. Meanwhile, I was becoming a professional travel writer. I’d done a guidebook on the Ionian islands for a Greek publisher, which led to a thrilling phone call out of the blue from New York. The voice on the other end asked if I’d be willing to contribute chapters to the Penguin Guide to Greece. Back in the days when long-distance was a rarity, that was the kind of call that causes you to sit down and gasp, “What?”
The new job also led to an invitation from June and Themis to visit them that summer on Zakynthos, the only one of the so-called Seven Islands I didn’t know. I was already quite familiar with Corfu and Paxos from working on the previous book, and my husband and I had sailed around Kefalonia, Lefkada, and Ithaki with our French friend and her husband. We had even been to Kythira, but a curmudgeon pal who considers it his island had forbidden me to write anything nice about it.
Nevertheless, all the Ionian islands were beginning to work their charm on me. They are not blue-and-white and barren like those in the Aegean, but softer, greener, and colorful, with walls painted ochre, terra cotta, pink, and hyacinth blue. Situated, as they are, on the west side of Greece, they look towards Italy, which influenced their culture much more than the mainland. In fact, when I first went to Corfu, horrifyingly long ago in 1963, I found it not nearly Greek enough after my summer in the Aegean. More than two decades later, my definition of Greekness had broadened and I could love the Western isles for their differences. These were not merely geographical but derived from four centuries of Venetian occupation, 50 years of British rule and, unlike the rest of Greece, not a day of life under the Ottomon Turks.
Having to describe them in depth brought me closer to June, too, whom I kept calling upon to update my guide book revisions. Her expertise came at a price, though. Every time I’d see her, she had the same refrain: “Let’s do a cookbook together. I’ve got so many recipes, and you write about the islands already. We’ll be a good team.” She would, well not exactly, nag, but she was as hooked on the subject as a cat that wants its dinner.
And thank goodness.
It happened, quite by accident, that during a trip to America in the fall of 93, my cousin Sims asked my husband, “And what is Diana up to these days?” If he’d asked me, the answer might have been different. “Well,” said Harilaos, “I think she’s contemplating a cookbook about the Ionian islands.”
“Aha,” said Sims. “Maybe I can help. A friend is on the board of Gourmet magazine. She’ll probably know about publishers.”
And so, I got in touch with Terry Weeks and she gave me the name of one George deKay, who ran a small publishing house in New York. With only a day or two before our return to Greece, we didn’t meet but, he said, “Write me a proposal and I’ll let you know.”
I scribbled off something and dropped it off at his office. Wonder, upon wonders, he rang back at once and told me to get on with it. He’d need a proper outline from Athens but was very interested.
The next months passed in a flurry of excitement. Vindicated, June took charge of Zakynthos and Kefalonia, and I flew off to Corfu. It was November, and it was raining, sheets of water, as only Corfu can produce. I stayed with an acquaintance named Christopher Lavranos, who was more English than an Old Etonian but also considered himself an aristocrat with roots in the Byzantine Empire. Thinking to help me get started on my research, he introduced me to another aristocrat, Lady Marjorie Holmes, who was better known as a gardener and pillar of the local Anglican Church.
Lady Holmes looked at me frostily. “I have a friend who’s doing a cookbook on Corfu. Why should I help you?”
After we established that her friend was my partner, June, the ice melted and I spent several very profitable hours in the kitchen with her cook. Other friends of friends came up with more recipes and stories and, when I wasn’t meeting people, I was devouring old books in the elegant Reading Society Library on Kerkyra town’s famed Spianada.
By winter, we had a contract, and I spent endless happy hours in Athens at the British School and Gennadeion libraries, gleaning impressions of the Ionian islands under Venice and Britain from adventurers in the 19th century and as far back as 1682. For the stories they told complemented their reactions to the food they were eating, and June and I both knew we did not want a mere catalogue of island recipes. Much more fun to record their praise of the locals’ unstinting hospitality while they deplored the “oil and garlic flavor which usually permeates all native cookery.” And to compare their views with descriptions by Greeks, beginning with Homer.
Spring brought another visit to Corfu, meetings with islanders in Athens, lots of writing, and lots of recipe testing. I discovered that June could not abide salt cod, while she had to be responsible for any dish involving pastry, since I cannot make even packaged pie dough perform properly.
Meanwhile, I had joined a writers’ group at Judy Lawrence Blish’s home in Athens, and our multi-talented hostess volunteered to illustrate the book.
Finally, we sent off the manuscript and, before too long, Prospero’s Kitchen, Mediterranean Dishes from Corfu to Kythera, flew back across the Atlantic in a simple blue-and-white hardback edition. The name, by the way, came to me after re-reading Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell and, as we say in our introduction: “Prospero’s Kitchen is dedicated to the delightful and hospitable people of all these islands and the magical memory of their bygone days and ways, evoked so beguilingly by Lawrence Durrell . . . If, as he and his cronies liked to imagine, Corfu really is the island of Shakespeare’s sorcerer, these are the dishes his spirits would have cooked.”
For a while, June and I basked in glory. The book got good reviews and we were proud that two foreign women had written the first Greek regional cookbook. Nowadays, when Cretan, Epirot, Cycladic, and Macedonian specialties and tavernas are commonplace, it’s hard to remember that fewer than 20 years ago, even Greeks without roots in a specific region were almost as ignorant as tourists about local dishes. We had our book launch at Timos Petrides’s Kalliste Restaurant in Athens, the first to promote regional foods.
A year or so later, Prospero’s Kitchen was released in translation as Eptanisiaki Kouzina, another feather in our caps.
After that, our problems began. I should have been forewarned. The name deKay was a harbinger of broken promises. We could not order our books, even with a good friend at the helm of Athens’ biggest distribution agency. Faxes, emails, and phone calls went unanswered. Finally, a cold letter arrived from deKay, reporting that he had trashed the books, dumping them in the remainders market. He could give no reason and, when I sent a New York friend to investigate, he could only tell her, incredibly, that he “had taken against the book.” (!)
We were crushed, but Prospero’s initial success had already pushed us to create more cookbooks, separately this time. June was first, with her very popular Odyssey into Greek Cooking, printed in 97, the year I started research on my Cretan cookbook. In 1999, another trip to Corfu for yet another guide book produced another publisher. Again, Marjorie Holmes was the catalyst, introducing me to Hilary Whitton Païpeti at a lunch in her garden.
A Corfiot by marriage, Hilary was a British writer, editor, and publisher, and I poured out my sorrows and disgust at Prospero’s fate. She said we should self-publish, but I resisted and, in the end, we funded the printing of a paperback edition jointly. It sold well in the UK, Athens, and on Corfu, before she too stopped answering calls and emails, and the book went out of print.
Almost a decade passed before IB Tauris came into our lives. Via Facebook, of all things. Bugged by my dear editor to join and promote our Weekly Hubris columns, I had reluctantly signed up in November 2010. Perhaps three weeks later, a friend request popped into my message box; the first time received it had been dumped into spam along with a few lascivious come-ons sent by total strangers.
“Hello from J at IB Tauris. One of our staff found your book on Corfu while on holiday and we’re wondering whether you’d like to reprint with us.”
This was a knock-your-socks-off call such as the long-ago one from Penguin, and it posed the kind of question that doesn’t need repeating.
The text and Judy’s drawings would remain unchanged. They would just need a new introduction from us and they’d insert a judicious number of color photos of the Ionian and give Prospero a new cover.
This time around, Prospero’s Kitchen looks good enough to eat but, as my friend, the former distributor, said as I was writing this, “The book is a classic. It will never go out of fashion, but should just keep selling, slowly but steadily.”
Not bad for a project that began on a tennis court.
June and I made three of our favorite dishes, taramosalata, feta dip with garlic, and eggplant baked with garlic (see my column of 8/13/2012). For the fourth, we chose an appetiser that rang no bells for either of us. Where had it come from? What did it taste like? To find out, we decided to risk it and discovered another potential favorite. It is typically Ionian, permeated with garlic. A modern creation, these mushrooms—marinated in lemon juice and mixed with a rich tomato sauce—turned out to be delicious, and absolutely perfect with pasta, which I cooked up at home after the book presentation.
Marinated Mushrooms/Manitaria Marinata from Zakynthos
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 lb (500 g) fresh ripe tomatoes, halved and grated, skins discarded
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon rosemary
salt and pepper to taste
2 lb (1 kg) fresh cultivated mushrooms, wiped clean, stems discarded
2-3 tbsp lemon juice
Sauté the onion in half the olive oil until soft and golden. Add the tomatoes, garlic, rosemary, salt, and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, until the liquid evaporates and you have a thick sauce. Depending on the size of the -shrooms, cut in halves or quarters. Pour the lemon juice over them, toss with your fingers, and leave for at least 10 minutes. Sauté the mushrooms in the remaining olive oil until they suck back at least part of their liquid. Add to the sauce and simmer for 10 more minutes. Good hot or cold.
Note: All photos by Penny Marinos.