Eating Well Is The Best Revenge
By Diana Farr Louis
“My brother thought he’d died and gone to heaven, for most of our friends were his age and female. I was sometimes restless, aching to see a few of the famous antiquities, wondering about the charms of other islands, but he refused to budge: Why look at old stones? Where would we find anything better than what we have here?” Diana Farr Louis
In those days, 50 years ago, Marinette was not even a close friend. She was two classes below me at college, where we ate in the same dorm and occasionally met up with a bunch of Greek fellow students at the Acropolis Taverna, a few blocks away on Mass Ave.
By the end of my final year at Radcliffe, I was thinking of nothing except getting away, snuggling with my boyfriend in England, and driving from Paris to Greece with my younger brother. We were going to spend the whole summer hopping the Greek islands and Eric would join me in September for the drive back.
It had been a strange and lonely year, for all my dearest friends as well as Eric had graduated, and I’d been forced to find new companions. One week after leaving high school, I’d been in a near fatal car crash. Instead of entering college that fall, I’d spent six months dangling in traction in the Mass General Hospital and did not walk without crutches until the following June. But because I already knew so many girls and boys in the class of ’62 and older, when I finally got to Radcliffe, I naturally gravitated towards them and their buddies, neglecting my own classmates.
That winter, Greece was just beginning to attract attention in Cambridge. We flocked to Michael Cacoyiannis’s stark tragedies, “Elektra” and “Antigone,” and watched Irene Papas’s black eyes flash in defiance against a background of bare hills and eroded columns. Some friends—pioneers—had even been to Greece, returning with romantic tales of country people who looked like gods and lived with gusto amidst scenery of unimaginable beauty. I made up my mind to go, with no fixed itinerary and enough money in the bank to buy a Beetle and treat my brother, too. The insurance money, so long in coming, had finally been awarded to us.
I took note of Marinette’s island. Spetses. Not a familiar name. By then, we had heard of Mykonos, the Colossus of Rhodes, “Ariadne auf Naxos,” Crete and Corfu, as well as a few mainland sites from mythology. I had no idea where Spetses was, and promptly forgot about it.
So eager was I to see Eric that I fled Cambridge without even attending the graduation rites. After a couple of weeks in London, my brother Woody joined me and we went together to Paris, picked up my pre-ordered VW, and headed south. First stop in Dijon, the hotel assumed we were a couple and we had an awkward night in a double bed, with a blanket rolled between us for safety’s sake. Afterwards, we always made sure to specify twin beds.
Lausanne, Modena and Trieste followed before we reached Yugoslavia. Somewhere along the line, Woody procured an impressive butcher’s knife, “Just in case some would-be rapist is taken by your long blond hair.”
We never used it for anything more exciting than slicing salami for picnic lunches. But I did have fantasies about those elegant, black-clad Montenegrin shepherds standing like storks on one leg by the roadside; they lived up to their reputation as the handsomest men in Europe.
I have dim memories of nearly empty, gym-sized restaurants with no atmosphere, indecipherable menus that led to meals of two soups, bleak hotel rooms without hot water, and the ubiquitous portrait of Marshal Tito.
Woody reminded me recently of how uncomfortably close we got to that portrait once after a brush with a guy on a bicycle—he’d wobbled into our car on one of those roads originally designed for cows that zigzagged gently and interminably up grassy hills. Somehow, the police appeared as we stood wrangling and herded us all back to town. Using who knows what language, I agreed to pay for the bike—luckily the man was uninjured—and we were released. Much chastened, we pressed on to Greece with even greater urgency.
Funnily, though we could see that Split, Dubrovnik, and the Adriatic coast were beautiful and probably fascinating, we were not tempted to spend more than one night anywhere. We rushed by Sarajevo’s minarets and Pristina’s grimy souks, startled by the baggy pants and headscarves of our first Muslims, but unwilling to give them more than a cursory look.
When we finally hurtled across the border into Greece, we felt our spirits lift. We passed a caravan of brightly painted oxcarts, loaded with ruddy-faced peasants riding home from the fields. They shouted and waved and we did, too. Hurrah, we’d made it. Now the fun could start.
I have no recollection of the drive between northern Macedonia and Athens, but we found a room at the Royal Hotel, which boasted a view of the Acropolis, between Plaka and Syntagma. That was as close as we got. My brother, no doubt exhausted from having to defend my honor during our long drive, turned philistine. No, he did not want to see the Parthenon, or the museums, or even rummage in the junk shops of Monastiraki.
“What was that island where your friend lives?”
Spetses turned out to be fairly close. Five hours’ boat ride away; a blip off the fourth, stubby finger of the Peloponnese.
We arrived in Dappia, its small, horseshoe-shaped port, in the early evening, greeted by a host of locals advertising rooms for the night. We chose a kindly old man with a cane and worry beads, whose room came to a dollar per night; 15 drachmas per bed. Its price reflected its distance up a steep street above the port, the simplicity of the accommodation and, regrettably, the virtual absence of any plumbing—the loo was a hole in the ground in an outhouse, flushed by a bucket. But we soon learned of the marble facilities in the posh Poseidonion Hotel in town, and adjusted to our humble dwelling.
Finding Marinette took longer. Few houses had telephones in those days and no one I asked had ever heard of Marinette Sulzberger. Even when I pronounced it Soultzbairgair. But one kiosk owner had sound advice: “Just wait in one of the cafés in Dappia and sooner or later she will come.”
Every morning we had a leisurely breakfast there—a pat of butter surrounded by a pool of honey, a basket of fresh, crusty bread, thick yogurt with skin on it, and Nescafé served in lustrous pink cups—at tables balancing on a pebble mosaic floor behind a battery of old cannon used in the War of Independence. I later learned that Dappia means “fortified place” in Turkish. In the evening, we’d take an aperitif there—an ouzo, perhaps, or a “koniaki” (cognac) and soda, or a TamTam (the Greek equivalent of Coke, which was banned in Greece at the time)—with the Englishman who shared our digs.
But we couldn’t nail ourselves to a chair all day, so we’d venture to a close beach, take a caïque to swim at Kosta on the mainland, examine the side streets around the port. One afternoon, we set off along the coast road towards the Old Harbor, past enormous white houses set atop blank walls that held cisterns. Rounding a corner, we heard American voices. They belonged to four teenagers—three Greek sisters who’d grown up on Long Island, as we had, and their cousin who’d lived in Canada—sanding a dinghy.
We became instant friends and, of course, they knew Marinette.
That evening, our third in Dappia, she herself appeared before our table, brown eyes sparkling, black hair glistening. “So, you’ve come! Welcome to my island.” She kissed us on both cheeks in the Greek manner and, from that moment on, our place in Spetses social life was a given.
We were invited on picnics, and to lunch parties, and barbecues; we met up every evening with the jeunesse dorée—young multilingual Greeks or half & halfs from England, Switzerland, France, and Athens. We laughed at kitsch outdoor movies, danced in the open at the Blueberry Hill disco, watched guitarists perform at the Karnagio nightclub while lounging for free on its arched roof, and talked about everything under the moon, from Seferis’s poetry to the quality of the sea urchins that day.
Woody thought he’d died and gone to heaven, for most of our friends were his age and female. I was sometimes restless, aching to see a few of the famous antiquities, wondering about the much touted charms of other islands, but he refused to budge: “Why look at old stones? Where would we find anything better than what we have here?”
After about a month, I got my way. I pried him out of his comfort zone and dragged Woody to Athens to see the Parthenon—he consented because we could go at night under the full moon—and on to Mykonos. I promised we’d come right back. And we did. After three days of being blasted by a stiff meltemi, eating sand with our breakfast eggs, and sleeping on the youth hostel’s gritty, damp sheets, even I was longing for Spetses.
Most important, we were just anonymous tourists on Mykonos; on Spetses, we belonged. There we had what the Greeks call a “parea,” a bunch of steadfast, inseparable friends.
Eventually, Woody left to go back to his second year at Tulane, and I went off to Crete for a week. But I soon returned to Spetses, moving in with three other ex-Radcliffe girls until Eric’s arrival. We were known collectively, among the “grown-ups,” as the Radcliffe nymphets.
On the day before Eric was due, Marinette’s Uncle Alexi hired a caïque and took the four of us swimming.
Thirteen months later, I met him again in Paris and, the following June, back in New York, I became Marinette’s aunt.
What made Greece so tantalizing? I had spent happy summers in England, Spain, and Italy, living among the natives there, too. I’ve attempted to analyze the reasons many times since, and all the usual platitudes apply—kindness, kefi (joie de vivre), hospitality, beauty, the visible layers of history, the Aegean, the olive trees, the light, the air, the tomatoes, and so much more—but I always give up. They simply combined to make me feel “at home.”
Note: This column is dedicated to Marinette, for issuing that invitation and not being appalled when I showed up; to Woody, for knowing a good thing when he saw it; to Frosso, one of those Greek sisters from Long Island, who has been a dear friend ever since; and, of course, to Spetses, for being a small, magical island, where no one remained a stranger for long.
One of the foods I was introduced to that summer was keftedes or keftedakia, little fried meatballs that are crunchy on the outside, light on the inside, and delicately flavored with mint and ouzo. Woody and I were crazy about them. They are to Greeks what hamburgers are to Americans: a national staple that never goes out of fashion.
1 cup soft bread crumbs
1 lb ground beef (have the butcher grind it twice)
1 small onion, grated
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
½ cup finely chopped parsley
¼ cup finely chopped mint
2 Tbsp ouzo
1 Tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
Flour for dredging
Olive oil for frying
Soak the bread crumbs in half water, half vinegar to cover for a few minutes, squeeze them as dry as you can, and put them in a bowl with the meat and other ingredients.
Knead the mixture for several minutes and set aside, if you have time, covered, in the refrigerator. This will give the seasonings time to mellow.
When ready to fry, shape the mixture into walnut-sized balls. Pour some flour onto a plate and roll the balls in the flour one by one to coat thoroughly.
Heat about half a cup of oil in a large frying pan until sizzling and fry the balls in batches. Do not overcrowd or try to cook them all at once. Turn once and when browned, lift out with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. (Each batch should take about 5 minutes. Turn down the heat if they seem to be burning.)
One traditional and beloved companion to keftedes is french fried potatoes—if you don’t mind having two frying pans going at once.
Makes about 25 meatballs
Variation: I like to add a Tbsp of cumin to these, while other cooks add oregano.
Baking: If I can’t bear the thought of a stovetop spattered with oil, I bake these. Preheat the oven to 400° F, put them on a pan lined with foil and cook, turning once, until they are lightly browned and well done inside. Keftedes should not be rare. It’s not Greek, but I find a drop of soy sauce on each one adds to the flavor and makes them moister.