“It all began on a tennis court in the late 1980s. I was co-editing a magazine for a Greek hotel chain and we were searching for someone to do a food column. It never occurred to me to write it myself. Whom to ask but my French tennis pal? 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
Editor’s Note: The first iteration of this column appeared in the May 2013 issue of Weekly Hubris, and so I am very, very happy to begin 2020 with “an anniversary update” on Diana Farr Louis’s excellent and evergreen cookbook, Prospero’s Kitchen, The Cooking of the Ionian Islands from Corfu to Kythera. Diana and I go way, way back as philhellenes and longtime residents of Greece, and we were fortunate enough to live there in the sweet, prosperous years between the postwar period and the great economic crisis, when travel writing, editing, and book publishing in general flourished.
ATHENS Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—January 2020—Twenty-five years have gone by since June Marinos and I clinked glasses over the first publication of our joint venture, Prospero’s Kitchen, The Cooking of the Ionian Islands from Corfu to Kythera. Since then, “Prospero” has been reprinted three times and we have both published other books, but I wonder if I would have had the temerity to continue and become a food as well as travel writer if she had not shown me the way.
It all began on a tennis court in the late 1980s. I was co-editing a magazine for a Greek hotel chain and since my partner and I were writing most of the articles ourselves under pseudonyms, we were searching for someone to do a food column. It never occurred to me to write it myself. Whom to ask but my French tennis pal? 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, she had indeed lived in many exotic spots, including Thailand, Ethiopia, Zaire, 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, just after 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.
After they married and were living in Athens, June made a stab at cooking Greek food. “My landlady taught me many of its mysteries, but I had to learn the hard way—cooking on a paraffin stove and drawing water from a well [which] made [meals] a lengthy process. … Everywhere I traveled in Greece, I asked questions, started collecting recipes, and made plans in my mind to write a cookery book one day.”
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 about 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 assignment 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 guide, and my husband and I had sailed around Kefalonia, Lefkada, and Ithaki with our French friend and her husband. We had even been to Kythera, but a curmudgeon amigo who considers it his island had forbidden me to write anything nice about it.
Having to describe the islands in depth brought me closer to June, too, whom I kept calling upon to update my guidebook revisions. Her expertise came at a price, though. Every time I saw her, she had the same refrain: “Let’s do a cookbook together. I’ve got so many recipes; 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!
Quite by accident, during a trip to America in the fall of ‘93, a relative put me in touch with a friend at (the late lamented) Gourmet magazine, who put me in touch with the head of a small publishing house in New York. Amazingly, a proposal scribbled in pen and ink was sufficient to arouse his interest and minutes after I dropped it off at his office, he rang back and told me to get on with it and send a proper outline from Athens.
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 who 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 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 her 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 Corfu Reading Society library on the Spiniada.
By winter, we had a contract, and I spent endless happy hours in the British School and Gennadeion libraries, in Athens, gleaning impressions of the Ionian islands under Venice and Britain, from adventurers in the 19th century to 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 Ionian recipes. Much more fun to record their praise of the locals’ unstinting hospitality while they deplored the “oil and garlic flavour which usually permeates all native cookery”—and to compare their views with descriptions by Greeks, starting with Homer.
While testing our many recipes, June revealed that she could not abide salt cod, an island staple, while I placed all responsibility for any dish involving pastry in her hands, since I cannot make even packaged pie dough perform properly.
During our collaboration, I became a frequent visitor at June and Themis’s, usually arranging to drop in around tea time, when there might be mince pies in December, and scones or delicious cakes at other times of year. But the treats were secondary; I really went to hear them talk, enthralled by their youthful approach to life, their interest in exchanging stories, their joie de vivre, and humor. Back then, I was in my early 50s, but they were a generation older, and I thought of them as an example of how to age, not gracefully, but dynamically and inspiringly.
They had both had had “exciting wars.” Indeed, Themis Marinos was a celebrated war hero and author of several books on wartime intelligence. He had even taken part in the mission to blow up the Gorgopotamos Bridge, almost the only operation in which the British and the two major opposing Greek guerrilla groups joined forces against the Nazis in the fall of 1942.
Themis’ reputation overshadowed June’s. When he died, shortly before his 102nd birthday in December 2017, most of the full-page newspaper accounts did not even mention his wife and three children. But June had served in the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) and, after the war, joined the Foreign Office, working in Luxembourg and Bulgaria, where she met Themis. And even though her career as a cookbook writer took off well after his as an economist and writer, she eventually published five more books in addition to Prospero’s Kitchen.
When Prospero’s first appeared in a simple blue and white hardback edition in the spring of 1995, 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, back then, even Greeks without roots in a specific region were almost as ignorant about local dishes as were tourists.
A year or so later, Prospero’s Kitchen was released in translation as Eptanisiaki Kouzina, another feather in our caps.
Prospero’s success 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. As she wrote in her Introduction, “From an early age I was always interested in food and travel. One of my earliest recollections was a trip with my parents to France during which I kept a notebook with a list of what I ate for every meal! My first attempt at cooking was when I was about five years old and fried pieces of potato on top of a coke boiler until they turned black!”
Two years later, another trip to Corfu for yet another guidebook produced another publisher, for a paperback edition, which sold well in the UK, Athens, and Corfu, before it went out of print. It also produced a reunion with Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, a fellow contributor to that first Penguin Guide, after her long absence from Greece.
Almost a decade later, a third publisher surfaced. Via Facebook, of all things. Bugged by Elizabeth to join and promote our columns in Weekly Hubris, which she had just launched, I had reluctantly signed up in November 2010. Maybe three weeks later, a friend request popped into my message box; the first time it had been dumped in spam along with a few lascivious come-ons from strangers.
“Hello from J at IB Tauris. One of our staff found your book in Corfu while on holiday and we’re wondering whether you’d like to reprint with us.”
This was a knock your socks off invitation like the phone call from Penguin way back when. The kind of question that doesn’t need repeating.
The text and drawings would remain unchanged. They would need only a new Introduction from us and they’d insert a judicious number of color photos of the Ionians and give Prospero a new cover.
This third edition of Prospero’s Kitchen looks good enough to eat, and, as one friend said at the time, “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.
In addition to Odyssey, June went on to publish three more regional cookbooks, A Taste of the Cyclades, A Taste of Crete, A Taste of the Ionian Islands and, finally, in 2004, her paean to the eggplant: Aubergines, 122 Recipes from around the World from Ancient Times to Today. She dedicated it to her patient family, who had to eat their way through all of them, reaching the point “when they just couldn’t face another aubergine!”
At 95, June is no longer cooking much less writing cookbooks, but this anniversary year is a fine time to remember the fun we had collaborating and not, her endless good humor, and her indefatigable interest in good food and good stories. Thanks for getting me started, dearest June, and thanks to dear Elizabeth for creating Weekly Hubris ten years ago, insisting I contribute a food column, and keeping it going through thick and thin since then.
At our presentation in the spring of 2013 at a bookshop in Kifissia, near where we live, June and I made three of our favorite dishes, taramosalata, feta dip with garlic, and eggplant baked with garlic. For the fourth, we chose an appetizer that rang no bells with 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, if you have leftovers.
Marinated Mushrooms/Manitaria Marinata
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
Saute 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. Saute the shrooms 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 are by Penny Marinos.
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