Eating Well Is The Best Revenge
By Diana Farr Louis
“When I was young, growing up on Long Island, my father used to bring home The New York World-Telegram and Sun when he came back from his Wall Street office in the evening. Every Christmas season, I looked forward to rereading their holiday column, ‘Is There a Santa Claus?’ a tradition begun in 1897. And now, thanks to Weekly Hubris, I like reading my husband’s Christmas reminiscences over and over again. I hope you do, too.”—Diana Farr Louis
ATHENS Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—December 2017—Crises bring up memories of other crises, and this country has had more than its share in the past hundred years: world wars, Balkan wars, a civil war, dictatorships, and financial upheavals. But there have also been times of relative calm and prosperity, so let’s look back to the kinder, gentler Athens of the 1930s for a dose of Christmas cheer.
These are the reminiscences of my husband Harilaos, known to some of you as “Joy of the People,” a rough translation of his name. As a very youthful octogenarian, he does not live in the past, but I compel him to tell his stories over and over. So, in his own words . . .
“Before the war—I mean World War II—schools operated on a fixed schedule quite different from today’s. They began the year on October 1st and ended on the 25th of June. There were no strikes, no sit-ins, no holidays, and we didn’t even get Saturdays off. The Christmas vacation did not start until noon on December 24th, and we were sent away with homework so that we would not become lazy. When school opened again on January 7th, we would have to present our notebooks. We also had to read a book by a modern Greek author and write down our thoughts on his plot and style.
“My habit was to do the whole 15 days’ work as soon as I got home so I’d have the rest of the holiday free for seeing friends, going to the movies, and a few parties. I’d shut myself up in my room on Christmas Eve and try to do all the work in one day, two at the most.
“But I never reckoned on the head of the household. Who happened to be my father. His name was Christos. Christmas was his name-day and he took that event very seriously. [In Greece name-days are major social events, much more important than birthdays. People used to open up their houses and prepare banquets for all their friends. And, up until the past few decades, New Year’s was the day for exchanging presents, brought by Ai Vassilis (St Basil, not Santa Claus or St. Nick).]
“Just as I was getting settled, my father would pull me out of my chair to take me Christmas shopping. Not for presents, but for food. Because the next day the house would be full from morning to evening with dozens of friends, relatives, and acquaintances come to wish him “Chronia Polla!”—the standard Greek greeting of “Many Years!”—used on any and all occasions. That naturally meant mezedes, oceans of wine, and kitchen preparations. The evening was reserved for a big sit-down dinner for his business colleagues.
“Wine in our house was a sacred ritual. In the basement, there were three or four—I can’t remember exactly how many—enormous barrels which, every September, were filled with grape must brought from The Mesogeia (where the airport now reigns); first by horse-drawn cart and, by 1935, in an open truck. From then on, my brother Alekos was in charge. He was studying chemistry at Athens University and it was his responsibility to make sure the wine was good. I remember his agony every October 26th, St. Demetrios’s day when traditionally the spigot was inserted and the wine tasted for quality.
“The beginning was always dubious, the first weeks fraught with anxiety because the wine always appeared a bit cloudy. By Christmas, though, things had improved and the crystal-clear wine was invariably pronounced the best ever.
“Here again, my father had another peculiarity. The wine always had to be served one pitcher or bottle at a time. He maintained it would spoil, even though he and his friends would empty them almost as fast as they were served. How the wine could have spoiled in half an hour I never discovered. But I was the one dispatched to the cellar to fill the bottle and, when that was finished, to go fill another. And so forth . . . .
“But, back to the Christmas Eve shopping expedition. Our first stop was the so-called German baker’s on Voulis Street, for bread and rolls. After loading me up with a cloth bagful—plastic hadn’t been invented, yet—my father and I walked over to the Central Market on Athinas Street for vegetables, fruit, and meat.
“Here, things became problematic, because the amounts were so large. But there was a solution, a porter—in the absence of delivery vans—who would carry everything back to the house. These men wore big wicker baskets on their backs, attached by thick straps.
“My father would lead the way, choosing okades—the oka was a Turkish measure a bit larger than the kilo—of vegetables and salad greens, tangerines, oranges, apples, and pears for the porter’s basket. To them, he would add a whole lamb, an enormous turkey, and a piglet. I would bring up the rear with my bag of breads. And, when the shopping was finished, the procession would walk the few blocks home.
“My father gave the porter an extra tip and, if I remember well, settled him in the kitchen for a quick meze and a glass or two of wine in honor of the occasion.
“This was the start of a three-day celebration. On Christmas Eve, we usually sat down to a vast sinagrida (an excellent fish of the bream family) from Salamis. Christmas lunch was a family affair, with my grandmother, parents, my oldest brother and his wife, Alekos, and me. At the same time, all morning, dozens of friends and relatives had dropped in to wish my father “Chronia Polla!” and they’d be greeted with bowls of red caviar, thick slices of avgotaraho, endless platters of more ordinary mezedes such as tiny wrapped vine leaves, keftedes, bite-sized spinach pies . . . and endless bottles of wine.
“After lunch, the older family members retired for a nap and to recover and I, who was too young to drink, went off to the movies with friends. In those days, there were eight cinemas to choose from; only one was off limits because of its shady reputation.
“Along with all the special festivities at home, there was another invisible group backstage. Some of these kept the show going—the cook and the maid—plus the cook’s husband, who lived with us. Then there was a trio of poor women, who just happened to pass by every day around lunch time. They naturally were fed as a matter of course. Added to them were a dispossessed woman from Constantinople who supposedly taught me English, and a charming, impoverished Greek aristocrat (whom we called Bibikos) from Marseille who taught me French. In other words, six extra plates on the table were routine.
“It was a sign of the times that all of us considered this practice absolutely normal and we viewed it as our unquestionable duty to help less fortunate individuals to survive. We were something like a Municipal Soup Kitchen during the holidays. The difference was that, in our case, it lasted all year long. Little did we suspect that in just a few years we would ourselves be sitting round the table with a meager portion of greens and 30 drams (one slice) of cornbread to nibble on.
“Christmas night, the curtain went up again, this time for my father’s business associates. They used to come for the festive table which, after dinner, was cleared for a game of baccarat. This would go on until 2 or 3 in the morning, and most often it was my father who emerged the loser.
“These unrepeatable Christmases of my youth were brought to an end by the War and the Occupation. After liberation in 1944, our former customs slowly began to revive, but they never regained the spirit or lavishness of the old days. Christmas remained a warm family gathering around the table as gradually all of us married and had children. To the point that, in the 50s, when my father cut the New Year’s Cake (which, like the British Christmas pudding, traditionally has a coin for good luck embedded in it,) he had to cut 15 slices instead of the former seven. This was the high point of the meal as we waited to see who would get the coin. Everyone accused my mother of deliberately manipulating the cake to make sure a child won it.
“That too was a time of pure enjoyment and happiness, though of a different sort.”
Author’s Note: As a special seasonal gift to my readers, I am including recipes here for two delectable Greek Christmas sweets: the traditional Christmas, or New Year’s Cake, Vassilopitta, and Honey Cookies, Melomakarona. Chronia Polla!
“Greek New Year’s Cake/Vassilopitta”
The use of olive oil rather than butter in this cake from eastern Crete is unusual here—it is not a fasting recipe—but it does not make the cake taste “oily.” Instead, it has a light, spongy texture and a delicate flavor. Any leftovers will make delicious rusks (just slice and leave in the oven at a very low temperature, turning once until both sides are hard).
600 grams (4 Cups) unsifted flour, approximately
3 teaspoons baking powder
400 grams (2 Cups) sugar
120 ml (½ Cup) olive oil
grated peel of 1 lemon
grated peel of 2 oranges
120 ml (½ Cup) milk
120 ml (½ Cup) orange juice
60 ml (¼ Cup) fresh lemon juice
3 eggs, at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F)
Sift the flour and baking powder together and set aside. Beat the olive oil and sugar together in a bowl at high speed together with the grated orange and lemon peel for 3-4 minutes. Add the other liquids and beat for another 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well each time. Stir in the sifted flour gradually with a wooden spoon until smooth. You should have a thick batter.
Lightly oil a cake tin, about 25 cm (9.5 inches) in diameter, pour in the batter and bake for about 1 ½ hours until lightly browned.
“Akrivi’s Christmas Cookies/Melomakarona”
Every Greek housewife makes melomakarona for Christmas. These, from Akrivi Mouzouraki, proprietress of the Albatross Taverna at Gournes near Iraklion, Crete, are special; she stuffs them with chopped walnuts. It is the syrup that makes them sweet; if your sweet tooth is not as pronounced, you can omit it and still have delicious cookies.
For the dough:
about 450 grams (3-4 Cups) all purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
240 ml (1 Cup) olive oil
50 grams (¼ Cup) sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda diluted in
120 ml (½ Cup) fresh orange juice
60 ml (¼ Cup) brandy
grated peel of one lemon
Sift the flour with the baking powder into a bowl. In a larger bowl beat together the olive oil and sugar with the electric mixer for 3 or 4 minutes and then beat in the other liquids adding the grated lemon peel at the end. Slowly stir in the flour until a soft dough forms. Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it on a lightly floured surface until it is smooth and malleable. Add more flour if the dough seems sticky. Cover with Saran Wrap and set aside to rest for about 30 minutes.
½ kg (1 lb) walnuts, coarsely chopped
3 heaping Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F)
Mix all these ingredients together with your hands or a wooden spoon to distribute the spices evenly. Pinch off a walnut sized piece of dough and roll it into a ball. Make a hole in it with your thumb and fill it with some of the walnut mixture. Close the hole and place the ball, which should look like a small egg, onto an ungreased cookie sheet. When you’ve shaped all the dough into biscuits, bake for about 30 minutes or until golden.
150 grams (¾ Cup) sugar
120 ml (½ Cup) honey
120 ml (½ Cup) water
60 ml (¼ Cup) brandy
Boil these ingredients together for 3 minutes, skimming off the foam. Dip the biscuits in the syrup when it has thoroughly cooled or the next day. Sprinkle finely ground walnuts and roasted sesame seeds on top. Makes about 2-3 dozen, depending on how large you want them.
To order copies of Diana’s Farr Louis’ newest book, A Taste of Greece: Recipes, Cuisine & Culture, from Amazon, click on the book cover below.