“Cucina Povera,” Revisited

Diana Farr Louis

I also remember the tales of my mother-in-law, my first husband’s mother. Dora Lada, known to the family as Dodo, was born in 1900. She brought up her two children on her own, after her husband died of something preventable not long after the Stock Market crash of ’29. Dodo did not resemble the eponymous extinct bird in any respect. She spoke five languages fluently, spelled atrociously in all of them, knew all about plants, and could make an elegant lady in a ball gown from a poppy bud—to the delight of small children. When I met her in the early 60s, she had already decided that swimming apparel was undignified, so I never actually saw her fish for octopus. Apparently, though, she would lie on the surface wearing a mask and snorkel, with her voluminous bathing skirt floating around her, and jiggle a line at the end of which was a white hankie wrapped around a stone.Diana Farr Louis

Eating Well Is The Best Revenge

By Diana Farr Louis

Dodo with her catch of the day. (Louis family photo.)

Dodo with her catch of the day. (Louis family photo.)

Diana Farr Louis

ATHENS Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—(First Published on February 27, 2012)—Cucina povera, the Italian expression meaning the Cuisine of the Poor, is starting to have a new ring to it here in Greece. In times of plenty—in other words, yesterday—it meant the inspired cooking of times gone by, when meat was scarce, eggs were barter tokens, and a chicken in every pot was wishful thinking.

We didn’t give it much thought as we piled our daily steaks, roasts and free-range chickens into our shopping carts, and reached for the French cheeses, Belgian chocolates, and Argentinian asparagus. Of course, we nodded at tradition from time to time. Most Greeks love their mothers’ stuffed tomatoes, oil-stewed vegetables, lentil soup, keftedes (meat balls) . . . there’s a long list.

But with our incomes in free fall and our taxes skyrocketing, it may not be long before even these wonderful, healthy, low-cost dishes become luxuries, out of reach for many families.

Already, for some old-timers, this crisis feels like the early days of the Nazi Occupation (1941 to 1944, in case you’re too young to know). Not because there are food shortages. On the contrary, supermarket shelves and bins bulge with goods, the farmers’ markets are an orgy of gorgeous fruits and vegetables—though more and more people turn up near closing time when prices drop.

Instead, it’s the uncertainty, of not “if” but “when” the country will default.

Some “experts” from abroad assure us that life will become much more tenable when we revert to the drachma. Maybe so. But it will take a while. They haven’t realized that almost everything we consume is imported. And we won’t have the foreign exchange to buy fuel, natural gas, or even paper. Those gleaming eggplants from Cretan hothouses, those pearly cauliflowers and perfect lettuces from Marathon (next door) will have to stay where they’re grown. And rot. While we in the cities go hungry.

The S.S. Kurtuluş came to assuage the great Greek hunger.

The S.S. Kurtuluş came to assuage the great Greek hunger.

I wasn’t around, of course, but I’ve heard lots of stories. From my husband, who reports subsisting in Athens on a slice of bread a day, some watery soup thickened with tahini (sesame seed puree), boiled cabbage, and as many hazelnuts as he could chew. The hazelnuts were among the supplies brought into Greece by the Turkish cargo ship Kurtuluş* to ease the Great Greek Famine, in which up to 300,000 people died of starvation. Ironic, wasn’t it, that food aid came from neutral Turkey, although the two countries had been at war just 19 years earlier?

I also remember the tales of my mother-in-law, my first husband’s mother. Dora Lada, known to the family as Dodo, was born in 1900. She brought up her two children on her own, after her husband died of something preventable not long after the Stock Market crash of ’29. Dodo did not resemble the eponymous extinct bird in any respect. She spoke five languages fluently, spelled atrociously in all of them, knew all about plants, and could make an elegant lady in a ball gown from a poppy bud—to the delight of small children. When I met her in the early 60s, she had already decided that swimming apparel was undignified, so I never actually saw her fish for octopus.

Apparently, though, she would lie on the surface wearing a mask and snorkel, with her voluminous bathing skirt floating around her, and jiggle a line at the end of which was a white hankie wrapped around a stone. The octopus, which loves white, would be tempted out of its lair, clutch the hanky and stone and refuse to let go as Dodo hauled in her catch. (Nobody has described what happened next.)

Although she never lifted a finger in the kitchen, it was her favorite room in the house. She’d sit at the table, with her cigarettes and a tiny cup of Greek coffee or a milky glass of ouzo, depending on the hour, and discuss life with her best friend, Eleni. Eleni had joined the family at 13, as assistant nanny, when my husband Alexis was born a year after his sister Marina. Then, 40-plus years later, she worked summers as Marina’s cook—the best cook in the world as far as we were concerned—on the island of Spetses.

Often, I would join them, improving my Greek and devouring family lore, just listening as they spun their stories. They usually revolved around the Maroussi days. In the prosperous early years of her marriage, Dodo and Christos had built a grand house in that village, now a suburb, north of Athens. A three-story mansion surrounded by a large garden, it was reached via an alley of magnificent date palms. After The Crash, they moved to the spitaki (“little house”), a much smaller cottage nearby and, eventually, sold the big house to an American couple with four children. Even though times were tight, they still provided for Eleni, who lived in a two-room annex on the same plot of land as the spitaki.

Dodo used to cook back then. At least I know she had one dish, papaki me bamyes horis papaki, or duckling with okra without the duckling.

In April of 1941, as the Germans advanced on Athens, there was a mad rush to stock up on essentials. Supermarkets did not exist but all the grocers’ shelves and storerooms emptied in a few hours. Dodo was calm. She had no interest in sugar, flour, rice, or beans. She knew she could survive if she had enough cigarettes and demi-johns of ouzo.

This old-fashioned shop on Sifnos hasn’t changed much since the 40s.

This old-fashioned shop on Sifnos hasn’t changed much since the 1940s.

Meanwhile, Alexis escaped to Egypt, and Dodo made sure his shotguns were safe by dropping them down the well. The Germans requisitioned the spitaki and she moved back to her old house. The new owner, Euene Vanderpool, Sr., was one of the leading archaeologists at the American School of Classical Studies. You would not have thought he posed a threat, but the Nazis dispatched him to a prison camp in Germany. They also restricted his wife Joan’s movements, confining her to Maroussi for the duration of the war.

Dodo and Joan looked after her offspring together and soon realized that the children of Maroussi needed their help even more. They set up a soup kitchen and, decades later, when I moved to Maroussi and settled in the spitaki, myself, they were still remembered. When my car mechanic learned my name, and found I was related to Kyria Dora Lada, he poured out his gratitude till we were both practically in tears.

“She saved me from starving,” said Manolis. “My parents couldn’t feed us, but Kyria Dora and her friend kept us alive. None of us will ever forget their kindness and generosity.”

But Dodo herself was hungry all the time. “How could I eat when every mouthful I took would mean less food for a child?” she used to say.

“One day, as I was walking back home at twilight, I saw a familiar plant growing near the road. I went closer to inspect it. Could it be? Yes, it was. A potato! I looked in every direction, feeling like a criminal. No one was coming. So, with my bare hands, I started scrabbling in the earth; maybe I used a stone to help. And before long, I’d reached a little potato. Then another, and another.

“I put the handful of potatoes in my pocket and took them home. I did not say a word. But when everyone was asleep, I sneaked down to the kitchen and boiled them in a pan. I have never eaten anything so delicious in my life and I have never felt so guilty, either.”

Dodo’s story haunts me. I doubt things will get as bad as they were during The German Occupation. Then, Greece was at war. They knew who the enemy was. Today, though, we are being punished by our own people.

Greeks have survived countless sieges and trials. They became experts at concocting the most delicious meals with the most rudimentary of ingredients. Let’s hope we have not lost the knack, because food aid may be slower to arrive this time around.

*The Kurtuluş carried out five voyages to Piraeus under the auspices of the Red Crescent until it sank in the Sea of Marmara during a squall in February 1942. Food and pharmaceuticals continued to be delivered using other Turkish freighters until 1946. The initial voyages were made with permission of the Royal British Navy, which was blockading Piraeus at the time in order to restrict Axis troop and supply movements. Deliveries in Greece fell to the Red Cross.

Recipe

Garlic Soup/Skordosoupa

This recipe comes from an old friend, Georgos Sakellariou, who was born just before World War Two in Delphi. He was one of those children you’ve read about, who walked to school with his shoes hanging round his neck because they were too precious to wear. He remembers eating thin broth thickened with flour and seasoned with salt, and licking the petimezi (grape molasses) spoon for a treat.

Strictly speaking, this soup would have been deemed fairly luxurious during The Occupation, since it contains egg yolks. But it definitely belongs to the Cucina Povera tradition and it is extra good.

1 head garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cube vegetable bouillon
150 grams angel hair pasta (fidé)—3 or 4 “nests”
3 egg yolks
chopped parsley for garnish
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chop the garlic into tiny pieces, heat the oil in a largish saucepan and fry over medium heat until golden. Add 1 ½ liters (6 cups) water, the bouillon cube and seasonings. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Pour the liquid into the food processor and zap. Return the liquid to the saucepan, bring back to the boil and add the angel hair. Boil for a few minutes until the pasta is tender. Beat the egg yolks in a small bowl, add a ladle or two of the hot liquid, and pour the contents back into the saucepan, stirring constantly. That’s it. The Greek version of stracciatella.

Sprinkle with chopped parsley. 4 servings.

To order the paperback book, click on the book cover below:

111 Places in Athens That You Shouldn't Miss

About Diana Farr Louis

Diana Farr Louis was born in the Big Apple but has lived in the Big Olive (Athens, Greece) far longer than she ever lived in the US. She was a member of the first Radcliffe class to receive a degree (in English) from Harvard . . . and went to Greece right after graduation, where she lost her heart to the people and the landscape. She spent the next year in Paris, where she learned to eat and cook at Cordon Bleu and earned her first $15. for writing—a travel piece for The International Herald Tribune. Ever since, travel and food have been among her favorite occupations and preoccupations. She moved to Greece in 1972, found just the right man, and has since contributed to almost every English-language publication in Athens, particularly The Athens News. That ten-year collaboration resulted in two books, Athens and Beyond, 30 Day Trips and Weekends, and Travels in Northern Greece. Wearing her food hat, by no means a toque, she has written for Greek Gourmet Traveler, The Art of Eating, Sabor, Kathimerini’s Greece Is, and such websites as Elizabeth Boleman-Herring’s www.greecetraveler.com. A regular contributor to www.culinarybackstreets.com, she is the author of two cookbooks, Prospero’s Kitchen, Mediterranean Cooking of the Ionian Islands from Corfu to Kythera (with June Marinos), and Feasting and Fasting in Crete. Most recently she co-edited A Taste of Greece, a collection of recipes, memories, and photographs from well-known personalities united by their love of Greece, in aid of the anti-food waste charity, Boroume. Her latest book, co-authored with Alexia Amvrazi and Diane Shugart, is 111 Places in Athens that you shouldn’t miss. (See Louis' amazon.com Author Page for links to her her titles.) (Author Photos: Petros Ladas.)
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