Food for thought
Our cover story on food maven and cookbook author Mazia Zoitas highlights how food—any food—is more than just something you cook: there is a whole history behind it. The cooked wheat berries that she features in her cookbook and is a bestseller at the family’s gourmet markets is the same sperina Maria’s family served back in Lefkada and that we all have had at church for the mnimosina with the layer of white sugar on top and the crosses outlined in silver candy beads. It represents the circle of death and rebirth and as a kid it was the favorite part of the mnimosina because you usually got a plastic cup of it to munch before you went home and had Sunday dinner.
Breakfast back home in Greece might be nothing more than olives and bread. And what about the history of Greece and olives—could Greece ever have existed in history with all its spectacular achievements without the olive tree? Maria’s family—and practically every family in rural Greece–spent half the year collecting the olives and then going through the process of crushing them and turning them into the oil that sustained the family and was used in all their food: what Greek food doesn’t have olive oil in it. And although the ancients thought eating olive oil was unseemly, they used it for everything else, including ointments for health and beauty, Hippocrates recommended it, and when a winner was appointed at the ancient games he got a laurel wreath and a dressing (of his person) with olive oil. The word “messiah” in fact means the anointed one—with olive oil. A whole history of Greece in the humble olive.
I remember my grandmother making a formal dinner back in Chios and sending my grandfather and me on all sorts of errands: I would pluck the lettuce from the garden, crunching as I ripped it apart and washed it for Yiayia, and she would pluck some of the basil and other herbs she had growing just outside her bedroom window along with her yiasemi. To spice up the salad, Papou would be sent to tramp across the field to pick some tomatoes from his tomato patch (where the plug of the basin that collected the rainwater was one of his old shirts) and on his way back he might break off some lemons and limes from the grove of fruit trees that provided the shade for all the chickens foraging below. As for the poor chickens, one of them would be picked out on the spot, usually the one with the fattest thighs, to be the main course. One time my favorite white rooster was chosen as the main course and it nearly broke my heart to see him on a plate. Unfortunate for him, but fortunate for us, he tasted delicious in my grandmother’s tomato sauce.