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Greek translation Greek dictionaries Eleni Vainas [ CV ]
Greek Food and the God of Hospitality

Each of us has his or her own way of traveling, of selecting from the vast number of new experiences travel engenders, the few that determine why we go, what we remember most, what works best with our own personality and pleasures. By stepping outside our normal comfort level, we are free to create our own idea of what is a good time. For me, like the Roman army, I travel on my stomach. And perhaps my dancing shoes.

I'm good with food in every country I've visited, but especially in Greece. I am not good with museums; I will visit them with you if you insist. I seldom visit on my own- unless there are textiles. But if you want to pop in to this restaurant here to try the loukoumathes (fried dough in honey), or that one across the way to try that chef's fresh Tuna, or souvlaki and grilled peppers served on paper from the stand under the trees at the intersection in Lutsa- I'm the first one ready to indulge.

The friends I have made in Greece and the places I love most, are centered around food; often in the meeting of people who later became friends, the first encounter was over food in some form. My connection eventually extended not only to the people I met, but also to the type of land they live on and the kind of food that grows there. The dance floor came second.

There is a true sense of hospitality in Greece. Is it something in the unending summer sunshine that extends to the souls of the people I have met that created their warm, welcoming qualities? Is it their closeness to nature, the love they have for natural things? For understanding and accepting human nature? Whatever has created it, I have found that Greek people pay tremendous attention to being hospitable, especially to strangers. Would you expect anything less from a country which boasts of a God of Hospitality, Zeus?

The passion growing in me for this country and its food expanded exponentially with each visit and has grown even more since I have been living here. The more I am here the more the pieces of my own puzzle come together. And the most elemental meeting ground has been food. This is not surprising. Eating here is a social event; it is, more often than not, the norm, not the exception, to meet friends and go for something to eat and drink and chat.

My bias toward Greece and its cuisine comes naturally; my grandparents passed down rich traditions and a tremendous love for their birthplace. But I had a limited view of this vast country, that of life as it is lived in the far eastern islands. As I learn more about the land in different areas of Greece, the varied terrain and the vegetation that grows there, I realize that the people, land and food are intertwined and engender a strong sense of place. There are many regional styles, indeed untold numbers of styles and flavors cooked within the area called Greece today. My childhood vision was of a small part.

No matter what area a recipe comes from, its beauty is in its simplicity; it is eaten fresh, picked fresh in season; there is olive oil and an abundance of fruits and vegetables. The majority of meals contain plant protein. It is truly healthy food.

There is an unexpectedness about food here that comes in many forms: rounding a curve in a country lane in Palea Epidavros and coming upon a family of at least four generations eating a late lunch under mandarin trees, the table less than a foot from the road; or walking down a desolate alley in which a bright patch of vegetables finds enough water and sun to grow from discarded seeds; a snack bar on Ikaria clinging to a steep mountain road with a few tables and chairs set out across the roadway opens on an unbeatable view of mountain vistas, somehow increasing the flavor of the simple food. And then there was that night driving with my friend Nana on a dark, deserted country road, when she suddenly pulled the car to the right and parked. Admonishing me and Irini to wait, she disappeared for a moment into the shadows of the trees, only to reappear in a short time with ripe figs, the seeds about to burst from their skins. For a long time I thought she had a built-in divining rod, that she had somehow seen the figs in the dark, but I have learned over time that ripe figs have a sweet, distinctive aroma all their own that compelled her to stop.

This sense of adventure with food has propelled me toward eating in a parking garage, a Butcher's shop, a restaurant on a pebbled beach and numerous private homes encompassing various lifestyles that opened new doors into others' thinking, extending my understanding of this country and its people.
Food here is plentiful and intertwined with life. It is an aromatic adventure simply to walk a village road or city neighborhood street. Color is everywhere. Many full gardens grow behind houses; but mini patches of herbs or peppers or melons can also be found growing in odd places in recycled 5-gallon cans. Friends invite you- indeed, insist- you take something home with you, something they have made or produced, picked or gathered. Nature constantly invites you to touch, to taste, to smell. The inevitable can or pot of Basil, especially the short, bushy variety with tiny leaves grown by the back door or in the courtyard of churches and houses all over Greece to keep mosquitoes away, becomes an adventure: rub your hands gently through the leaves and then catch the heady aroma that clings. Heaven. And just one more of the sensual pleasures that are Greece.
The air out of doors can be just as compelling when it is full of animal smells and vegetation. In rural areas goats, chickens and geese live in small pens close to the house or roadway. In city or country, olives drip from trees hanging over fences and garden walls. Lemons, mandarins, figs ripen brazenly, taunting over whitewashed walls, their aromas wafting, distinctive, beckoning. Touchable. Grapes on arbors less than five feet from the road are full with juice, sweet with scent. Pomegranates take full sun in a village parking lot.

This intimacy with food and the land begins early. From the time children are able they get involved with food in one way or another. It may be by helping mother or grandmother gather herbs and vleeta (wild greens), knead and bake bread (or prepare it, proof it and send it to the village baker!), make cheese, tend gardens or prepare meals. By the time they are grown, they have probably harvested vegetables, wild mushrooms, snails, seafood and fruits. Many have killed a goat or chicken, dug dirt, planted seeds, pruned trees, brought in olives.
Eating is a pleasure and people want to feel good about eating. But food is not merely necessary for sustenance; it is necessary for enriching the soul. Thus it is often just as important to take part in the full cycle, perhaps by crushing grapes after picking them, or by visiting the olive oil cooperative while olives just harvested are being pressed. Imagine the aromas that envelop, the air fruity and warm, as you stand with a portion of fresh-baked bread in hand for a first taste of the new oil crop.

This attention to the details of growing, gathering or preparing the food one eats is an important part of growing up here. And discussing the meal being eaten is as important as eating it. Even in its simplest forms it is revered, honored, reviewed; its fine and weak points exposed without rancor. Its color, taste, and smell appreciated. Eating is done with passion, and food discussed passionately.

And talk you will about the food. About the preparation, the freshness, the flavors. About who caught it, brought it, bought it. And from where.
Part of its preciousness is in its scarcity. Until recently the majority of the food in Greece was eaten fresh in season and grown locally. Imported foods were available, but at extremely high prices; and one's trust in refrigeration- or the electric company with its frequent power outages- understandably lacking. Thus, if it wasn't available fresh-grown locally, very few people could afford the luxury of eating foods out of season. Food that graced tables was strictly seasonal.
Even now when food from other areas, other countries is readily available, the first tomatoes of the season are really something to look forward to; they will also be the first fresh local tomatoes in six months. And for that alone they will be special. They will be something to talk about. And eat with zest.


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