Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Waste not, want not (Χριστουγεννιάτικη ιστορία)

My children's godparents are at the opposite extremes when it comes to Christmas gifts. My son's always has to rummage around her purse (and then her husband's wallet) to find some change to give him as a Christmas present, while my daughter's buys her a complete winter outfit including hat, coat and scarf, an expensive (noisy) toy, as well as another (noisy) toy for her brother. Their choice of festive fare is very similar to how they choose Christmas gifts.

Rania invited us over for Christmas lunch, so that neither of our families would have to pass Christmas day on their own; in other words, Christmas Day did not have to be just another Sunday. We turned it into a pot luck dinner; our share was going to be the pork steaks, a potato salad, and traditional Greek pizza, ladenia. She had made a lamb stew with seasonal greens, lettuce salad, and spinach and cheese pie. I thought it was perfectly adequate for a meal for 9 people, 4 of whom were children under 12. She had also warned me earlier that she would pass on some leftovers to me so that neither of us had to cook the next day. When the table was set for the Christmas meal, I was horrified to see a tub of mass-produced tzatziki, another tub of mass-produced Russian salad, a roast chicken with potatoes which had been left over from her previous day's dinner, and pastitsio left over from the previous day's lunch. She even cooked two huge pans of chips just as we were ready to eat. Two full, meaty, stodgy, expensive-to-buy and time-consuming-to-make meals to be eaten on Christmas Eve, which is considered a fasting day in the Greek Orthodox Church. Yet more meat would be cooked on Christmas Day, in her full knowledge. As a slightly built, petite-framed, weight-conscious 45-year-old full-time nurse and mother of two obese children, I often wonder why she bothers to cook so much food (and waste so much money and energy on making it); her children didn't bother to even look at the leftovers. They are obviously so used to eating freshly cooked fatty meaty food, that they just stabbed a pork chop each and made a grab for the chips, quickly downing their food and making a mess of their plates before rushing away from the table to play with their made-in-PRC toxically painted plastic (noisy) toys, the same kind their mother had bought for my own children, making my presents of books and DVDs seem like a cheap alternative. Her husband recently underwent hip-replacement surgery and needs to mind his weight so that he doesn't need to be operated on again. To top it all off, she brought out home-made melomakarona, as well as shop-bought tsoureki. So much food, and not enough people to eat it. Of course, her leftovers lay untouched on the buffet table, and much to my chagrin, my potato salad was overlooked, having been placed in a hard-to-get-to spot on the table, while everyone helped themself to the chemically-treated tzatziki. I know why my pizza wasn't popular; it had no salami, pepperoni, ham, bacon, sauasge and any other cholesterol-packed luncheon meat that's usually placed on a pizza base. It was, to put it simply, too healthy. Another energy-wasting point was the heating: Rania likes to have the heat turned up really high, while she walks around in light fashionable clothing. I had taken off everything I could take off, and still I was feeling scorched like a roasting turkey.

And that was lunch. When it was time to leave, we put on our coats, picked up a huge JUMBO bag of toys, as well as 2 large carrier bags of hand-me-downs of her son's and daughter's clothes (isn't that handy for me? - Rania loves shopping, and buys new clothes for her XL constantly growing children twice a year - you don't wear clothes for more than 1 season in her house, the same way you don't eat the same meal 2 days in a row), some melomakarona, a 2-litre ice-cream box of stewed lamb, another 2-litre ice-cream box of roast chicken (I'm determined to make a chicken pie tomorrow with this), half of my potato salad (she said she'd try some tomorrow), half of my ladenia (she said her kids might eat some tomorrow), 4 squares of pastitsio and 10 squares of spinach pie. Images of starving black children came into my mind. There's definitely something wrong in terms of the global distributuon of wealth. But I must admit, we had a good time, I had never seen my children happier. It was probably the most enjoyable Christmas we'd celebrated as a family.

Kiriaki hates having to organise parties at her house, except for her own friends, who she doesn't like to share (like her food). Once her husband got the promotion he wanted in his job, she put an end to all the high-society functions she used to organise at her house, on the pretext that she is far too busy with work and making sure that her children do not lose their first-in-class positions. She is also a lousy cook, having never needed to cook for her family; her mother-in-law did that for her, right up until she died a couple of years ago. She even handled all the festive meals, which concealed Kiriaki's inadequate culinary skills in front of her VIP friends once again: the dean of the university, her husband's business partners and her own teacher colleagues. But she had to show them something she cooked herself: macaroni cheese, mounds of it, which she would amply ladle onto everyone's plates and tell them how much her children love her cooking. Now that the mourning period was over, she knew she would have to start opening her house once again to guests on Christmas Day, because her husband celebrated his nameday then; being the godfather of our son and a good hunting companion of my husband's since their youth, we were obliged to visit them in the evening of this day, even if it was for the sake of appearances. After a formal (albeit haughty) exchange of greetings (the two KOUMBARES share a mutual zero-tolerance of each other), we were gestured to sit at the bare table positioned at the junction of a draft created by two open windows, which we were informed had been left ajar to ensure that their guests' cigarette smoke would not taint the walls of their house or the food. As a high school teacher well-versed on the ill effects of non-organic food, Kiriaki, a hopeless cook, could not afford to bring out cheap, mass-produced, chemically-treated convenience food for her guests, given her constant lecturing to anyone who didn't block their ears to it, against the effects of low-quality nutrition, despite the fact that we have often seen her on the road in Hania buying souvlaki late at night, and she had an endless supply of ready-made pizzas in her deep freezer, which she'd microwave if we ever dared to visit her during the holidays. With a flustered look on her face, she explained that she had to rush back to the boiling pots and pans in her (disorganised) kitchen, which was easily visible from the dining room as the whole house was open-plan. There was only one pot on the stove, being attended to by her good teacher-colleague and neighbour friend, Carolina, who, we were informed, was also helping her to roast a flank of beef, rolled and stuffed with red peppers, curd cheese and tomatoes; in other words, Carolina was cooking it herself. Some of the guests asked where she had bought the meat from. She informed us that she had specifically instructed a trusted butcher who sold organically reared meat (on an island where greenhouses abound, and the wind scatters non-organic seeds far and wide, for crying out loud, give me a break) to make it up for her exactly as she wanted.

She then served up a stifado - hare stew. We all knew that the cook who used to make the hare stew on Christmas Day had passed away, so there was much speculation over who had given her the recipe. She gave us a detailed account about how a hare is properly stewed (with the full support of her husband), according to an old recipe of her mother's, who has been widowed for over 15 years and lives on a remote island on her own (God knows how long ago she cooked one). She had spent the whole day preparing the hare and the whole night cooking it. As my husband put it, the poor wretch of a hare underwent a series of trials and tribulations, having been the victim of physical abuse, to the point that it lay tired, strung out and overcooked in a soupy bowl of tomato and olive oil, so that it choked you as you ate it, before coming to rest in your intestine where it wouldn't budge until the next day before it was digested, leaving you feeling sore and bloated as if a rock were lying just above your bladder. Carolina brought out some kalitsounia; they were absolutely delicious. I knew they were home-made from the thickness of the pastry, but they could not possibly have been made in that particular home, where there was a lack of benchtop space and the table we were sitting at was usually covered in books which never seemed to have moved since the last time we had paid our KOUMBAROI a visit. I heard her telling a guest (the headmaster of a primary school) in a lowered tone of voice so that no one else would hear, apart from me, because I happened to be sitting across from him, that her husband had grown the spinach in the village, and she had paid someone to turn it into the local Cretan pastry kalitsounia, which she stored in the deep freezer. The whole evening seemed to tire out the hosts, who kept winging that they didn't actually want to organise a party at their place, but some friends had called to tell them that they would be visiting them, and they were expecting to sample some hunter's game. Obviously, the hare was not intended for us, but they need not have feared that it would disappear too quickly; when their friends eventually arrived, the serving platter was full of bony stringy chunks of meat covered in sauce. The french fries were probably the best part of the whole meal; the potatoes had been freshly dug up from their own field, and came out crusty and golden with a fluffy centre. At the end of the evening, Kiriaki asked me, like a good hostess, if my children had had enough to eat. I tried to tempt her godson into eating kalitsounia instead of the stodgy shop-bought cream buns she had dumped in front of him (which, coincidentally, we had bought as a last-minute gift - what else can you get on Christmas Day, but more importantly, why get anything for these tight-arses anyway?), but Kiriaki interrupted me, saying we shouldn't pressure him into eating anything he didn't want to eat. Not to worry; as I said the kalitsounia were delicious. I let him eat the cream buns while I ate the kalitsounia, Kiriaki watching on the whole time.

The whole day's events made me believe that no matter what the government tries to drum into our heads about global warming and environmental pollution, there will always be some people who will never even consider leaving Christmas presents unwrapped, while others will forever take from others and give to their own without any form of reciprocation. Bah humbug; at least I don't have to cook for (at least) two days.

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New Year's cake
Clean Monday
Ash Thursday
25 March