Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Land of plenty (Και του πουλιού το γάλα)

A growing sector of Greek society is facing poverty. The poorest people in Greece are believed to be young people and farmers (ie people who make less than 500 euro a month). These figures usually don't include statistics for economic migrants, because of the difficulty of tracking them. Young people are more likely to continue to live at home rather than try to survive independently on such a low income; even if they did live away from home and took on a second job to supplement their income, it is highly unlikely that they will be living in the countryside or occupying themselves with growing their own food. If they have to buy all their food needs, they'll easily get into trouble financially. As it is, the younger working citizens of Greece are victims of their own fate: a combination of high unemployment rates and low salaries for young people entering the workforce means that they will spend a good proportion of their (or others') income on food, and they will need to rely on others (the most common ones being their parents and village produce from their area) to provide them with food. It is not at all uncommon for mothers and grandmothers to cook meals and courier them to their offspring who are studying or working far away from home. If this sounds kind of strange to you, just remember the two factors of Greek life that I have already mentioned: unemployment and extremely low starting salaries (for a European Union country who was part of the original EU-15).

Poverty doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with starvation and hunger. Farmers may be short of cash, but they are rich in produce, especially those living in Crete. In fact, I think it is very difficult to starve in Crete. We are surrounded by food, and we love to cook it and share it, as there is always plenty to go round. No wonder we are an island full of rotund inhabitants. Maybe this is linked to our past; there were times when people found it very difficult to find enough food to feed their family, mainly because there were too many mouths to feed in the first place and not enough hands to do the work required to keep them fed.

When dining with Cretans (and most other non-urban Greeks), if your plate is ever empty, your hosts will magically fill it up for you without asking you first if you want any seconds. If you insist that you don't want any more, it might be regarded as a way of saying that you didn't like the food. There is a simple remedy to that: just keep your plate full so that no one can pile any more food onto it. And if you're a meat-eater, make sure to pick cuts of meat with lots of bones in them so that your hosts can see the remnants, otherwise they'll start complaining: "Ma den eheis faei TIPOTA!" (but you haven't eaten ANYTHING!).

As a young child growing up in the 1970s in Wellington, I remember being specifically told by my Cretan immigrant mother that if I didn't eat ALL the potatoes (or rice or pasta) on my plate, I wouldn't be given any of the meat that was cooked with the meal. Not that I was such a great carnivore, but I did want to eat my share of that roast chicken or T-bone steak or tasty sausage. So I dutifully ate ALL the potatoes (or rice or pasta) on my plate so that I would rightfully year my share of the best bit. Of course, by the time I had eaten ALL those potatoes (or rice or pasta), I was probably stuffed and had eaten more food than I should have eaten, so that the meat I ate was not a necessary part of my diet after all. It took me a long time to get over the idea that I didn't actually have to eat everything on my plate.

Overfeeding is still an issue in Crete. Unfortunately, the repercussions of this can be seen in the rising obesity levels. This is the personal responsibility of the individual - but not in the case of children. Obesity levels in children can be blamed on their parents and guardians just as much as the fast-food no-exercise culture they are surrounded by. At the same time, I am intrigued with just how much bad food surrounds highly developed societies. The less developed world seems to have a highly developed sense of what is edible, while people in the most highly developed countries of the world are content to serve children highly processed food with chemical additives, overloaded with calories, and then blame obesity levels in their children on low levels of exercise.

My children are now exhibiting signs of fussy eating habits. Although there is no question of short order cooking in my house, there have recently been tantrum eruptions at the table. My daughter has started going off milk, no matter how much I plead with her to finish her morning glass before she goes to school. My son still won't touch anything that looks like a plant (which is why I grate a lot of vegetables into bean or mince dishes), but he'll lick his plate clean if you place a bowl of potatoes (or rice or pasta - high energy food) before him. Bean dishes were once very popular with my children; now they are being increasingly seen as old-fashioned and boring meals.

I don't want to be responsible for creating obese children. Some people say that the obesity issue in the Western world is simply a way to propagate discrimination against fat people. What a load of crap. It is not a very pretty sight to see a ballooned stomach hanging over a child's elastic waistline. Neither is it a pretty sight to see this kind of child running around the school playground with a packet of crisps in his hand. And I'll say it again, I don't want fat children. Admittedly, my children were never gluttons, they have never looked overweight, and they generally don't consume huge quantities at each meal time. But they are still too young to make informed food choices, and if presented with a packet of potato crisps, pizza and other high-carb (ie high-energy) food, they will over-indulge in it, and put aside the healthier options. I still cook, and they still eat my food, but I have had to make some changes in the way I serve the meals to reduce the general moaning and groaning.

Every morning, the children have a glass of milk in their favorite milk cup. This was a way of enticing them to drink it all; after all, it was their favorite cup. Now they are complaining that it is too much milk, and they refuse to drink it all ("I think I'm going to throw up, Mum"), so i've downsized the cup, showing them the difference in the capacities of each:

old milk cup new milk cup
At 1 euro a litre, milk is too expensive to simply chuck down the drain...

I used to serve bean stews in a soup plate which the children now complain holds too much for their stomachs ("Come and feel my tummy, Mum, it's like a balloon"). Knowing when to stop is a good thing, but I don't want to encourage them to leave a lot of food on their plate; it is wasteful, it won't go back into the pot, and the dog will end up eating it. Now I let them choose for themselves the size of their plate. They usually go for a breakfast bowl full of bean stew.

old soup plate new soup plate
One of my favourite aunts once said to me that a few tablespoons of a loving mother's home-cooked food containing high quality ingredients will do the same amount of good to a growing child as a huge plateful.

And finally, the last problem: Mr Organically Cooked. He likes to see a growing apetite in his children, and will often coax them to eat as much as they can. Thankfully, my sharp tongue severely reprimands him when he overdoes it; it is an aspect I can control concerning his table manners. The real problem is that he is a gourmet eater. Every meal for him is like a feast. He never eats his meal quickly (like his wife), and he has never, ever had a weight problem (ditto). When he sits down to eat, the table is laden with the typical Greek meal accompaniments, besides the main meal for the day. A couple of days ago, I had made lentil stew. I brought out the standard bowl of olives, some feta cheese in olive oil and a couple of slices of graviera cheese (my son refuses to eat feta). I also produced a bowl of guacomole (we had recently been given some avocados by relatives) which is a good side dish for bean stews. There was also the ubiquitous sourdough bread, thick toasted slices. His last act horrified me: he cut some thick fat slices of Italian salami (which only made its way into our fridge after I fell ill; Mr OC went shopping).

nothing less will do
Nothing less will do for the oldest child in the family...

You can easily predict what happened on that day. My son ate lots of salami and cheese and bread, complaining soon after that his stomach was full. My daughter went for the avocado dip, the olives and the feta cheese, dipping her bread in the olive oil on the plate of feta. She didn't want her lentils either. In other words, the children ate everything BUT the lentils. My husband was the only one who ate his portion of lentils, while indulging in everything else on the table (if I ate like him, I wouldn't just be overweight, I'd be obese). I had cooked a healthy meal, and it was not eaten simply because of bad food habits. I had every right to be angry. You can imagine my admonitions at the lunch table that day. When presented with a buffet (which is what most Cretan meals are usually like), we will choose only the tasty bits.

There's a simple solution to this problem: reduce the choice available, not for puritanical reasons, but simply to help educate the younger eaters about good food habits which they can hopefully continue with during their more independent lives. And don't forget to maintain a balanced diet as stipulated by food charts, the Mediterranean diet pyramid being appropriate in my case.

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