Friday, 8 May 2009

Real food ( Aληθινό φαγητό)

In one of my more peckish moments, I bought myself something from the περίπτερο - periptero - to munch on while I was working at the office. The food that is usually available from a kiosk could be described as sweet and tempting, naughty but nice. So when I buy packaged food from a kiosk, I usually see this moment as a secret treat to myself; I wouldn't want anyone to catch sight of me eating fast food bought from the place smoker-Greeks (at least half the population) buy their ciggies from.

When I do indulge in plastic food (my phrasing), I hardly ever choose something I have had before, since most times I am disappointed or not enthralled by my past choice. Today's choice was a foil-wrapped apple pie (0.65 euro-cents). As I sat at my computer enjoying my coffee and nibbling away at the pie, a distinct guilty feeling came over me; at the same time as I was downing this mass-produced comestible, I was also reading Michael Pollan's "7 words and 7 rules" for eating. I suddenly realised I wasn't following any of Pollan's rules, even though most of them made perfect sense to me (not all will agree with me on this point), and especially since, most of the time, we follow most of these rules in our house.

apple pie

Pollan's seven words are: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." By food, an emphasis is made on real food - vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and meat (and supposedly dairy products). In order to avoid eating "edible food-like substances", the following suggestions are made:
  1. Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
  2. Don't eat something with more than 5* ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce.
  3. Shop from the outer edge of stores near loading docks; the food is fresher there.
  4. Don't eat anything that won't eventually go bad.
  5. Always leave the table a little hungry, so that you don't over-eat.
  6. Try to eat with other people at a table, and not around the TV, at regular meal times.
  7. Don't buy food where you buy your gasoline because you'll end up eating it in the car.
* No more than 5 ingredients? Greek salad contains at least 10! I'm not quite sure what he means by this one...

Pollan's first rule struck me dumb. While my mouth was crammed with crumbly pastry, it hit me that I was clearly disobeying Rule Number 1 with my choice of a mass-produced packaged apple pie. I don't need to go back as far as my great-grandmother; none of my grandparents would have recognised my choice of victual. They had probably never eaten or made it themselves, yet here was their granddaughter, living in the birthplace of the Mediterranean diet, only a few kilometres from the same place where those people had lived all their lives, eating a distinctly alien (at least to them) concoction. I wonder what the grandmothers would have said if they were alive today and they were watching me.

yiayia maria yiayia calliope
Yiayia Maria (early 70s) and Yiayia Calliope (early 90s); they both had five children each and both died nonagenarians. Maria was widowed during the Battle of Crete, while Calliope had the misfortune to outlive one of her children (my mother).

I was lucky to have met both my grandmothers; Maria was still alive when I visited Greece for the first time in the mid-70s, while Calliope was still around in the mid-90s when I settled in Crete permanently. I can still remember her slow speech rhythm and stringy voice, as if it was in need of some fine tuning. If she were here today with me and she saw me eating my apple pie, she would have squinted her tiny eyes; time was robbing her of her sight on an almost daily basis. Her colourless pupils would hover above my hand while she peered into it to have a closer look at my food. The first thing she would probably say is:

"Ιδέ 'να πράμα! Ιντά 'ναι? Φέρτο μου οθ' επαγιέ. Εσύ τό'σιαξες*;"
Ithe 'na prama! Idane? Ferto mou oth'epayie. Esi to 'siaxes?
Look at that! What is it? Bring it to me here. Did you make it?

I show her the wrapper and tell her I bought it from the periptero. She would stretch out her hand, her gnarled fingers covered by their wrinkly skin, fingernails damaged at each tip from all the foraging for greens that she had done to feed and sustain her brood. I clear the clutter around my desk so that it becomes more visible to her impaired eyesight.

apple pie

"Σα παξιμάδι μοιάζει. Νόμου το να το ιδώ."
Sa paximathi moiazei. Nomou 'to na to itho.
Looks like a rusk. Give it to me to look at.

She takes it and tightens her grip round it. The pastry disintegrates slightly; buttery crumbs fall onto the paper lining case that it came in.

"Ό'ι, δε' νε παξιμάδι. Ιντά 'χει μέσα;"
Oi, de 'ne paximathi. Idahi mesa?
No, it's not a rusk. What's inside it?

I break a piece off and put it in her hand.

"Ιντα ν'αυτό που έχει μέσα του; Σα ντι μαρμελάδα είναι. Μπας και νά ΄ναι μπαγιάτικο? Κακοδόπαθα και ν'αρρωστήξω!"
Idan' afto pou eshi mesa tou? Sa di marmelatha ine. Bas che nane bajatiko**? Kakodopatha kai n'arrostixo!
What's that inside it? Looks like marmelade. You don't think it's gone off, has it? Lordy, lordy, I'm gonna be sick!

Stale? Well, it certainly wasn't fresh. But I doubt she would've got sick on it. The 'best before' date showed that it was edible at the time of consumption, but there was no production date. I've just broken Pollan's Rule Number 3; who knows how long it had been sitting on the shelves of the kiosk? Worse still, the 'best before' date is not the expiry date. It could probably sit there for a year and never rot; there goes Rule Number 4.

I explain to yiayia that this is an apple pie (μηλόπιτα - milopita) and show her the package it came in. Fruit pies are not in her culinary repertoire; in Crete, fruit is eaten after a meal, in its original form, straight from the tree. She would have been familiar with apples and pears; local varieties of apples and pears were grown in Kambi (such fruits do well in colder areas). But she wouldn't know that their existence is now threatened by the continuous activity of land clearance, orchard planting and mass migration away from rural to urban areas; she herself had left her mountainous village many decades ago, and only visited it while her sister was still alive, perhaps once a year; her reappearance in the area was merely as a tourist. She never did return to live there, not even for her funeral.

apple pie

"Και πού 'ντο;"
Che poudo?
Where is it?

I don't understand. "Where is what?" I ask her.

"Πού 'ντο το μήλο; Μηλόπιτα δε μού 'πες πως είναι;"
Poudo to milo? Milopita de moupes pos einai?
Where's the apple? Didn't you say this was an apple pie

Now she has me; just where was that apple after all? What kind of apple pie was this if it didn't have any apple in it? And what exactly did it contain?

"Και πως τι φτιάξαν' αυτή τη πίτα; Ίντα τσι βάλαν μέσα;" she croaks.
Che pos ti ftiaxan' afti ti pita? Ida tsi valan mesa?
How did they make this pie? What did they put in it

Good point; I begin to read out the list of ingredients on the back of the packet, and am astounded myself as I discover what exactly it contains. To my dismay, I find that I have also broken Pollan's Rule Number 2 (more than 5 ingredients, or unpronounceable ingredients):
  • wheat flour
  • margarine (partly hydrogenated fats, salt, mono and diglycerides of fatty acids, acidifier, citric acid, preservative: potassium sorbate)
  • sugar
  • water
  • butter
  • baking powder
  • invert syrup
  • milk serum
  • salt
  • butter flavour
  • vanillin
  • preservative (potassium sorbate max. 0.2%)
  • egg coating for decoration
  • apple jam (apple 40%, sugar, glucose, gelling agent, pectin, acidifier, citric acid, starch, preservative: potassium sorbate max. 0.5%)
I read out the ingredients to yiayia; she doesn't recognise most of them.

"Τόσανά 'χει; Πορό λοριό που δε κατέο. Ιντά'ν'ετούτενά τα πράματα;"
Tosana 'shi? Poro lorio pou de gateo. Idane etoutena ta pramata?
It's got so much in it? So much stuff I don't know. What on earth are those things?

Even I had to admit that most of the items listed were not to be found in a standard kitchen, not in Hania where I live now, not even where I grew up. Food and dining in New Zealand was an anything-goes venture, a fusion of international cuisines in which eaters partook of any kind of food as long as it 'tasted nice', without any cultural base on the part of the eater or the cooking technique. And who has ever heard of stocking milk serum, butter flavour and potassium sorbate in their larder, let alone have any idea what these things look like before they are added to a pie mixture?

"Αλεύρι σταρένιο; Γιάντα το πες έτσι δα; Ντα υπάρχει άλλο αλεύρι;"
Alevri starenio? Giada to pes etsi tha? Da iparhei allo alevri?
Wheat flour? Why did you call it that? Is there any other kind of flour?

"Well, yiayia," I explain, "some people may be allergic to wheat products..." but I didn't get a chance to finish my sentence.

"Δε μπορού' να φάν' ούτε ψωμί; Ετόσονα αλλεργικοί 'ναι; 'Επαγιέ στο ντόπο μας, ούλοι τρώνε το ψωμί! Πως αλλιώς 'α ζήσουν;"
De borou' na fan' oute psomi? Etosona allerjiki ne? Epaje sto dopo mas, ouli trone to psomi! Pos allios a zisoun?
They can't even eat bread? Are they that allergic? In this place, everyone eats bread. How else will they survive?

I break a bit off and give it to her.

"Here, yiayia, try some." I try to coax her. "It's sweet. You'll like it."

She takes the piece of apple pie from my fingers. Half of it has already crumbled onto the floor. As she raises her hand to her mouth, more crumbs fall down. She puts the pie into her mouth and slowly starts to chew it, turning the food with her tongue from one side of her jaw to the other. I watch as she swallows and see a lumpy mixture descending down her throat.

"Kalo einai, yiayia?" I ask tentatively. Did she like it?

"Kαρό; ούτε για τα οζα δε κάνει!"
Karo? Oute yia ta oza de kanei!
Good? It's not even good enough for the animals!

She raises her hand dismissively and turns her head to one side.

"Ιδέ! Το μισό μού 'πεσε στο μπέτι."
Ithe! To miso moy pese sto beti.
Look! Half of it fell on my chest.

She wipes the crumbs away from the front of her black dress and then wipes her mouth clear of the crumbs she can feel on her face, taking care not to dirty the black tzemberi*** tied round her head.

"Μπα, πράμα δε κάνει. Σα' τ'αχυρά 'ναι. Δε βρήκες άλλο πράμα να φας και 'σύ; Μόνο ξελιξίδια τρως!"
(Ba, prama de ganei. Sa t'ahira 'ne. De vrikes prama allo na fas che si? Mono xelixithia tros!
Nah, it's useless. Like eating strtaw. Couldn't you find anything else to eat?
You only want to eat good bites!

Admittedly, it wasn't the best apple pie I'd eaten either. I felt embarrassed eating something I didn't need to be chewing on at the time, which I was eating in between meals (thereby breaking Pollan's Rule Number 5) in front of a computer screen (in effect breaking Rule Number 6).

"Δε'ν'αυτό φαγητό, παιδί μου," she adds. "Βάλε το στο κουβά για τσ' όρνιθες, μπας και το φαν' αυτές.
De 'nafto fajito, pedi mou. Vale to sti goyrna gia ts'ornithes, bas ke to fan aftes.
That's not what we call food, my child. Put it in the bucket for the chickens (ie where the leftover vegetable scraps are placed, to be given to the chickens), they might eat it.

Of course it wasn't real food; it came from a periptero, which is akin to Pollan's petrol station idea. I had just broken Rule Number 7; a periptero doesn't sell petrol, but it does sell the kinds of things Greeks use their cars to get to (even if they are two minutes away from their house), usually to purchase newspapers and cigarettes, 2-euro children's surprise bags containing plastic rubbish, chewing gum, caramels, potato crisps and all sorts of other junk, which is usually piggishly eaten while steering at the wheel.

"Κακιώρα να τού 'ρθει του βυζάστακα που σ'το πούλησε, και σού 'φαε τσι παράδες σου! Γάιρέ το απ' όκιδά πο'υ 'ρθε! Δε σού'π'η συγχωρεμένη η μάνα σου, προσοχή στου κουζουλούς, και 'σύ κατές γράμματα!
Kachiora na tou'rthei tou vizastaka pou sto poulise, che sou 'fae tsi parades sou! Gaire to ap' ochida pourthe! De soy'p'i mana sou i sihoremeni prososhi stou kouzoulous, esi pou kates grammata!
May bad tidings come to the greaseball who sold it to you and robbed you of your money! Return it to where it came from (ie chuck it out)! Didn't your late mother teach to beware of crazy people, and you know letters (ie you're educated and should know better)!

"Sure you don't want any more, yiayia?" I ask sheepishly.

"Ό'ι, παιδί μου, μη μου κάτσει στο κόλο και στουμπώσω. Φέρε μου μια λαραγγιά νερό μη πνιγώ απ'τα θράψαλα. Α' θες να φας καλί πίτα, να τσι βάλεις μαλάκα και πράμ' άλλο."
Oi pedi mou, mi mou katsi sto golo kai stoumboso. Fere mou mia laraggia nero mι pnigo ap'ta thrapsala. A' thes na fas kali pita, na tsi valeis malaka che pram' allo.
No, my child, it might sit on my bum and block up my system. Bring me a drop of water so that I don't choke on the crumbs. If you want to eat a good pie, put some malaka in it, and nothing else.

Wise words from Calliope, don't you think?

�All the bold words in Greek are part of the dialect of Cretan Greek.

*All my grandparents spoke only Cretan Greek - accent, dialect and all it entails. The Cretan accent is still heard on a daily basis right throughout the island, with regional differences from one prefecture to the other (just as there is in the food of each area of Crete), but the dialect (meaning the region-specific vocabulary) isn't often used, mainly due to the homogeneous education system in Greece. Most of the locals still break out into Cretan Greek when the need arises.

** In Cretan Greek, when a sound is transliterated as the English letter 'j', it should be pronounced the same way the French pronounce this letter, in words, for example like 'jeune'.

***τζεμπέρι - γυναικείο κάλυμμα της κεφαλής (woman's garment worn around the head); it's usually a sign of being widowed.

All dialectal words verified in a Cretan Greek lexicon.

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