Corned beef is almost a thing of the past in Crete. This was the only kind available on the supermarket shelves, and there was a very small amount of shelf space allotted to it. On the other hand, there were quite a few varieties of canned luncheon meat on sale, containing all kinds of meat (beef, pork and chicken). Corned beef is neither cheap (this can cost 2.45 euro), nor does it come from Argentina any longer (it is French).
The can of corned beef reminded me of my parents. They liked the stuff enough to make a meal out of it during my youth. I couldn't understand why they liked it, as it resembled nothing of what my mother cooked for us. In fact, it looked quite repulsive. It was always packaged in that special can with a key on the side. On opening the can, you are faced with an oozing brown jelly fat wrapped around a dense sliceable mixture of pinky-red mince. On opening the can with that special key, the jelly would force the meat to slide out of the can when upturned. I remember we used to serve corned beef like this, straight out of the can, sliced up on a plate, and nothing more. It was considered a meal in conjunction with salad and bread, the cheap white resilient spongey pre-sliced stuff, with a zombie-like, yeasty odour and bleached and puffy crumb that we used to buy in NZ before the days of artisan bakeries. This 'meal' would be served on picnics, or when my mother had no time to cook, which was rare. What's more, it was always treated as a full and nourishing meal. It would be a long long time before I put two and two together; in fact, both my parents had died by the time I realised why they treated corned beef as a superior kind of salami.
I got six lean slices from the 200g can of corned beef. Half of them I fried in olive oil by flouring them first, while the other half of the mixture was added to a kolokithokeftedes batter (courgette fritters) and then fried in a similar way. Both patties were palatable - but would I bother to make this again?
My husband also remembers corned beef very well. There was one particular moment in his life where corned beef was in fact the only food available. After completing his studies at a local training centre for aircraft mechanics in the late 70s, he was then drafted for military duty. On arriving in Athens by overnight ferryboat, he took the train to Tripoli in the Peloponese. An army officer had been consigned to this journey, and his role was to take care of all the νεοσύλλεγκτοι, young men like himself, as they made their way to bootcamp. For most of them, it was their first time away from home, and the train journey was where they all ate their first army meal: a slice of cold corned beef, placed on a slice of stale bread. Husband, being unused to such coarse food served so roughly, threw his away, not because he didn't like corned beef, but because, as he explained to me, it wasn't cooked. He later discovered that he would have plenty of time to learn to eat cold corned beef: during training runs in the air force, each cadet would be given a slice of bread (this time, it was always fresh because there was a bakery in the camp) and a small can of corned beef to eat while they were away from the base. If they could manage to hold out a little longer, they would take their can back to the camp kitchens and eat it fried in slices.
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Corned beef became known to Greece during WWII. When the Nazis began confiscating people's food, the Greek people came to know hunger on a large scale. After the Nazis' departure, items like corned beef and other American food products were shipped to Greece through aid packages due to a local shortage of high energy food. Before the advent of supermarkets, not only was food expensive for the average Cretan, it was also difficult to come by so much variety. So corned beef was actually considered cheap and nourishing food, a handy and economical meat product that could be stored easily for a long time until needed.
My husband isn't the only curious person in the house. I was curious to find out why this kind of canned pork made such a sensation in the film "Christmas with the Kranks", starring Jamie Lee Curtis; apparently, Christmas just wasn't the same without this ham in their house (the shape of the can is the same as in the film, but I don't know about the texture).
I have never eaten corned beef since I left New Zealand, so I wondered how we were going to make use of the can that my husband bought. Due to the present ease of access in Crete to any kind of food that one's heart desires, combined with the abundance of fresh local food products, it was difficult to think of a moment when I would need to open a canned product to cook with.
My husband's food memories rest mainly with his mother's food. Although his family were considered poor, being the son of a taxi driver (and possibly also because he was an only child), quality food was always a top priority in their household. His father would go to the central town market, the Agora, and buy the biggest fish, which was never on display, because you had to be a 'special' customer for that kind of product. Still, corned beef made an appearance in his home. He remembers eating it often. Due to her proud Cretan spirit, his mother never served any food straight out of a can; this for her was a sign of slovenliness, γυφτιά. Similar to her recipe for canned Californian squid, she used corned beef in a cooked meal with a red sauce. According to my husband, he remembers eating this meal regularly while growing up.
1 can of corned beef (or pork, like the one I bought)
1 large tomato
1 medium onion
salt and pepper
Heat some oil in a wide saucepan and add the finely chopped onion. Saute till transparent, then add the crumbled corned beef. Let the meat cook for a few minutes until it is coated well in the oil. Add the tomato, crushed as a puree, and stir it into the mixture. Season the corned beef with salt and pepper. Let the pan cook till most of the liquid has evaporated. Then add the two beaten eggs and stir them into the mixture. When the eggs have set, this casserole is ready to eat.
We had this dish served with a salad and some bread, but my husband also recalls that his mother used to cook corned beef from Argentina in this way, and serve it on pasta (spaghetti). My friend Laurene tells me that this could also be used as a pie filling, as she recalls eating in her youth.
This meal resembles sludge. I thought it would end up as the dog's meal. I was surprised that it was enjoyed by 3/4 of the family. I honestly don't think I really want to eat it again. During my husband's youth, the gap between the rich and the poor in Hania may not have been very wide, but even then, the 'not-haves' stood out like sore thumbs among the 'haves'; at times like this when fresh produce was not cheap enough for everyone to afford, this kind of meal was considered real food.
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