Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Greeks eat what Greeks are (Τρωμε αυτό που είμαστε)

One way to discover the importance of food to people's identity is through festivals. Even when they are not specifically food-focussed, festivals are nearly always associated with specific food items. Food is always an important part of any festival, which may be associated with religious rites, national holidays or simple celebrations. The idea of a festival can be extended to include commemorations, not just necessarily joyous occassions. In Greek culture, all festivals are associated with specific recipes. Just as a Cretan wedding is not complete without xerotigana, a Greek Orthodox memorial service cannot be held without koliva. Globalised food items like popcorn and hotdogs are often associated with an outdoor partying atmosphere, like a mardi gras or a field day. You don't go to a street fair for the popcorn, but that's the stuff your festival memories are made of.

Festivals are a way of showing the world our precious possessions, and since food features prominently in festivals, this shows how precious and symbolic food is to us during such moments. Many regions of the world also celebrate specific food-related festivals. Without even leaving my hometown, I can think of at least half a dozen that take place in Hania with an almost religious fervour, although none are associated in any close way with religion: the wine festival, the tsikoudia festival, the kalitsouni festival, the cherry festival, the sardine festival, the chestnut festival. These displays of pleasure for a local product are not to be confused with special days in the year when certain foods are eaten: eg vasilopita on New Years, bakaliaro on March 25. If you came to my NZ home at Easter time, the kalitsounia, koulourakia, kreatourta and gardoumakia were never missing. Even though my mother was a very busy and tired woman, she placed importance on serving the appropriate food on the appropriate day of the year. I still make all these myself, not because everyone else does too, but because I associate them with that time of year. It's not just a Greek 'thing', it's ingrained in the Greek identity to place a certain importance on food. 

Although it's easy to think of certain recipes and food customs as old-fashioned, the internet seems to be playing a large role in preserving them. This is when food blogs take on a new importance. Just before a major religious festival in the Greek Orthodox calendar, Greeks living in and outside Greece start searching for the food that is related to their customs. It's a strange and humbling feeling to think that as I cook and write about my food, I am communicating to Greek people all over the world, especially Cretans, who are searching for their home or their roots; they are doing this through their food. Bear in mind that most people reading my blog are not living in Greece. This is not surprising, since I mainly write in English by choice. I know that the people interested in what I write are not going to be your average Greek in Greece; they will be your average Greek abroad.

I always know when it is Greeks that are searching for their food memories during a particular festive period in the Greek food calendars; there is a discernible spike in the statistics, and it always happens close to a fast or feast associated with the Greek Orthodox church. I get approximately the same number of regular readers per day, without much reposting of links, but there is a considerable number of daily hits before the start of Great Lent, and about a week or so before Easter. Why the sudden influx? Greeks all over the world, no matter what kind of a Greek identity they hold, are searching for their culinary customs, their root cuisine. Certain search strings hint at people with inside knowledge, ie they are most likely Greeks searching for their food, not non-Greeks who want to learn about Greek food. The search strings often used are in the following form:
  • Greek names are transliterated into Latin spelling (eg cretan kreatourta)
  • a non-standard English collocation is used in translation (eg continuous spiral spanakopita)
  • an English question is asked about Greek food/customs, hinting 'insider' knowledge (eg what food to eat on clean monday)
  • the words are written in Greek from a computer outside Greece (eg βλητα στα αγγλικα)
It's that last group that has lately made an impression on me. They're most likely new emigres.

There must be something that links Greeks with their food in a greater way than just nostalgic recollections for it. Greek food is an integral part of the Greek identity. Greeks may have left Greece, they may not speak the language, they may not attend church often, they may be only partly Greek, but what they grew on with, they don't forget easily. They look out for their food. This is a trait shared by a number of ancient civilisations that exhibit group behaviour no matter which country they live in. Greeks are what they eat, and they eat what they are.

But it isn't just the Greeks who like their own food. One of the best food marketing trends these days is to call a food product Greek. Despite the reputation that the crisis has brought on the country, this has not affected Greek food sales abroad. The Greek food sector is the only one in the whole economy of Greece at present that has remained relatively unaffected by her economic problems.

Greek food: it's undeniably a way out of the crisis.

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