My standard reply to those who asked why I moved to San Francisco from Washington, DC was “for the produce, of course.” And it was true, among other obvious attractions. San Francisco has tons of specialty shops and beautiful produce, the options were overwhelming – and that was in the 80s, when things were just taking off. Since everyone is from everywhere, it’s only natural to experiment or fuse familiar ingredients with the exotic – an age-old concept made easier by creative chefs, farmers, importers and express mail. When re-creating traditional dishes from the homeland, it’s a matter of making do with what’s available, but the odds are good in the Bay Area. Many traditional Greek dishes can be replicated since there’s a large Greek-American community and demand for imports, and the climate of the area is comparable to Greece so similar crops thrive there. Traveling straight to the source for artichokes, almonds, walnuts, olives and wine is a great privilege and adventure. Californians may take their proximity to farms for granted, but I never did.
My first traditional Greek dinner party in my tiny Bay Street apartment was with a group of friends dubbed the half-Greek girl society – three fabulous women who where also half-Greek — a wonderful coincidence and cause for frequent celebration. The society grew with many honorary members who loved to cook and didn’t want to miss the fun. A few modifications and omissions had to be made because certain items were unavailable like fresh cheeses or mountain snails and others Americans are not accustomed to eating – the snails, lamb kidneys or fried liver and never enough vegetables.
Many Greek specialties are best made a day before like stuffed grape leaves, or tatziki, the infamous yogurt-cucumber sauce, marinated red peppers and artichoke hearts, and baklava with wonderful almonds, walnuts and honey — direct from California’s central valley. Other dishes can be compiled long before baking like spinach pie, or moussaka — sauteed eggplant layered between ground lamb seasoned with wine, tomatoes and herbs, topped with feta and béchamel sauce — decadent and always in demand. The society went foraging for items needed with grandmother’s recipe in hand and came to my place the day before to put it all together. Each knowing the other all too well, brought a few bottles of wine along with the groceries – needless to say, we did quite a bit of socializing while cooking but miraculously finished the production. Girls bonding at its best.
On the big day, every table in my apartment was covered with food, wine, ouzo and Metaxa. There was not a morsel left at the end of the day. The official party with my crazy friends dancing and imitating Zorba was truly memorable and the “society” members were praised once again for their culinary expertise.
Our friends were familiar with popular Greek dishes – there were several small, decent restaurants and the Greek pizza-gyro joints serving the odd spinach pie filled with cottage cheese instead of feta or baklava laced with sugar syrup instead of honey. There were also plenty of Med Diet spots opening all around us, most of which were great but pushing it by fusing the entire Mediterranean region together on one plate. Our friends were in for a treat because we went through great pains to compile the most authentic menu and cut no corners in quality. These days, with white tablecloth Greek restaurants in the Bay Area and across the nation, people have the opportunity to discover how delicious Greek food can be – and with more great chefs migrating to the Bay Area and the availability of ingredients, we’re seeing that up-scale status is no longer restricted to certain corners of the world.
It’s wonderful when people participate in celebrations of other cultures that may be vastly different from their own with an open heart and mind. Some universal celebrations have just turned into big drinking parties (St. Patrick’s Day, Fat Tuesday, Cinco de Mayo). It’s great when people come together to celebrate, but sad when the reason is long forgotten. But for our celebrations like Easter, Greek or not, religious or not, it’s always been a special day with loved ones and a tribute to our roots. Something special happens when people cook together, or maybe it’s just my imagination.
Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways