Food and culture – Eating Greek style

A country’s culture is embodied in its food and how the people eat. Nowhere was that more evident than on my recent trip to Greece.

When my friend Mary and I planned our trip, we factored in plenty of time between the major attractions to stop at any random spot if we saw something unexpected. What we didn’t know was that relaxing over a cup of coffee or a meal – sometimes for hours – is quintessentially Greek, and those activities would fill much of our open time.

We were encouraged in this by our driver, a Greek who owned a construction company prior to the economic crisis and who has driven a taxi since. We felt incredibly lucky to have teamed up with this amiable and knowledgeable traveling companion who signed on to drive and translate but also served as our guide into Greek history, the economy, customs, and food.

Greek meals are occasions for wide-ranging discussions. And good food.

As Americans, we tend to bolt food even in a good restaurant as the wait staff work to turn the table and we rush on to the next thing. In the Greek style, we ate fresh food slowly, savoring conversation and companionship as much as the food.

Two food favorites rose to the top during this trip: souvlaki and a classic country salad called a “Mani Plate.”

On our first full day in Athens, after we toured the Parthenon, our guide led us to a small restaurant in the Plaka and introduced us to souvlaki. Souvlaki is similar to a gyro – meat, tomatoes, onions, and tzatziki sauce wrapped up in pita bread. Often it comes with fries.

Already inexpensive at about two Euros, souvlaki is even less expensive if you take it ‘to go.’ We found the price to be about the same whether in Athens or the countryside. Souvlaki is what Greeks eat, and I can see why. A complete delicious, inexpensive meal. Can’t go wrong with that.

Our need to use ‘the facilities’ led us to our next food discovery. No, you can’t simply stop at a gas station for a toilet. In Greece, the gas stations sell gas and that’s it. Isn’t that a concept?

The Mani Plate is a classic ‘country salad’ also called xoriatiki.

Since it was time for an afternoon coffee break anyway, we found a restaurant to serve our needs. While there, our driver suggested we try tsipouro, an alcoholic beverage better imbibed with food in your stomach. He recommended the Mani Plate (named for the Mani Peninsula on which the town was located). We were already disposed to take his recommendations, and this was another good one.

The Mani Plate consisted of fresh tomatoes and cucumber slices, cheese, meat, and olives. With a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, pepper, and oregano, it was magnificent.

In the same family as ouzo, tsipouro is a drink associated with hospitality and good company. A drink to linger over. So we did. For a couple of hours. Talking, nibbling at the salad, glowing as the tsipouro kicked in, absorbing Greek culture.

One hotel offered honey-flavored tsipouro as a welcome gift. Reason enough to relax with a bit of cheese and lots of conversation.

For us, this mid-afternoon repast was enough for the day. Greeks would eat again late in the evening, but late nights were a part of Greek culture that passed us by.

I haven’t made souvlaki since returning to the States, though I have the recipe on a refrigerator magnet. The Mani Plate, on the other hand, is a regular lunch treat, especially now that tomatoes and cucumbers are fresh from our garden. Sadly, the tsipouro I brought back from Greece is long gone.

The Greek culture was at its finest with souvlaki or the Mani Plate, a glass of tsipouro, and the long, relaxed conversations that accompanied every Greek meal and every cup of coffee.

What’s your favorite way to immerse in a country’s culture when you travel? Drop a note and share your favorite discoveries.

Thelma & Louise hit the road again

Can't pass up a big chair

Can’t pass up a big chair

You know you’re in the south when …

  • The people at the next table are drinking Coca Cola for breakfast
  • Dairy Queen serves the best biscuits and gravy for breakfast
  • Corn pudding is a side dish option for lunch
Berea, Kentucky combines art and history.

Berea, Kentucky combines art and history.

My friend Sue and I have hit the road – just like and nothing like – Thelma & Louise. We plan to have some fun, enjoy the sights of the southeastern states, see some friends, and relax on the North Carolina beach. So far we’ve traversed six states: Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

A great night for a boat ride.

A great night for a boat ride.

We’ve met interesting people – the woman at breakfast for instance – who told us more than we wanted to know about southern food and who used way more words than anyone should that early in the morning.

Captain Paul pilots us out of Honahlee

Captain Paul pilots us out of Honahlee

We’ve explored art and history in Kentucky.

We’ve reprised the big chair theme from a trip to California.

We’ve enjoyed an evening of boating with friends Nan and Paul and spectacular food at the Lakeside Tavern.

Today we’ll tour in the Smoky Mountain National Park.

Honky-tonks, hitchhikers, and hell-raising are not on our list.

Don’t overlook the small stuff.

The Iowa State Fair wrapped up on Sunday. In the course of 11 days, contestants participated in 11,278 events, competing in everything from cattle to cup cakes, jazz to jam, dressage to desserts. Keeping it all straight and just as important, on the up and up, is no easy task. A friend and I learned that when we sat in on the judging of the “I have a secret ingredient” competition.

Iron Chef has nothing on these competitors

The gist of this contest is that competitors bring everything they need to make a main dish meal on the spot. Before they begin, they’re presented with a surprise ingredient they must incorporate into their dish. In this case, a bell pepper. But as it turns out, the bell pepper would be the least of their challenges.

There were four competitors. Two of the women were the two who had taken first and second in this event last year. These women were calm, confident, and seldom smiled. The third woman was a student in the culinary arts program at Des Moines Area Community College–our favorite only because we talked to her in advance of the event. The fourth competitor, a man, arrived moments before the competition began, pulling a cooler on wheels and juggling several additional bags of utensils and ingredients.

As the competition unfolded, we provided our own running commentary of each participant’s effort. We were impressed that our student was not flustered by the fact that the fair-supplied electric skillet didn’t work. We were astounded at the quantity of ingredients the man chopped and diced. We wondered when, if ever, he’d get around to actually cooking something. The two seasoned competitors completed cooking and plated their dishes (an Hawaiian pork chop with rice and a lamb with Feta cheese tostada) before he even put patties in the skillet.

By the time the judge had evaluated the first two entries, our student was ready to go. Except she wasn’t aware she had to provide a written copy of her recipe. So she sat and wrote it while her shrimp congealed in a cooling Alfredo sauce. The man was still chopping ingredients and from time to time molding everything together in his hands. My friend questioned whether she wanted anyone handling her food that much.

Finally, our student’s dish was evaluated. Finally the man actually cooked what turned out to be buffalo sliders. Finally, he arranged everything on a plate, topped one slider with a little paper umbrella for good measure and presented it to the judges. Only to realize he hadn’t written down his recipe either. At least all was equal. His entree was cold before the judge tasted it, too.

Finally, the judge was ready to announce her decision. Fourth place to our student. Third and second to the other women. Before the judge could walk to the end of the table to award first prize to the man and his buffalo sliders, the seasoned competitors filed a protest. Much hushed discussion by the judges. A senior fair official was called in. More hushed discussions.

Finally, an explanation and a decision. The rules clearly stated that everything on the plate must be edible. The man’s paper umbrella was not. Therefore he could not win. Ribbons were retrieved. Awards re-presented. Last year’s winners were this year’s winners. Our student took third. The man went home with an honorable mention.

Proving at the very least that fair competitions today are every bit as serious as they were when Aunt Bee entered her infamous kerosene dill pickles in the Mayberry Fair. Proving once again that it is often the little things that undo us. Proving as well that it is not wise to mess with people who know the rules by heart!

Mom’s gift of hospitality

Mom & Jane - Masters of Hospitality

Life on our family farm was controlled by three things: the seasons of the year, the cows that had to be milked twice a day, and Mom’s meals that got us all sitting around the table at 7 a.m., noon, and 7 p.m.

Mom could put a meal on the table faster than I can form the idea “meal” in my mind. Her skill was honed during 30 years as a farmer’s wife and once she and Dad retired to town, there was no need to change.

If anyone showed up close to meal time, she’d say, “Oh, stay and eat with us! We’ll put another plate on.” She always meant it. If it wasn’t exactly meal time, it was always time for lunch. Morning, afternoon, before bed. There was always food.

Hired men. The milk tester. Visiting relatives. Neighbors passing by. Mom welcomed them in with a smile and food. Preparing food was her job and her pleasure. Given that Mom had a fruit cellar with floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with vegetables, fruits, and meats she canned herself, if she needed to stretch a meal all she had to do was open another jar.

Mom passed the hospitality gene on to my sisters. My older sister Jane opened her large Victorian home as a bed and breakfast, welcoming strangers who became friends. A long time resident of Arizona, my younger sister Sue hosts a community center welcoming seniors for meals, telling them jokes, and remembering all their names even after meeting them just once.

Sad to say, the food portion of the hospitality gene skipped me. I enjoy guests but preparing meals makes me anxious. I expect I over think it. I can’t shake the feeling that food for guests has to be fancy. I didn’t get that idea from Mom. She was a meat and potatoes cook.

The food was basic but it was always good. And it was always served with Mom’s smile and a sincere, “Oh, stay and eat with us!” She meant it, and that, I think, is the secret to true hospitality.