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Greece In Memory: The Food Traditions of Greece


Talks with Barbara Aliprantis

“…The oral tradition of storytelling is not a magic bullet that will solve the ills of today’s global society but, it is a wonderful tool to bring people together to foster communication and understanding.”
-Barbara Aliprantis, Storyteller

Barbara Aliprantis began life in Naoussa, a small fishing village on the Greek island of Paros. At age three, she moved with her family to the United States where they adopted Brooklyn, New York as their new home.

I remember the day like it was yesterday. I remember crying and being in the arms of my grandmother, Harikilia, sitting on a donkey. My sister, Calypso, was sitting on another donkey with my other yiayia [grandmother]. My mother was also on a donkey. She was incredibly sad…We had to walk seven miles to the town, and everyone in the village was lining the street to say goodbye. Everyone was crying.

The family, including Barbara’s mother, two sisters, and older brother, left Paros to reunite with Barbara’s father, a merchant marine, who had already immigrated to the United States (English 2000).

Barbara continues to remember the tiny fishing village of Naoussa she left almost 50 years ago. She remembers it through stories of its sites, smells, tastes, and people. Since the 1990s, Barbara has worked as a professional storyteller sharing her memories of Greece with others. Barbara finds inspiration in the Aesop’s fables her father would read to her as a child and the many friends and family who would fill her childhood home with stories of Greece and Greek mythology. Barbara’s career as a storyteller began to take shape when she started working on plays at her sons’ school, PS 107 in Flushing, and creating puppet shows for children’s birthday parties. At the same time, she began learning sign language and in 1980, Barbara began working as a storyteller for St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf in the Bronx. In 1989, she earned a bachelor’ degree in performing arts from Empire State College of the State University (English 2000). As a member of the National Storytelling Network, African Folk Heritage Circle, and the Flushing Jewish Community Council Multicultural Committee, Barbara works with child and adult audiences from various ethnic backgrounds to share the experiences of immigrants through story.


Prepackaged herbs from Greece, Mediterranean Food Gift Center, 2000. © Erin H. Moriarty

In the summer and fall of 2000, I was lucky enough to work with Barbara, a Flushing resident, on the Gardener-in-Residence program. Queens is home to a large number of Greek immigrants mainly concentrated in the communities of Astoria, Bayside, and Flushing. Although not as large as Astoria, known as “Little Athens”, Flushing supports a significant Greek community with churches, businesses, and community centers that form its core. The Mediterranean Food and Gift Center, located on Northern Boulevard in Flushing is one such example of the many Greek owned businesses in the area. Sitting in the shadow of a large Greek Orthodox Church, the store sells imported food, Greek newspapers and magazines, CD’s of popular Greek artists, bath items, and religious paraphernalia. The Mediterranean Food and Gift Center serves as a site in which the cultural traditions associated with this immigrant community are preserved. Through our talks, Barbara revealed to me that in a plant is a story, a memory of who we are and where we have been. It is her personal story of Greece, through its plants and people, which unfolds in the following pages.


As I step into her car on our way to The Mediterranean Food and Gift Center, Barbara pulls out a large bunch of dried sage springs for me to smell. The sage came from Greece. Although Barbara can buy sage (Salvia sp.) in many of the supermarkets in her area, she prefers to bring it back from her frequent trips to Greece. Barbara tells me she is not the only one who shares in this practice. Herbs perfume the airplane cabins returning to the United States from Greece. Dill (Anethum graveolens), chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), oregano (Origanum sp.), rosemary (Rosmarinus sp.), fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), thyme (Thymus sp.), marjoram (Origanum majorana), cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), and sage are the aromas of Greece.

As we make our way around the store, a display of dried figs (Ficus carica) reminds Barbara of the summer harvest. In Greece, following the harvest, the figs are baked in an oven with sesame seeds and sometimes almonds. In a display of rosewater, Barbara finds a memory of homemade lotion that the women in her family used to make from rosewater and glycerin.

 

Display of olives, Mediterranean Food and Gift Center, 2000.
© Erin H. Moriarty

 
Display of olive oils, Mediterranean Food and Gift Center, 2000.
© Erin H. Moriarty

The many foods that line the shelves of The Mediterranean Food and Gift Center are all a reflection of Barbara’s memories and culture. A wall of the store has been dedicated to gallon-sized containers of various olive oils, testifying to the olive’s (Olea europaea var. europaea) importance in Greek cuisine. The spicy taste of garlic (Allium sativum) is used to flavor Greek dishes. One such dish is made with gigantic lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus), called giantes, which are soaked over night and cooked in a garlic flavored tomato sauce. Barbara bought a bag of the gigantic lima beans, while we toured the store, to mail toa relative living in the United States who was having trouble finding the unusual bean. Lemon (Citrus sp.) is also an indispensable flavor used generously on many Greek dishes such as grape leaves and even French-fries. Rosemary is used in many pickling recipes including one for pickled fish flavored with rosemary and vinegar. Onions (Allium cepa), preserved in vinegar, brine, and olive oil, are eaten as an appetizer. Tahini, a paste made from ground hulled sesame seeds (Sesamum indicum), is used in many foods including sauces and Lenten cakes (Greek Ladies Philoptochos Society 1987). Capers (Capparis spinosa), a pickled immature flower bud, are often added to salads. Béchamel, a white sauce, is used in many dishes including a dish that resembles Italian lasagna. Dried nuts, known as pasatembos meaning to “pass the time”, are eaten as snacks. Popular pasatembos include, dried chickpeas (Cicerarietinum), that can be bought salted or unsalted, pumpkinseeds (Cucurbita pepo), and sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus)

 

 Spoon Sweets, Mediterranean Food and Gift Center, 2000.
© Erin H. Moriarty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sweets in Greece are very different from the chocolate-based sweets primarily enjoyed in the United States. Served in the afternoon with Turkish coffee (Coffea arabica), sweets are eaten to appease the appetite before the traditional late dinner (The Women of St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church 1963). Preserves, also known as spoon sweets are a popular food literally eaten off of a spoon. Preserve flavors include, sweetened eggplant (Solanum melongena), orange (Citrus sp.), pistachio (Pistacia vera), walnut (Juglans sp.), cherry (Prunus sp.), vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), quince (Cydonia oblonga), rose petal (Rosa sp.), fig and mastic (Pistacia lentiscus). Spoon sweets are often served with a glass of water to houseguests as they arrive. Rosewater (anthonero), distilled water flavored with rose oil, is a popular dessert ingredient among many Middle Eastern and South Asian countries (Greek Ladies Philoptochos Society 1987). Orange water and honey are also used to flavor desserts as well. Honey is drizzled over donuts, used in baklava - a popular Middle Eastern pastry and as a sweetener in tea.

It is interesting to note that styles of cuisine across the Middle East are greatly similar. In fact, many of the dishes carry the same name from region to region since Arabic is the dominant language in this geographical area. In spite of these similarities, the way in which such dishes are prepared and seasoned may vary greatly. For example, baklava is prepared with pistachio nuts and rosewater syrup in Lebanon while in Greece it is more often prepared with walnuts and honey.


Turkish Coffee,
Mediterranean Food and Gift Center, 2000.
© Erin H. Moriarty


Jars of Honey,
Mediterranean Food and Gift Center, 2000.
© Erin H. Moriarty

Many of the spices and plants Barbara spoke of had a secondary religious significance. The spice mahlepi is used to flavor a traditional bread baked for Easter. The hard nugget-shaped spice from Syria, which must be ground before using, is also chewed like gum. During Christmas time, rosewater flavored cookies as well as almond butter cookies are traditionally served. Halvah, made from sesame seeds, sugar, and flavored with cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) is enjoyed during Lent as dairy products are banned during the 40-day holy period. A wheat (Triticum sp.) dish, kolyva, is served during memorial services. The boiled wheat is symbolic of the Resurrection. “Just as a grain of wheat must first be planted to take root and bear fruit, so man has promise of resurrection and eternal life when he dies and is buried.” Traditionally, kolyva is distributed after a memorial service. As it is eaten, individuals offer a prayer for the “soul of the departed person” (Greek Ladies Philoptochos Society 1987:190). Many non-food items sold at the store have religious undertones as well. Perfumed rose incense, religious incense burners, and religious icons are purchased mainly for the home.

The symbolism of food items extends beyond the religious world and into the spiritual. The evil eye is a cross-cultural superstition recognized throughout the Middle East and in many Spanish-speaking countries. It is believed to be brought onto people when compliments are given. Children, and especially babies, are often most susceptible to the evil eye and therefore must be protected from it. One day during a trip to Greece, years ago, after many compliments had been given to Barbara’s newborn, the baby was taken into a private room and a ritual was preformed to dispel the evil eye. The ritual involves a special prayer said over a cup of water with 3 to 4 drops of olive oil added. At certain intervals, the child’s name is recited and the person saying the prayer yawns. This ritual is repeated until the oil combines with the water, a sign that the evil eye has been dispelled.

Superstition and spiritualism are an integral part of Greek culture, as both the businessman and the farmer practice it. On a second occasion, Barbara remembers finding a small cotton bag tied with string inside her first child’s clothing. The bag contained a silver coin, granulated sugar, a cross made out of toothpicks, and a gold string. A neighbor had placed the charm inside her child’s clothing to protect him. Each item contained in the bag was symbolic. The silver coin ensured that Barbara’s son would grow up to be a strong man; the miniature cross symbolized his role as a good Christian; the sugar ensured the child would have a good disposition; and the gold thread made reference to the saying “When you raise a child you spin gold”.


Today the Greek community of Flushing consists mainly of older immigrants and it is beginning to shrink with the influx of mostly Asian immigrants to the area. As this shift takes place, boundaries between communities blur. “We are turning into a global village,” Barbara says. For Barbara, the realization of this global village is the main focus of her work as a storyteller. Her stories of Greece encourage listeners to preserve their individual cultural identity and celebrate those of others.
Barbara can be seen on the second Tuesday of every month performing at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village where she shares her memories.


References

Aliprantis, Barbara. Notes from conversation, 2000.

English, Merle. “She’s Quite a Story” Newsday, January 5, 2000.

Greek Ladies Philoptochos Society “Myroforoi” Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church. 1987. The Greek Palette Kearney, Nevada: Cookbooks by Morris Press.

The Women of St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church. 1963. The Art of Greek Cookery Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc


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