Homemakers with the Golden Touch: Making Something Out of Nothing

Wednesday, 05 February 2014. Christina Tsamoura

Homemakers with the Golden Touch: Making Something Out of Nothing

Perhaps the most touching part of tradi -tional Greek cooking is what we call “Recipes Made from Scratch.”

Loukoumades (fried dough pastry), tiganites (pancakes), kourkoubinia (little phyllo rolls)… “Fried sweets” are among the most popular pastries in traditional Greek cuisine and they have made generations and generations of children’s faces gleam with joy over the years. And yet, these countless moments of pure childhood delight were masterfully made “from scratch:” a handful of flour and water with some olive oil for frying. Freshly baked bread is also made from “scratch,” and even today when it comes out of the oven nice and hot, even the most conscientious carb counter cannot resist reaching over for a slice. Flour, olive oil, and water are also the basic ingredients in a pita (pie), which often contained nothing more than a few wild greens that some homemaker picked along a trail on the way back home from the field and carefully stashed in her apron.

They say that the foundation of traditional Greek cooking is the trio of flour, olive oil, and wine. And when we hear the word “foundation,” it is usually implied that it will serve as the basis for some “superstructure” that will soon follow, where all the ingredients will ultimately come together to form the entirety of a dish. The (somewhat bitter) irony in the whole matter is that, as we have seen, Greek folk cooking has some very popular recipes to showcase where the initial foundation and the final product are one and the same – while the gastronomical “superstructure” never appears. And the irony is somewhat “bitter” because this observation testifies to the existence of a cuisine in which everyday cooks –the housewives with the “golden touch” – learned their art not at some culinary seminar, but from the necessities of life.

These women had to bear the burden of providing for the daily sustenance of a typically large family living in a poor and harsh natural or social environment. Some were farmers who were not fortunate enough to be born in the so-called “blessed” lands of the Mediterranean, next to fertile plains with well-fed livestock, fruit-bearing trees, plentiful gardens, abundant water, and cultivable soil, but rather in some “hellacious” mountainous crag also located in the Mediterranean, where you’d shudder in fear when it started to snow, or in some weather beaten, scalding “barren island,” where the only thing you’d think grew there were rocks. Still others were members of the early “urban” working class… You know the ones… those who lived in Athens in the 1920s, 77 percent of whom packed their entire family into a one-room home, with 41 percent of them (adults and children alike) sharing the same bed. And then again, there were others whose destiny included having to feed their entire family amidst wars and displacement.

Anyway you look at it, there were countless reasons and moments in the history of the Greek people when poverty abounded and material goods were scarce – and this influenced the cuisine as well. And these innumerable housewives with the “golden touch,” who could whip up a meal from scratch, kept their families alive thanks to their ingenuity and talent in coming up with so many different versions and forms of the same food, relying on ingredients as common as flour, olive oil, and water. Their everyday concoctions made children’s faces beam with joy. One day it was a golden brown tiganita, which was sweet because it had two drops of honey and cinnamon on top, the other day it would taste salty because they would top it with a little bit of grated cheese, the following day it would take the shape of a ball, as jubilant children would announce: “we’re having loukoumades tonight!” One can see the same ingredients and the same ingenuity used in the preparation of pita dough, only with greater technique. Some layers of phyllo are so transparent and ethereal that you would be hard pressed to believe that they were actually rolled out by hand. This is yet another chapter in the Greek culinary tradition regarding foods that change shape, texture, and appearance depending on the occasion – a perfect example of which is every type of “leipsopita” or “ftohopita” (pita of the poor), which could serve as the title for an entire category of pies.

If you have game meat, eggs, delicatessen meats, cheeses, butter, heavy cream, abundant chocolate, fruits, and nuts brought from the Garden of Eden together with spices from the four corners of the earth at your disposal… well, then, no matter what you do – unless you are completely useless in the kitchen – you’ll be able to put together something edible. Depending on your knowledge and talent, you might even produce a culinary masterpiece. However, the opposite situation – making something out of nothing – is what creates awe and amazement. We pay our respect to those old-school homemakers who were skilled in the art of creating beauty, smiles, and delicacies from the meager ingredients at their disposal – and who knew how to ensure that their loved ones were never deprived of this joy because of the absence of ingredients that they wish they had.

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