July 2015

Teri Vlassopoulos


Smashing Plates

My father was in Greece in April. He goes often, but hadn't been in a few months and when he came back he was depressed. "Too many people died," he told me. He'd taken a walk to the cemetery on the small island where our family spends its time, not for morbid reasons, but because it's pretty and perched on a high point that looks out onto pine trees, the sea, approaching boats. Gravestones are often decorated with laminated color photos, and, when he looked at the new pictures, he recognized many faces. They were the old men and women he'd pass in town, the fixtures you believed would somehow always be there, ageless in their old age. But of course they weren't immortal. It's just that change in Greece happens slowly, imperceptibly, and when you finally do notice it, it's jarring.

Change in a place like Greece is hard, I think, because it's so constrained by what was there before. The past infuses all facets of life, from politics to run-of-the-mill daily activities. You don't knock down ruins to build something new, and innovation doesn't always trump antiquity. The best you can do, like with the subway system built in Athens for the Olympics, is build around the ruins, incorporate them, display those urns and foundation walls and masks because they are so old and so perfect. It doesn't help that Greece's main industry is tourism and visitors mostly care about seeing a reflection of their idea of Greece, which rarely includes anything created in the past century.

I thought about this -- the slow rate of change, the weight, and also burden, of tradition -- while reading Maria Elia's Smashing Plates: Greek Flavors Redefined. It's not a big leap to make, considering that food is a large part of the world's idea of Greece. It's its own kind of perfection already, an abundance of olive oil, oregano, lemons and grilled meats. Elia uses this as a starting point and then jumps off into different directions. She wants to give "new insight into Greek cuisine" using recipes inspired by her own Greek heritage and a summer spent cooking at her father's taverna in the mountains of Cyprus.

The first time I paged through the book, I resisted her interpretations. It seemed not exactly silly, but like there was something too clever, too try hard, about reinventing classics. And then I was disappointed in myself for feeling this way, so I looked at it again more seriously, and started cooking. While I'm not usually swayed by blurbs, it makes sense that Smashing Plates would be endorsed by someone like Ferran Adria. Elia's twists are surprising, or at least interesting. There are recipes for things like shrimp cocktail made with ouzo infused mayo, as well as a Greek version of a Scotch egg where the sausage is seasoned with mint, parsley, and cinnamon. There's dried fig leaf pasta, kalamata olive gnocchi, and "Greek coffee on a plate," a deconstruction of the classic small cup of strong coffee using a goat's milk panna cotta and chocolate crumb "soil."

The mash-ups of traditional Greek dishes are what I liked best, like the moussaka-stuffed tomatoes. Savory baklava made with cooked green beans and tomatoes stuffed between layers of filo pastry and then dotted with dates was amazing -- sweet but not cloying, and equally good as a side dish or vegetarian main. It turns out that baklava is a good base, and Elia also includes a recipe for rabbit baklava, as well as a sweet version that's made with plum and lavender.

Elia doesn't completely buck tradition, though, and the book includes its share of classics, like Gigantes Plaki, broad beans cooked slowly in a large flat dish. There's a breakdown of the "anatomy" of a Greek salad, as well, its delicate balance of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, olives, olive oil and oregano. She allows for a few deviations, like green bell pepper or fennel (never lettuce, though. Never). There are also recipes for thoroughly unmodern foods, like pickled squab and homemade halloumi.

The title Smashing Plates recalls a Greek cliché, but thankfully there are none included in the book. And actually, despite the cliché, people rarely smash plates in Greece anymore. It was banned for a few years during Georgios Papadopoulos's military dictatorship in the early seventies, and then later waned in popularity when everyone realized that it was excessive, even for Greek standards. If you truly want to break a few celebratory plates you can order some that are designed specifically for smashing (cheap plaster, easily broken), but otherwise people will throw around napkins, or, more poetically, flowers.

Greece is in need of many changes politically and economically, and while it will take time, it will happen, eventually. The population is ready for it. What I liked about Smashing Plates was that even though it's about food and cooking, there was an overarching invigorating feeling to it, a reminder that change can be exciting, surprising and possible, while still being respectful to the past.

Teri Vlassopoulos lives in Toronto. More of her writing can be found at http://bibliographic.net.