My father’s and my favorite dish was lamb and green beans, “arni fasolia” in Greek which is what we called it. My father would take me into the kitchen if he’d made it and give me a spoon to taste immediately, we always thought it was our best try ever. And it always was. As I grew up he’d take me to restaurant suppliers deep in the unvisited areas of Minneapolis where we could get fresh vegetables, meat and fish like cod or squid. Then we’d go home and he would show me how to make it.
When my parents divorced and my father moved to Florida the first time I visited him he had made arni fasolia. Suddenly that strange kitchen seemed familiar, suddenly we were there.
I made arni fasolia for my family regularly. It was part of my building and entering my own family, passing down what meant love and intimacy. My children are married now and have their own children. The first time my son and daughter in law had us for dinner since they became parents my son made arni fasolia.
I had made it for them growing up, it was part of my entering into a family, my family, part of feeling close. I am not at all sure how the meaning of that food passed down to my children but it did, we never talked about those stories. But they understood its special place, they felt all that it carried.
The food rituals from my growing up years fall into categories. American and Greek. American consisted of chocolate chip cookies, brownies and occasionally, popovers and pop corn balls. We were all experts in all of these, the other American foods that entered our house were made by whoever was working for us at any given time, my mother avoided cooking pretty much as much as possible. None the less, bagels, cream cheese, marmalade and hot coffee on the balcony was a ritual that our family all remembers fondly, it was one of the few things my mother really loved making and so we all loved eating it, often for hours and hours.My mother taught us, through this ritual, how to stretch breakfast into lunch, how to have fun together. And how to make endless and amusing conversation at the table, or to just eat and talk about how good it was and just what to combine to make it perfect!
Other than that, everything was Greek. My father was an excellent cook, he was “Mediterranean” before it was ever named, I grew up on olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables, grilled fish, lamb and seared meat at high temperatures. We had restaurant equipment and we made smoothies, malts, fresh orange juice, all of it. And everything he cooked was an opportunity for me to learn not only how to cook, which he explained, but about him, about his childhood growing up on an island in Greece, about his career as a restaurateur.
My grandmother loved cooking for her family. She and “Poulie” (from the Greek Papouli) upsized when their children left home, they viewed their family as expanding rather than shrinking and they needed more space. They “built it and we came”, in numbers and all the time, their home was the second home for all of our aunts, uncles and cousins, we knew what was in every closet, drawer and certainly what was in the kitchen. And food was at the center of it. We ate lunch on Sundays at my grandmothers, it’s where we learned what it meant to be a family. To this day our cousins share the warmth that lived and breathed in that house, around that table, in that kitchen.
We always said the Lord’s Prayer in Greek before we ate and did the sign of the cross.If you’re Greek God is sort of laced into everything and especially food. And especially family. And life.
Grammie felt that she was a wonderful cook and we all agreed, I am not even sure that she was but she cared so much about what she made that it all tasted perfect. We could drop by her house unannounced any time and she would feed us, she always made extra dolmathes, horta or keftethes to freeze, just in case. And then there was the Sara Lee pound cake, vanilla ice cream and Hersey’s chocolate syrup. She always had something to give us, even coffee and a half a piece of toast at Grammie’s tasted great. The ritual was this. You came in, she kissed you, “Hi Honey,” she never got our names straight though we each felt loved exactly and precisely for ourselves (or close enough, the spillover love felt great, too). So she asked us which thing we wanted. We sat in the kitchen while she made it. We went into the library and ate it on TV trays then she asked us how we were and she sat, spell bound (we all felt) while we told her. Monologues. When we took a breath she asked us another question. She laughed at our jokes, giggled at our stories and congratulated us for whatever we did that was good then reminded us to thank God for whatever it was because it was always a blessing and you should be grateful (then you’d get more). And food of some sort or another was always and I mean always the warm up, even if we didn’t eat it.
When my parents divorced and our house seemed to empty out in 18 months, we could still go to Grammie’s. I think that saved the day. Coffee and a half a piece of toast. And a place to be. A place to remember who I was, who we all were together, who we once were and were no longer, and who we could still become.And I became that and much more, I fullfilled their dreams and mine. And food, the love and laughter that surounded it set a template in my mind so strong that even when I thought I had lost so much, I found it all again. I filled in the grid, it was there all the time and I knew what to do, what to look for and what felt like family. And food, food that smelled “delicious” that tasted “just right” was always part of it. Food that said a thousand things and taught so many lessons, the ritual of dreaming up, preparing, comparing and eating together.