Postcard from Greece: The Authentic Meal

My older sister, my only older sibling, has a big year ahead of her. Last month, her boyfriend proposed (she said yes). Four months from now, she turns 30. And her wedding will be held in August.

She and I are close, but it’s been more than ten years since we lived in the same town. With all the hoopla coming up, I wanted to get some alone time with her, so I asked if she’d come to London to visit. She’d never been overseas before.

“You know what I’d like to do?” I told her via IM when she was booking the flight to the U.K. “I’d like to take a vacation while you’re here -- get out of London for a bit. I know London will be new for you, but I could stand to go elsewhere for a few days.”

“Okay!” she typed. “Like maybe Ireland?”

“I was thinking maybe Greece.”

Older Sister has spent the last four years of her life holed up in Buffalo, NY (which is perpetually under at least two feet of snow), studying and teaching philosophy. The next year of her life will be spent writing her doctoral dissertation. She’s all up on Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, so it’s been a dream of hers to make it to Athens and see the Acropolis.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, she forwarded me a link to a food enthusiast writer who has a complete site dedicated to Greek food. Her subject line was, “This site was made for you!”

And that’s the set up: Older Sister’s first time overseas and she’s going to her Mecca. I’m really thrilled to be spending time with her and desperate to get out of London for a few days. We’re both really sick of cold weather.

Off we go!

The Authentic Greek
Our much-needed trip was filled with great foods, over indulgence, historical and philosophical appreciation, and lots of walking. (More on some of those details in another post.)

While strolling around Athens during our last day in the city, I asked Older Sister what she would say when people asked her, “How was Greece?” Seeing as it was her first time in Europe, I was curious to know what her first impressions were. What was her overall sense of the place?

She said she was surprised that the city was so modern, and that she was really taken by the Acropolis. I know she was also annoyed with the fact that smoking is still allowed almost everywhere in Athens, and earlier in the week she said something to the effect of, “You know how in all those European movies you see dozens and dozens of people zipping around on Vespas? I didn’t know that was real.”

I then posed a similar question to myself: What would I say, upon returning, about the food?

The main thing that struck me was that I’ve eaten a lot of very authentic Greek food in my life. Sometimes I hear from other travelers that the American version of a particular food is remarkably different than its homegrown variety. Italian-American food is quite different from the regional cuisines across Italy. Thai food States-side doesn’t taste nearly as fresh and vibrant as the same dishes as eaten in Thailand (although I’ve never been to Thailand, I’ve also heard some discrepancies about whether chopsticks are used in the country at all, despite the fact that most American Thai restaurants provide them). Even “French press coffee” isn’t what you’d get in Paris if you ordered “un café.” But somehow, when it comes to Greek food, I’ve managed to eat some very authentic stuff pretty far from the mother ship.

Last summer and for a few weeks this past December, I lived with some friends in Astoria, Queens, a neighborhood known for its first-generation Greek heritage. Along or right off Ditmars Boulevard (the main drag), you’ll find shops with names like Athena’s Car Service, Artopolis Bakery, Taverna Kyclades, Titan Foods. There’s even Neptune Diner. There are at least three souvlaki carts within four blocks of one another in the summer. Just below the last stop on the N/R train (it’s an elevated train out there) there’s phone booth-sized bakery cart that sells coffee, doughnuts, buttered rolls, and so forth; in Athens, we saw bakery carts from morning until night selling sesame seed studded bread rings for 50 cents, among other, sweeter baked goods.

The one Greek food that the U.S. has drastically reinvented is the Greek salad. In Greece, there’s no lettuce -- and there may be olive oil a plenty and dried Greek oregano, but there ain’t no vinaigrette. The cheese comes in a huge slab, rather than crumbled. A basic salad in Greece, called a peasant salad, is nothing more than very thick cut cucumbers and tomatoes and a hunk of feta cheese perched on top. Thin sliced green peppers and red onions are optional, and a few purple olives might be thrown in for color. And that’s it. No pepperoncinis, either.

Then there were some things I found in Athens that seem to be missing altogether from Astoria, but it’s possible that I just haven’t come across them yet. For example, Athens has ouzeries or mezedopolions, which are like tapas bars in that you share a few small plates with friends while slowly sucking back a couple of drinks. The Greek restaurants in Astoria are mostly classified as tavernas, but to be honest, I haven’t quite figured out what makes a taverna unique. The ones in Athens look like typical local restaurants. The ones in Queens seemed to almost have the air of a steak house, but still retaining that local neighborhood restaurant feel. In Athens, it seemed like you could order small plates to share or a substantial meal at any style of eatery, from taverna to ouzerie to café.

Another difference between Athens and Greek-proud Astoria is that the local drink of Athenians is the Nescafe frappe, a cold coffee drink with so much thick wonderful foam on top it looks like a smoke stack. Oh, it’s a beautiful drink. You can order it plain, medium sweet, or very sweet, and with or without extra milk. In Astoria, on the other hand, even in the dead of August I didn’t see too many iced coffees, Frappuccinos, or other cold caffeinated drinks (no more than anywhere else in New York, I suppose). This may be due to the lack of café culture, except that so many of the other eating rituals of Greece, like dining after 10:30 p.m., have thrived along Ditmars and 31st Avenue.

I’m sure (having read that Greek food site) that the foods of Greece are further specialized regionally -- a country broken up by mountains and island formations simply has to. I’m sure there are certain regional foods that you just can’t get in the U.S. because no one carries that particular kind of fish or varietal of produce. But many of the mainstay foods of Greece that I’ve eaten in New York are done dead-up authentically. I have a much stronger appreciation now for the Greek culture that exists in Queens. It’s only through dogged persistence and pride that a community can so freshly preserve its culinary identity.

The Euro Hotel Breakfast

In Brugges, Belgium, I remember a buffet of bread -- croissants, baguettes, loaves of sliced whole wheat, grainary rolls -- served alongside a spread of spreads: jams, marmalade, sweet European butter, Nutella. In Puerto Rico, I remember filling up on five or six short cups of coffee served with hot milk, choosing between doughnuts and guava paste pastries, and finding my sister very upset when she bit into a sweet looking thing only to discover it was filled with ground beef. In London, my mother tittered like a schoolgirl when a posh woman at the hotel breakfast informed her that the puddle of dark purple looking food was “forest fruits.”

In Brussels, at a hotel very near to the E.U.’s HQ, with travelers representing all corners of Europe, I remember watching Germans fill their plates with cold sliced meats at 9 a.m., only to turn around and see Swedes piling puckeringly pickled fishes and cucumbers onto their trays. The English were crowded around a steamer tray of eggs, beans, and cooked halved tomatoes. In Stockholm, there was more fish to eat before noon: smoked salmon, pureed salmon spread, and more pickled herring.

My sister and I are in Athens now, where once again there’s a free buffet breakfast included with our hotel. It’s one of my favorite things about traveling in Europe (and Puerto Rico, I suppose). I look forward to waking up not too late and heading down to the large open dining rooms, where I can see who else has spent the night in the kind of hotel I would choose to stay in. How many American accents can I pick out? How many are speaking the local language? And who is eating what?

It’s a struggle for me to not fill up on the enormous spreads that area common at European hotels, even when it’s just a Continental breakfast of different breads, jams, dried fruits and cereals. Even then, there’s usually a tray of hard-boiled eggs, two or three juices, and an array of yogurts, which taste different in every country (for example, yogurt is runny in Italy, but as thick as sour cream in Greece). I do have a routine of letting myself choose one or two special treats, usually pastry in nature, and then eating a breakfast that is as close to what I would eat at home a possible, meaning it’s usually yogurt with bananas or dried fruit and natural cereal (essentially, unadorned muesli). I do my best to put away five or six cups of coffee, which in Europe might hold a mere four ounces. The goal, as I see it, is to fill up on the complimentary caffeine, give my body some sense of routine and normalcy by eating a fairly typical breakfast, and not overdo it on the special treats.

But more than that, I really do enjoy people-watching at breakfast. I wonder who else is eating a typical morning meal and who is diverging wildly from their routine to enjoy the exotic (and sometimes expensive) spread. Do Germans really eat salami sandwiches at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday when they’re home, or is this a special occasion? Do Norwegians actually open a can of tuna before work on the weekdays? Is it ordinary for a Frenchmen to drink hot chocolate while also eating a pan au chocolat? Are the Greeks really filling up on sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and feta for breakfast?

Eventually, the question moves full circle, and I wonder: Do Americans eat scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes, and toast regularly? I guess they certainly do eat that kind of faire when out on the weekend, but do they eat it at home? Regularly? If I had to guess the typical American breakfast, it would be cereal and milk -- or is that just what children eat? In New York, it’s often a buttered roll and cup of coffee. I worked in a deli and a bagel shop long enough to know that more Long Islanders pick the roll on a work day and save the bagels for the weekend. In Boston, the locals always seem to have a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee. In San Francisco, it’s stronger coffee, but even after living there for five years, I couldn’t say what the majority of people eat for breakfast in the city by the bay.

Maybe breakfast habits are more personal than cultural, or maybe it’s more regional for Americans, but more cultural for Europeans.

(This is brunch!)