Life stories served up via cuisine

What do Greek housewives on Long Island cook, and how does their cooking differ from that of their mothers and grandmothers who were born in Sparta, Samos or Hania? This book provides the answer through fascinating stories told by Greek Americans not only about their cuisine but also about their lives. At a first glance, Maria Tsoskounoglou’s work, «Recipes and Stories by the Greeks of New York» (Periplous Press), seems to be a recipe book. But this is deceptive. The author lived for many years in America. She went to restaurants and cafes, houses in Greek neighborhoods, parishes and the celebrations the women’s charities organized. She decided to approach Greeks in America by means of food. Tsoskounoglou wanted to record their dietary habits, to see what was typical of Greek Americans, and whether they had assimilated. People opened their doors and their hearts to her, and apart from ingredients, recipes and the little secrets of cooking, her cassette-recorder also recorded their stories. Greeks in America From 1820 to 1880, only 398 Greeks had crossed the Atlantic to the United States. Nearly all were men. In the early 1900s, the picture changed rapidly. The Immigration Service mentions 170,000 individuals of Greek descent who arrived in the USA. Mass migration continued, and the number of women steadily rose. By the 1960s-70s, wife and children often followed the paterfamilias on the adventure to America. Most migrants started off working as dishwashers or pushing hot-dog carts around big cities until they were able to stand on their own two feet and start up their own business. And they succeeded. How did the Greeks manage in so few years not only to survive amid such competition but also to do well? By lots of hard work, being flexible in difficult circumstances and versatile in business. In any diner, restaurant or coffee shop from Brooklyn to Manhattan, from Astoria to the Bronx, there’s a Greek. He might be the owner, the cook or the waiter. And quite definitely, there’ll be at least one Greek salad. The Greeks are everywhere, and even if they aren’t, their food is. In 1857, Spyros Bazanos opened a small Greek restaurant at 7 Roosevelt Street, Manhattan; it was called The Peloponnese. That was the first step for Greeks into the restaurant and food business, which they eventually managed to dominate to such an extent that sociologists refer to the «Greek phenomenon,» and ordinary people crack jokes about it: «What do two Greeks do when they meet in New York?» «Start a restaurant.» And there’s some truth to that joke, since according to the most recent census, 20 percent of the 120,000 restaurants in the United States are owned by Greeks. New York has built up a vigorous tradition of fast food. You can find hot dogs, pretzels, muffins and bagels anywhere in the city. And of course you can get souvlaki and pita with gyro. Five years ago, The New York Times ran a story about the Makkos family on the front page. Themistoklis Makkos, 69, and his two sons had beaten tycoon Donald Trump at an auction for the concession to the ice rink in Central Park. Now Makkos controls most of the hot-dog stands at the best-selling points in the city. And having bought hot-dog and pretzel factories, he also controls supplies to 90 percent of the street vendors. In Tsoskounoglou’s book, Giorgos Makkos recounts his father’s story: «We came to America in 1974. My father’s first job was in a restaurant, as a grill chef. Then he got a cart and sold pretzels. In those days, the carts were made of wood. They were in constant need of repair, because the rain and snow rotted the wood. My father thought he could make better ones, of stainless steel, with transparent protective covers. In a few months, all the street vendors had replaced their carts with Makkos’s carts, as they called them.» Communities were always the main organizers among Greek Americans, and every community or parish had its own Ladies’ Benevolent Society. The thread that connects their stories is the food they cook according to their memories, habits and lifestyle. Apart from their philanthropic work, the women members undertake to hand on tradition to the younger generation. And tradition means food. Christina Zouma is an architect who has an office in New York. In the book she talks about what she inherited from her mother from Chios: «What has stayed with me from my mother’s cooking are the flavors. I liked her soutzoukakia (meatballs in sauce) and moustalevria (must jelly), People here love Greek food. Lots of them have been to Greece, seen the Parthenon, and eaten one or two Greek dishes. I can say to my friends, ‘Let’s go Greek tonight.’»

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