Growing up a first-generation Greek-American in New York, food writer Diane Kochilas spent much of her childhood at the family table. “Everything happened around a dinner table and it’s still very much like that,” she says. “So I think that just set me on a course without me knowing it. Obviously I was a kid, but at some point as a young adult, I started cooking and that morphed into this whole promoting Greek food in the United States career.” That took her to Harvard last week, where she consulted with the university about bringing healthy Greek food options to the dining facilities. Her latest book, “The Country Cooking of Greece,” includes many recipes that have never been published in English.
Q. Do Greek-American and Greek mealtime rituals differ?
A. I think to some extent in Greek America those rituals are more entrenched because it was a way for people to hold onto the culture. Immigrants do that. They sort of hold onto the traditions of the Old World, the old country. In Greece, I think that’s changed in certain ways, certainly over the last 20 years since I’ve been there. Sunday dinner at Grandma’s used to be an occasion. That’s not the case anymore. People’s lives are on the run a lot more than when I first got there. But I think in the States, at least when I was growing up, this idea that you learned about your culture and your roots by upholding those traditions, that was a very essential part of our lives.
Q. What separates Greek food from other Mediterranean cuisines?
A. The first thing that comes to mind is the uninhibited use of olive oil. Greeks consume more olive oil than anyone else, like 22 quarts a year per person. Another thing that sets it apart in my mind is the prevalence of main-course vegetable dishes. I think that’s really timely because now in food and nutrition circles in the United States, people are looking for ways to get Americans to eat more vegetables and to move animal proteins off the center of the plate. Those are things that are pretty embedded in the way that Greeks eat traditionally, a smaller bit of protein mixed in with a heap of vegetables. This whole idea of flexitarian food, that’s a recently coined term for a tradition that’s always existed in Greece. [In the book,] I really wanted to stress how healthy the cuisine is. It’s not a vegetarian cookbook but Greeks are kind of accidental vegetarians.
Q. Do Greeks in the countryside typically eat better than those in the city?
A. That’s always been my experience certainly. In Ikaria, where we spend several months a year, the people grow their own food, they make their own wine, they make their own cheese, they have their own animals, they forage much more readily than people in the cities, and there’s a certain rhythm and ritual to what they’re eating.
Q. Because of that, are people in the country less affected by Greece’s economic problems than their city counterparts?
A. That’s absolutely true. I live in one of the “wealthier” suburbs north of Athens, and in the shopping district that’s not too far from us, you see people who look like you and me picking through garbage. In the countryside you don’t see that. People may not have a whole lot of cash, but their lifestyle basically hasn’t changed because they’re able to grow their own food. We know people on Ikaria who almost live without any money whatsoever and they live very well. They have their dignity intact because they don’t have this consumer-oriented lifestyle. Everything they consume, they make. I have a friend there who makes his own soap. There is this element of autonomy when you live like that, and that I think also gives you a sense of dignity. I mean, they’re not getting on airlines and traveling all over the world because they don’t have the excess cash to do that, but people [in the country] are definitely, I wouldn’t say insulated from the crisis, but not feeling it in as dramatic a way [as people in the city].