Front Burner: An Ionian Experience

Dec. 16, 2004
When in Rome, do as the Romans do, the old saying goes. When in Greece -- or a quaint little town in any foreign country -- one's best bet is to tuck into a meal of the finest local fare.
The return of the Olympics to their homeland encouraged the world to take a new look this ancient civilization. In this respect, our collective Athens experience brought us more than medals — it brought a burst of renewed interest in all things Greek. And, although the Olympic flame has been put out until the next games, the fire is certainly up on Greek cuisine. I, for one, am pleased. In the twenty years or so that Mediterranean cuisine has been popular, it has also been in danger of becoming just another word for Italian in the minds of many Americans. The Mediterranean, however, is made up of 18 different countries.Greek food, in many ways, represents those countries more democratically than perhaps any other cuisine. Whether because Democracy was born here, because the Greek empire — unlike the oppressive Roman Empire which followed it — encouraged the nations it conquered to contribute their own culture to the mix, or because Greece was the gateway to the Levant (and all points east) Greek food encompasses elements of taste spanning from Iberia to India.In this issue, we venerate the flavors of Greece with two feature stories. The first, by regular columnist Marc Halperin, drops us in the kitchens of the chefs who are making “Greek Revival” as much a term of the kitchen as it is of architecture. The second, by distinguished food writer Carla Waldemar, who has contributed to just about every food, travel, and lifestyle magazine in America, clues us in to the elements which makes Greek food so unique — and so tasty. Carla has traveled the area extensively and, with overt delight, gets down to the basics of the ingredients and their respective positions in the panoply of Hellenic food.With that, allow me to introduce myself. I come to you with a background of over 30 years in food, starting out as a professional chef in restaurants and hotels. I am also a registered dietitian, having studied and nutrition and food science at the University of Texas at Austin. While at U.T. I even did a little teaching, too. I’ve been in food journalism for over a dozen years now. I look forward to what I believe will be a fun and informative dialogue through the pages of Food Creation magazine.On a personal note, my fondest memory of Greek food involves a missed boat and a tiny port with a funny name. My friend Gary (now a journalist and music history professor in Texas) and I were hitchhiking across Europe. Due to an error in timing we found ourselves stranded for nearly a day near the Albanian border, in Igoumenitsa, Greece. At first dismayed, we decided to seize the opportunity to check out life off the usual tourist track.The beach was unpopulated, unspoiled, and clean, the weather perfect, the breeze off the Ionian Sea soul-cleansing. But we were famished, so we trekked into town to find something within our painfully limited budget. We found a storefront taverna selling rotisserie chickens for about a dollar’s worth of drachmas, plus olives and some very cheap retsina (a pine-resin flavored white wine that, for good reason, was never too popular outside of Greece). We took our purchases to the beach and dug in.The roasted birds were so simple, yet so stunningly delicious we found ourselves laughing uproariously at the sheer delight of our find — and we hadn’t even started in on the retsina. The farm-fresh chickens, with feta cheese pressed under the skin, had been rubbed with olive oil, seasoned with rosemary and a little coarse pepper and salt, then slow roasted until meltingly tender. The wonderful olives and the wine (chilled and poured into tatty plastic tumblers) completed our sustenance. That’s all. Simple, effective…and unforgettable a quarter-century later.If one has to be stranded in a small town in the middle of a foreign country, I recommend immediately tucking into a meal of the finest local fare. You will have something to talk about while waiting for the next ship (or bus or plane) and the memory of it to linger on your tongue and in your soul for hours afterward. Or even for years: Whenever we get together, Gary and I still reminisce about those Igoumenitsa chickens.Kale horaxi!

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