Tag Archives: Yanya

Two of Edward Lear’s least striking and interesting drawings of 19th century Jiannena — just can’t find the others anywhere.

15 Jan
Edward Lear 1851
Edward Lear 1868


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NYer: “Can Babies Learn to Love Vegetables?”

19 Nov

Full article from Burkhard Bilger.

191125_r35463On any given day, American children are more likely to eat dessert than plants. Makers of baby food face a conundrum: If it sells, it’s probably not best for babies. If it’s best for babies, it probably won’t sell.  Photo illustration by Horacio Salinas for The New Yorker

Yeah, and anything else for that fact. Just make them eat what’s on the table with no options. Watch how they’ll start to love their broccoli once that’s all there is. We’re the first civilization in history which has made such a fuss about what children like or don’t like, and have created a civilization full of adults who still eat like 10yr olds.

And in the process we’re destroying centuries of ancient culinary traditions.  See one of my first ever posts from this blog:  Chitterlings…and mageiritsa


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Börek II — or Burek and the end of Yugoslavia

26 Aug

Börek Nein Danke


This is a piece of graffiti that appeared in the Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana in 1992, at the beginning of the worst period in the Yugoslav wars and after Slovenia had become independent. “Burek [‘börek’ in Turkish, pronounced exactly like an umlauted German ‘ö’]? Nein Danke.” Burek? Nein Danke. “Burek? No Thank You.” What a silly slogan, ja? How innocuous. What could it possibly mean? Who cares? And how can NikoBako maintain the bizarre proposition that a piece of graffiti in a rather pretentious black-and-white photograph is an important piece, in its ugly, dangerous racism, of the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Back up then. There are certain — usually material — aspects or elements of Ottoman life in the Balkans, which, even for Christians in the region, despite the centuries of unfortunate hate and reciprocal bloodletting (and no, I don’t think pretending that wasn’t true or that “it wasn’t that bad” is the key to improving relations between us all now; I think the truth is the key), remain objects of a strange nostalgia and affection. They linger on — even if unconsciously, or even as they’re simultaneously an object of self-deprecating humour or considered homely backwardness – as evidence that Ottoman life had a certain refinement and elegance that these societies have now lost. You sense this often intangible and not explicitly acknowledged feeling in many ways. Folks from my father’s village, Derviçani, for example, now go to Prizren in Kosovo to order certain articles of the village’s bridal costume because they can no longer find the craftsmen to make them in Jiannena or Argyrocastro, and they’re conscious of going to a traditional center of Ottoman luxury goods manufacture. You feel it in what’s now the self-conscious or almost apologetic serving of traditional candied fruits or lokum to guests. Or still calling it Turkish coffee. Or in Jiannena when I was a kid, when people still had low divans along the walls of the kitchen where they were much more comfortable than in their “a la franca” sitting rooms. 1* Perhaps the sharpest comparison is the way the word “Mughlai” in India still carries implications of the most sophisticated achievements of classical North Indian…Muslim…culture, even to the most rabid BJP nationalist. 2**


There are some places where this tendency is stronger than in others. Sarajevo and Bosnia are obvious; they still have large Muslim populations though and, after the 90s, Muslim majorities. But Jiannena – which I’ll call Yanya in Turkish for the purposes of this post, the capital city of Epiros and one often compared to Sarajevo: “a tiny Alpine Istanbul” – is also one such place. Readers will have heard me call it the Greek city most “in touch with its Ottoman side…” on several occasions. You can see why when you visit or if you know a bit of the other’s past: or maybe have some of that empathy for the other that’s more important than knowledge.


About half Greek-speaking Turks before the Population Exchange, Yanya was a city the Ottomans loved dearly and whose loss grieved them more than that of most places in the Balkans. It’s misty and melancholy and romantic. It has giant plane trees and had running waters and abundant springs in all its neighbourhoods, along with a blue-green lake surrounded by mountains snow-capped for a good five or so months of the year. It experienced a period of great prosperity in the eighteenth and especially nineteenth century, when it was not only a rich Ottoman commercial city but also a center of Greek education: “Yanya, first in arms, gold and letters…” – and, especially under the despotic yet in certain ways weirdly progressive Ali Paşa, was the site of a court independent enough to conduct foreign policy practically free of the Porte and fabulous enough to attract the likes of Pouqueville and Byron, the latter who never tired of commenting on the beauty of the boys and girls Ali had gathered among his courtiers, as Ali himself commented profusely on Byron’s own. All the tradition of luxury goods associated with the time and the city: jewelry, silver and brassware, brocade and gold-thread-embroidered velvet, sweets and pastries – and börek – still survive, but are mostly crap today, even the börek for which the city used to be particularly famous, and your best luck with the other stuff is in the city’s numberless antique shops.


identical to yiayia's belt

It also, unusually, and which I like to ascribe to Yanyalıs’ good taste and gentlenesss, has preserved four of its mosques, the two most beautiful in good condition even, and on the most prominent point of the city’s skyline.  It would be nice if they were opened to prayer for what must be a sizable contingent of Muslim Albanian immigrants now living there — who are practically invisible because they usually hide behind assumed Christian names — but that’s not going to happen in a hundred years, not even in Yanya.  Maybe after that…we’ll have all grown up a little.



And, alone perhaps among Greek cities, only in Yanya can one open a super-luxury hotel that looks like this, with an interior décor that I’d describe as Dolmabahçe-Lite, call it the Gran Serail, and get away with it. 3***




Digression Bakos. What’s the point? What does this have to do with Yugoslavia? I’m not digressing. I’m giving a prelude. “People don’t have the patience for this kind of length on internet posts.” I don’t post. I write, however scatterbrainedly. And not for scanners of posts. For readers. However few have the patience.

So. Croatians don’t eat börek. The prelude should have been enough for me not to have to write anything else and for the reader to be able to intuit the rest. But for those who can’t…

The graffiti on the wall in the photo at top is dated 1992, but I think it had appeared as a slogan as early as the late 80s when Slovenes and Croats started airing their completely imaginary grievances against Serbian domination of Yugoslavia and making secessionary noises. What it meant is that we, Hapsburg South Slavs, were never part of the Ottoman Empire and therefore never were subject to the barbaric and development-stunting influences of said Empire that Serbs and whoever those others that live south of them were, and therefore have the right to be free of the intolerable yoke of Serbdom. We don’t eat burek. Not only do we not eat burek, but you offer it to us and we’ll refuse in German – “Nein Danke” – just to prove how much a part of the civilized Teutonic world of Mitteleuropa we are. 4*** (I think it was Kundera who wrote about the geographical ballooning of “Central Europe” after the fall of communism, till “Eastern Europe” finally came to mean only Russia itself. ‘Cause as we now see, even Ukraine is part of Central Europe.)

Why this yummy pastry dish was singled out as a sign of Ottoman backwardness and not, say, ćevapi or sarma, I can’t say.


Ćevapi — köfte, essentially — (above) and sarma (stuffed cabbage) below.

sarma raspakovana

And when I talk about Hapsburg South Slavs I’m obviously talking about Croats, because, let’s face it, who cares about Slovenes? And there may be very few, if any, compelling historical or cultural reasons of interest to care about Croatians either, except, that as most readers must know by now, I consider them the people most singularly responsible for the Yugoslav tragedy. And this post is my chance to come clear about why I feel that way. There may be lots of interpretations of what the “Illyrianist” intellectuals of Vienna and Novi Sad and Zagreb had in mind when they started spouting theories of South Slav unity in the nineteenth century; countless theories about how Yugoslavia or the original Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed; many analyses of what happened in Paris in 1919 and what kind of negotiations led to the Corfu Declaration; and reams of revisionist stuff written about exactly what Croatia wanted out of this union. But, for me, one basic fact is clear: that Croatians were always part of Yugoslavia in bad faith; that they wanted something out of the Serb efforts and Serbian blood that was decisive in defeating Austria in WWI, but that that something was independence, or greater autonomy within an Austria that they probably never expected to be dismembered the way it was – anything but what they felt was being subjected to Belgrade. And that became immediately clear upon the formation of the state when they – being, as Dame Rebecca calls them, good “lawyers” – began sabotaging the normal functioning of the Yugoslav government in any way they could, no matter how more democratic the Serbs tried to make an admittedly not perfect democracy, no matter how many concessions of autonomy Belgrade made to them. If there were any doubt as to the above, even when Radić and his Croatian People’s Peasant Party had turned the Skupština into a dysfunctional mirror image of today’s American Congress, even when a Macedonian IMRO activist working in tandem with Croatian fascists assassinated Serb King Aleksandr in Marseille in 1934, it was subsequently made brutally clear by the vicious death-spree Croatian, Nazi-collaborating fascism unleashed on Serbs during WWII, a true attempt at ethnic cleansing that dwarfs anything the Serbs may have done during the 90s — which is dwarfed again by what Croatians themselves did in the 90s again: the most heinous Nazi regime, “more royalist than the king,” as the French say — more Nazi than the Nazis — to appear in Eastern Europe during WWII.  And they have not been even remotely, adequately,  held to account by the world for any for any of the above; all this ignored, even as the West maintains a long list of mea-culpas it expects Serbs to keep reciting forever.


King Aleksandr of Yugoslavia (click)

And so, when they got their chance in the 90s, with the backing of a newly united, muscle-flexing Germany, Croatians abruptly and unilaterally and illegally declared their long-wished for (but never fought-for) independence. And so did Slovenia; but again, who cares about Slovenia? It was a prosperous northern republic that may have held the same Northern-League- or-Catalan-type resentments against a parasitic south that was draining its wealth, but it was ethnically homogeneous and its departure left no resentful, or rightfully fearful, minorities behind. But Croatia knew, when it declared its independence – as did, I’m sure, their German buddies – that they were pulling a string out of a much more complex tapestry. And did it anyway. And we all saw the results. 5*****

So when a Croat says “Nein Danke” to an offer of burek, without even the slightest concern about his past reputation and avoiding any German associations, it is for me a chillingly racist and concise summation of Saidian Orientalism, a slogan that sums up not only the whole ugliness of the tragic, and tragically unnecessary, break-up of Yugoslavia, but the mind-set of all peoples afflicted with a sense of their being inadequately Western, and the venom that sense of inadequacy spreads to everything and everyone it comes in contact with. I’ve written in a previous post about Catalan nationalism:

All of us on the periphery, and yes you can include Spain, struggle to define ourselves and maintain an identity against the enormous centripetal power of the center.  So when one of us — Catalans, Croatians, Neo-Greeks — latches onto something — usually some totally imaginary construct — that they think puts them a notch above their neighbors on the periphery and will get them a privileged relationship to the center, I find it pandering and irritating and in many cases, “racist pure and simple.”  It’s a kind of Uncle-Tom-ism that damages the rest of us: damages our chances to define ourselves independent of the center, and damages a healthy, balanced understanding of ourselves, culturally and historically and ideologically and spiritually.  I find it sickening.

(see also: “Catalonia: ‘Nationalism effaces the individual…'” )

We’re signifying animals. And our tiniest decisions — perhaps our tiniest most of all – the symbolic value we attribute to the smallest detail of our lives, often bear the greatest meaning: of love; of the sacred; of a sense of the transcendent in the physical; of our self-worth as humans and what worth and value we ascribe to others; of hate and loathing and vicious revulsion. Nothing is an innocently ironic piece of graffiti – irony especially is never innocent, precisely because it pretends to be so.

And so I find anti-börekism offensive. Because a piece of my Theia Vantho or my Theia Arete’s börek is like a Proustian madeleine for me. Because I’m not embarrassed by it because it may be of Turkish origin. Because I think such embarrassment is dangerous – often murderously so, even. And because I think of eating börek — as I do of eating rice baked with my side of lamb and good yoghurt as opposed to the abysmally soggy, over-lemoned potatoes Old Greeks eat – as an act of culinary patriotism. 6****** And a recognition that my Ottoman habits, culinary and otherwise, are as much a part of my cultural make-up as my Byzantine or even Classical heritage are. Because just like Yugoslavia, you can’t snip out one segment of the woop and warf and expect the whole weave to hold together.



*1  One thing judo taught me — or rather what I learned from how long it took me, when I started, to learn to sit on my knees and flat feet — is how orthopedically horrible for our bodies upright, Western chairs and tables and couches are.  (By couch here I don’t mean the sink-in American TV couch, which you sink into until you’re too fat to get out of — that’s another kind of damage.)  Knee and lower back problems at earlier ages are far more prevalent in the Western world precisely because of these contraptions that artificially support and distort our body weight in destructive ways.  I remember older aunts in Epiros, in both Jiannena and the village, being able to sit on a low divan on the floor and pull their legs up under their hips with complete ease — women in their eighties and nineties and often portly at that — because their bodies had learned to sit on the floor or low cushions all their long and very mobile lives; they looked like they didn’t know what to do with themselves when you put them in a chair.  I’m reminded of them when I see Indian women their age at mandirs, sitting cross-legged, or with legs tucked under as described, through hours-long rituals, rising to prostrate themselves and then going down again, and then finally just getting up at the end with no pain and no numbness and no oyyy-ings.

**2  The two masterpieces of this point: the celebration of the sophistication and sensuality of the Ottoman sensibility and a trashing of Neo-Greek aesthetics — and by extension, philisitinism, racism and Western delusions — are Elias Petropoulos’ two books: Ο Τουρκικός Καφές εν Ελλάδι“Turkish Coffee in Greece,” and Tο Άγιο Χασισάκι “My Holy Hash.”  Part tongue-in-cheek, part deadly serious, both books are both hilarious and devastating.

***3  Unfortunately, to build this palace of Neo-Ottoman kitsch that would make Davutoğlu proud, one of Greece’s classic old Xenia hotels, masterpieces of post-war Greek Modernism and most designed by architect Aris Konstantinidis, was torn down, and most of these hotels have suffered similar fates throughout the country, as the nationally run State Tourist Organization was forced to sell off its assets by the privatization forced on Greece then and to this day.

Xenia Jiannena

The Jiannena Xenia, above, built in the old wooded grove of Guraba, just above the center of town, and, below, perhaps Konstantinidis’ masterpiece, the Xenia at Paliouri in Chalkidike. (click)


Fortunately, Jiannena preserves one of Konstantinidis’ other masterpieces, its archaeological museum, below. (click)


****4  Ironically, the strudel that Croats and Slovenes imagine themselves eating in their Viennese wet dreams is probably a descendant of börek; and take it a step further: let’s not forget that croissants and all danish-type puff pastry items are known generically as viennoiserie in French.  So the ancestor of some of the highest creations of Parisian/French/European baking arts is something that a Slovene says “nein danke” to in order to prove how European he is.  Talk about the farcicalness of “nesting orientalisms.”


*****5  Of course, in every case, this assumption-cum-accusation, about the parasitic South draining the North of its resources, is patent bullshit.  Southern Italy, the southern Republics of Yugoslavia, Castille, Galicia, Andalusia, and the southern tier of the European Union today, may get disproportionately more in the allotment of certain bureaucratic funds compared to the tangible wealth they produce.  But they also provide the North, in every single one of these cases, with resources, labor and markets on which that North gets rich to a far more disproportionate degree and stunts the South’s growth in the process.  So haydi kai…

It’s become a common-place — and not inaccurate — observation that the catastrophic economic pressure Germany is today exercising on the nations of Southern Europe for the sake of making some sick moral point is the fourth time it’s wrecked Europe in less than a centurythe third time being when it decided, immediately upon reunification, to show the continent it was a political player again by practically single-handedly instigating the destruction of Yugoslavia.



Over-oreganoed and over-lemoned — like much of Greek food — and overdone, over-salted and over-oiled, perhaps the only thing more repulsive than the soggy potatoes Old Greeks bake with lamb or chicken (though one horrible restaurant — which New Yorkers are for some reason crazy about: I mean like “take-the-N-train-out-to-Astoria-and-wait-for-a-table-for-an-hour” crazy — criminally serves them with grilled fish) is the serving of stewed meat with french fries.  You’ve hit the rock bottom of Neo-Greek cuisine when you’ve had a dry, stringy “reddened” veal or lamb dish accompanied by what would otherwise be good, often hand-cut french fries, sitting limply on the side and sadly drowning in the red oil.

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Where is this Jiannena / Yanya?

23 Jun

Here: “Ioannina”


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Turkey in Europe

22 Apr

According to Stephen Kinzer, New York Times correspondent and the paper’s bureau chief in Istanbul for a good part of the nineties, the appeal of EU membership to those countries waiting for it is (or was) political, social, and economic.  “For Turkey it is also psychological,” he writes in his 2001 Crescent and Star:

“The central question facing Turks today is whether their country is ready for full democracy, but behind that question lies a more diffuse and puzzling one: who are we?  The Ottomans knew they were the servants of God and lords of a vast and uniquely diverse empire.  The true heart of their empire, however, was not Anatolia but the Balkans…  But by caprice of history the founders of the Turkish republic found themselves bereft of the Balkans and masters instead of Anatolia.  To make matters worse, through a series of twentieth-century tragedies Anatolia lost most of the Armenians, Greeks and Jews who had given it some of the same richness that made the Balkans so uniquely appealing.”

There’s a lot there I’m not sure of, like the Ottomans’ heart having been in the Balkans and their backs turned on Anatolia.  I also don’t know if “who are we?” isn’t too categorical a way to phrase the dilemma Kinzer is talking about.  Unlike Greeks, Turks know who they are; their growing willingness to accept, not only the former existence of their neighbors among them, but the plurality of their own ethnic make-up would indicate that: Albanian fraternal associations, Tatar and Circassian language classes, seem to be coming out of the woodwork of the Republic’s forced homogenization, and even the lay-low-and-keep-your-head-down Alevis have found a new courage in asserting themselves.  (Poor Republic: no sooner does it harass one minority out of its existence, another one pops up to take its place.)  That’s a process that requires confidence, whereas we remain isolated in our ignorant dream of purity — and banging our feet to prove it to the rest of the world on top of it — a ringing sign of insecurity.  As mangled as Turks’ knowledge of themselves may have become by their own nationalism, I think phenomena like nostalgia for the multiethnic or the Neo-Ottomanism that has pervaded cultural life and even motivated political life and foreign policy in Turkey recently (and I don’t think that’s a bad thing or necessarily a “threat” to anyone; we, Greeks, might want to take advantage of it actually) is an attempt to right that disfigurement, not a deep existential reorientation.  Proof might be that since Kinzer wrote his book in 2001, Turkish membership in the European Union has pretty much become a dead-in-the-water issue.  And that may be partly because, in almost head-on contrast to Kinzer’s interpretation, Turkey was looking for political and economic benefits and not for Europe to validate its psychological needs, as the Neo-Greek statelet always has since its beginnings, a craven and cringingly embarrassing pandering to the West’s classical image of what Greeks are supposed to be being the foundation of Neo-Greek identity.  However the Ottomans may have felt about the Balkans or wherever modern Turks end up with their renewed embracing of the Ottoman past, they seem to be increasingly feeling — even the old, staunchly Kemalist bourgeoisie, or at least their children — that they don’t need European validation to prove they’re part of a civilization that they’re not.  And good for them.  I wonder when we’ll get the message.

On a lighter note, it’s not often one hears the Balkans described as “so uniquely appealing.”  It’s a line I’ll have to remember.  Often when people find out I’m Greek, they launch into delirious and happy memories of the Aegean and little white houses and sparkling blue waters and then I have to watch their faces drop as I tell them: “Well, the part of Greece my family is from is really more the Balkans than the Mediterranean…  And it rains all the time.”

Landscape approaching my mother’s village, in its usual mood. (click)

But then it is often “so uniquely appealling,” to get back to the Turks and the Balkans.  The main city of the region (Epiros) is Jiannena/Yanya, a beautiful little city by a lake that always had an air of luxuriant civility about it, proof of which may be that the Greek population didn’t rush to pull down the minarets or demolish all the mosques of the city as soon as the last Turks left in the twenties.*  It’s one of those Balkan cities the Turks loved.  Here’s a winter photo of Yanya’s main cami, the Aslan Pasha Mosque, overlooking the icy lake, below. (click)

Jiannena deserves a post of its own.  I gotta dig up some 2010 notes I have.

* On the other hand, the city government and developers have done all they can since WWII, including harassment and straight-out vandalism, to expropriate the city’s large and very romantic Jewish cemetery, which unfortunately for the city’s 40 surviving Jews, sits on some prime real estate.  Last I heard they had taken the issue to the EU, which makes me very happy.  Maybe the economic slump will give them a reprieve.  More on Jiannena’s Jews in the future.


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Chitterlings…and mageiritsa

12 Apr

What are chitterlings, or chitterlins, or chit’lins?  They’re pig intestines, which people eat all over the world wherever they eat pigs.  (Where they don’t, they eat lamb intestines.)  Unfortunately, in the United States, the only people with the sensory refinement to appreciate them are African-Americans.  (And yes, girlfriend, the casing on that $25 a pound artisanal Calabrian soppressata you get at Whole Foods…pig gut.)

“Mageiritsa” is a Greek soup made of lamb offal that is made at – and only at – Easter.  It’s an incredibly time-consuming and labor- intensive production, which is probably why.  First comes the all-day or over-night simmering of the lamb’s heads and feet, to get the appropriately kelle paça type broth necessary.  (Kaleh pacheh seems to be a Friday after-prayer tradition in Afghanistan, so starting Thursday morning in front of all the butcher shops in Kabul, usually collected on one street, and by shacks along roads leading out of the city that seem to open just for that purpose, one sees giant piles of recently severed, bloody heads next to piles of bloody feet, both still in their fur, swarming with flies.  It’s a beautiful sight and one that, like so many other things in Afghanistan, I didn’t get a photo of while there because I thought I would embarrass people by taking pictures of things that I was afraid they would think I thought backwards.)  Then comes the cleaning out of faeces from about a football field’s length of lamb intestines (below), which is not that bad because they come from young animals that only eat grass anyway so it’s kind of the texture of baby poop.  (The European Union Daddy-State tried to ban the sale of intestines a few years ago and the Greeks to their credit, which I don’t grant them often, got into an uproar and Brussels backed down.  I actually have a theory that the intestine issue was the behind-the-scenes deal-breaker between the EU and Turkey, and rightly so; make me bend over backwards about how I run my country, make me reorganize my economy to enrich you and impoverish myself, treat me like an unwanted guest because I’m Muslim, but I’ll be damned if you take away my kokoreç.*)  Then you braise the intestines, and the sweetbreads (thymus glands) and hearts and kidneys in the broth (some people use liver or spleen and testicles too, but I don’t ‘cause the liver and spleen can get bitter and the testicles retain an unpleasant spongy texture when boiled which they don’t when grilled, or when sautéed with oil and a ton of garlic like they do with the bull’s balls in Spain after a bullfight — talk about sympathetic magic – and are quite yummy — see bottom.)  Then they’re all minced up, browned in a healthy amount of butter, added to the broth with lots of scallions and dill, some rice, and, just before serving, terbiye-d** with eggs and lemon.


It’s generally acknowledged that I make the best mageiritsa in the world.  You can get pretty good mageiritsa lots of places, but mine is the best…in the world.  When I serve it at Easter, some people can’t get enough of it and some people politely decline.  Others, unfortunately – and tellingly, it’s usually younger Greek-American family – have always felt they have license to grimace and make faces of disgust and revulsion.

Mageiritsa — the finished product (click)

It’s bad enough that so much art and time and work on my part should be met with that kid of rudeness.  Then I have to listen to the anthropology tes poutsas about how people only used to eat that stuff because they were poor and they had to eat everything available, like eating intestines were the equivalent of the dirt-eating that tragically occurs in third world countries under famine conditions.  No they didn’t; they ate those things because they taste good.  Organ meats perform more complex biochemical functions in our and other animals’ bodies than muscle does; joints: feet and hocks, are complexly interconnected with tendons and cartilage of various kinds.  They therefore have more varied textures, mineral content and other elements, which gives them a richer and more varied taste than regular flesh has.  As mentioned in this brilliant book Nourshing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats by Sally Fallon, when a carnivorous animal (which we are, by the way; ignore false, scientifically faulty Vegan and Buddhist propaganda) kills another animal in the wild, the first thing it goes for are the guts because it instinctively knows they’re the most nutritious part.  Instead of teaching their kids the value and variety of our traditions or pointing out the beautiful economy with which our ancestors made use of every part of the animal, or their respect for and intimate knowledge of the world, the plants, and the animals which fed them, as opposed to our obscene wastefulness and complete alienation from any food which actually looks like food or reminds us of where it comes from, these people stupidly and condescendingly put it down to their poverty.

I never, ever heard anyone in older generations reminisce about the breast of any chicken or the dry, grey boti meat of a traditionally over-cooked Greek leg of lamb.  My mother used to wax nostalgic about an aunt’s Sunday pacha or the street kokoretsi they sold down by the lake in Jiannena next to the Karagöz puppet box (you’d get slices of it on wax paper, that or a cone of pumpkin seeds or a stick-full of pişmaniye and sit and watch Karagöz and Hacivat’s brilliant antics; I can’t be grateful enough that all these survived until I myself was a child.)  If a whole animal were roasted, the kids would fight over the head and its brains, tongue and the delicious, gelatinous cheek flesh.  And pig feet and andouillete are enjoyed in the best Parisian bistros, not just in supposedly impoverished Balkan or South American villages.

It’s a growing ecological disaster – a cultural one – and that’s what depresses me most.  We’re tangling ourselves (like most things modern, it starts in America but is spreading throughout the world) in such a neurotic, kosher-like web of food anxieties and hysteria that we’ll have soon lost access to half the things humanity used to enjoy at the table if we haven’t already.  I truly believe that it’s a phenomenon connected to the disappearance of other forms of diversity:

“All these seemingly disconnected events are the symptoms, you could say, of a global epidemic of sameness. It has no precise parameters, but wherever its shadow falls, it leaves the landscape monochromatic, monocultural, and homogeneous. Even before we’ve been able to take stock of the enormous diversity that today exists — from undescribed microbes to undocumented tongues — this epidemic carries away an entire human language every two weeks, destroys a domesticated food-crop variety every six hours, and kills off an entire species every few minutes. The fallout isn’t merely an assault to our aesthetic or even ethical values: As cultures and languages vanish, along with them go vast and ancient storehouses of accumulated knowledge. And as species disappear, along with them go not just valuable genetic resources, but critical links in complex ecological webs.”  — “In Defense of Differerence.”

“Oh, this is so salty.  Oh, this is so fatty.  Oh, this is so oily.  Oh, this must have so much cholesterol; I can feel my arteries clogging.  Eeew, this has liver in it.  It’s what?! Made with blooood?!”  (You can’t imagine how many people I’ve known who had heard of blood sausage but thought it was a metaphor.)  “Ugh, this is so sweet – I can’t take a second bite.”  We think we’re so sophisticated but are pretty much as incapable of thinking comparatively or relatively as an Amazonian tribe shooting arrows at airplanes.  It never occurs to us that fattiness, or cloying sweetness, or fishiness or gumminess were and are qualities that people enjoy.  One of the most interesting pieces of etymology that I’ve ever learned is that the word “funky” – one of the few African words to have passed into American English usage – actually means “stinky” in whatever West African language it comes from.  But it’s telling that it’s come to mean what it means for us: weirdly, pleasantly off-beat.  Cool — in a way you can’t put your finger on — ‘cause it’s off.  Get it?  Like certain French cheeses when they’re good and ripe and smell like your boyfriend’s unwashed underwear, or the obviously slimy texture and smell – the obviously slimy look even, with all its erotic overtones — of oysters or other raw seafood.  Funky.  Yum.

Even in foodie paradise New York — where curious Brooklyn Heights ladies are taking butchery classes and where you’ve started seeing more and more of the kind of tastes and smells I’m talking about on restaurant menus: tripe and boudin and fatback (and if that’s a good thing to you because you love good food, you’re indebted more than you know for that to one man: one of my best beloved heroes, Anthony Bourdain***, who wrote in his first best-seller, Kitchen Confidential: “My body is not a temple; it’s a playground.”) – try going out to dinner with a group of friends.  It’ll take several hours of conference calling before everybody’s food concerns and quirks are taken into consideration and then, if the night’s not over, you’ve ended up at a least common denominator restaurant where one of your group is still bound to torment a busy waiter with a barrage of anxious questions, requests for substitutions, no peanut oil, “light on the butter” or the resounding, echoing sound of “sauce on the side.”  This is most often a white girl who doesn’t cook (“sauce” is usually a fundamental component of a dish produced by the entire, holistic process of preparing it; you can’t put it on the “side;” it’s not the jarred tomato sauce you grew up eating, babe; you can’t make a blanquette de veau with the sauce on the ‘side,’ or a mole poblano with the mole on the side!) or it’s someone who has never worked in that business and has no idea what a tightly organized military operation a good New York restaurant is and what chaos that behavior throws both the floor and kitchen staff into, not to mention the offense to the chef himself and his line, who might not just be doing their jobs, but might actually be proud of the carefully conceived and prepared dishes they’re trying to put out.

I understand people have different tastes and that they even have different biochemical make-ups that might make certain tastes seriously unpleasant to them.  I mean, even Tom Colicchio doesn’t like okra, which I love, but I don’t hold it against him.  (I just know that he hasn’t eaten them properly prepared).  But the preparation and sharing of food is such a fundamental part of most human socializing and it’s become almost impossible to conduct in any civilized form through this thicket of prohibitions and fears. Which brings me to my final point: the social aspect, which includes issues of hospitality, personal pride, and what Greeks call philotimo, all heavily weighted and codified issues in ‘our parts.’

But my intestines need cleaning, so I’ll have to tackle the rest of this issue in another post.

*Kokoreç (shown below) is basically the same ingredients as mageiritsa but spitted and roasted.  The organ meats are spitted and the whole thing is wrapped around with the intestines like a giant andouillette.  In Greece, they cut it in slices and serve it like that, which I prefer.  In Turkey they usually mince it all up with red pepper after roasting and put it in a sandwich, which is delicious but doesn’t allow the texture of each constituent organ meat to be appreciated as much.

** Terbiye, what Greeks call augolemono, is supposed to be an egg-lemon liaison sauce used in many dishes or to thicken soups and is the greatest culinary hoax ever perpetrated on the peoples of the Near East.  Very simply, the recipe, as usually given, does not work, and does not produce a thickened sauce but a watery, sour mess.  When you make a béarnaise or a hollandaise you use minimal acid (vinegar or lemon respectively) only the egg yolks and pure butter, ideally clarified.  It’s impossible to scramble some whole eggs with lemon, pour some watery liquid out of a pot of cabbage sarma into it and expect that it will produce something comparable.  If you’ve ever seen a truly smooth, thick terbiye, some kind of extra binder (corn or regular flour) was added to it, and if the cook tells you otherwise she’s lying.  Never underestimate the tactics a Turkish or Greek woman (especially one from Istanbul) will resort to in order to protect her recipes and ensure no one else’s version is as good; lying is the least of it.

***Anthony Bourdain

My man Bourdain — get all his books here.

International Meats in Astoria, staffed almost entirely by Mexicans, who speak perfect Greek and know every detail of innards terminology in not only Greek, but Serbian and some Roumanian.  A Queens insituton.

Bull balls at International, with liver to the left, kidneys on the right, spleen on bottom left, hearts on bottom right.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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