I grew up in Peloponnese, the prefecture of Arcadia. It is on the east coast of Peloponnese. In the lower slopes of Mount Parnon was my village. It was a plateau of about a hundred acres, from which, in a ten minute walk, you could look down to the Aegean Sea. The village with whitewashed houses, 150 of them, the village has been there since prehistoric times. The people, all of them, even the priests and the mayor, lived from subsistence farming. The grammar school teacher was the most revered person in the community. When he used to come to the coffee shop, a fairly young man, the older people would get up to give their seat, because they respected his learning. To them, being an educated person was a great honor.
The grammar school had fifty-two students, all of them in one room. In wintertime, with the snow, all of us would take a piece of firewood to the school for the wood oven. From first to sixth grade, the teacher, he was teaching from the ABC’s to the first year kids and Socrates philosophy to the sixth year students. By the time you came to the last grade, you more or less knew the whole curriculum. The school goes from 8:00 until 1:30 and from 3:00 to 6:00. For breakfast, we would have milk made from powdered milk in a huge fifty gallon copper pot. The lady who made it would beg us to bring her firewood, because she was handicapped. To this day, I hate powdered milk. We have nice goat milk at home, and who wants to drink milk that tastes like… no milk I have ever tasted? We had to drink it. We learned early how to avoid that. We used to always take our cups outside. All of us would sit down close to the huge pine tree roots, and, if you were to go out there today, I think you would find that the tree is still growing from our milk. After grammar school, all the students who planned to go to high school would go down the mountain through the cobblestone paths. We rented a house and then we would live by ourselves. Most of us would see our parents every couple of months, if we were lucky. They sent us some food by taking turns coming down the mountain and bringing us the necessities: some olive oil, a little goat cheese, bread, olives, and a few dried legumes. The amounts were small, since the rest of the food had to be sold or bartered to buy clothes, shoes, and a few rag gedy books. I remember many times the food gave out, and we had to resort to some ways to get food which are not described in the Bible. The biggest trick is to steal eggs without rattling the chickens. Another is to help yourself to oranges without shaking the tree. I have a dent in my head as big as the Grand Canyon from a wound I received in a duty of hunting and gathering. After I jumped a big wall, my friend who was looking out for me was supposed to throw a little pebble in a careless way on the tree to warn me of approaching dangers, in the form of people walking by. Unfortunately for me, he threw a 3 pound rock, which hit me in my head. After I screamed at him, “I said a pebble, not a damn rock!” he told me it was a policeman, that’s why he threw the boulder. I did go to the hospital. The doctor was not there, but the midwife was. She told me she can do stitches in my head, and she proceeded to put 5 stainless steel clamps and bandage me all around my head. It reminded me of the pictures you see from soldiers coming back from the battle. It was a battle alright. She sent me home. My grandmother was visiting us, and she saw me like that, she crossed herself and thanked God I was okay. Of course, she asked me what happened, and I told her I tried to steal oranges. God was not on my side. The broom with the long stick, it was laid by her side, and she swung it, I swear, like Babe Ruth, he would be proud of her, and she took the stitches and the bandages off my head. I had to revisit the midwife. She did not feel sorry for me, but she had nice things to say about my grandmother. What a witch. Thank God she taught me a valuable lesson. Regardless, until my grandmother left to go to the village, I was staying put in a friend’s place. The place did not have heat, and running water was about half a mile away, but to me, it was a safe haven.
My sister Giannoula and I lived in a two-room house. One room was big and open with four windows. Three overlooked the mountain, and one, the ocean three miles away. The front room had the biggest fireplace you ever saw. The front of the fireplace was like a pregnant camel. The floor was dirt, which we put wood slats on top of. The windows were lacking glass; they had wooden shutters only. In the winter, it was cold. The summer was hot. Running water was down the street. It was a lion head with a big lever on the top, which you had to press hard for it to give you water. We had ceramic jugs, just like in the time of Christ, for taking water home. The spring on the lion head, it was very hard to push. They didn’t want kids to waste water. Of course, for us kids who wanted water to cook and clean, it never crossed our mind. I used to put my hand on the button and my sister would climb on the top with both feet, and that’s how the lion head put water out of his mouth. To this day, I don’t like lions.
Our food was such that, I promise you, you would not get obese from.
Actually, you would not get fat. To tell you the truth, you would be skinny the rest of your life. Our parents left us half a dollar a week to buy the bare necessities, which for me, it was three chocolates, what a treat. Many days, from Wednesday until Sunday, it was lean days. Or it was hungry days until the mules came down from the mountain with some parent to bring us bread, maybe a few precious eggs. Now I’m going to tell you, my favorite food. The truth is, I never cooked it until I came to the United States, but I promise you, I knew how, I knew the smells, the ingredients, the timing, the taste, even now, I remember it.
Our house was low-slung, with a huge chimney. We cooked whenever there was food available to cook in the fireplace. Smoke was coming out of the chimney infrequently. Our neighbors were our landlords. Their house was three stories; ours, barely one. Like a good landlord, they would watch down on our house. Their names were Costa and Aphrodite. Their kids, who were long gone to Athens for work, were named Leonidas and Athena, a proper name for Greeks.
Barba Costa, was a stevedore. He unloaded the boats in the port of our small town. He was built like a pocket Hercules. He never wore shoes, only at funerals and the infrequent times of going to church. Aphrodite was another matter. She was tall, elegant, beautiful, and regal. She was a refugee from Asia Minor. With a transfer of the population after the disaster of the Greek and Turkish war, her family, whatever was left of it, came to Greece. From the richest of the Constinoupolis to the hamlet of Leonidion, she came from a wealthy family who lost it all. She brought class with her, though, and the most eclectic foods knowledge. The present day Istanbul, it was the bridge of Asia and Europe. It was where all the goods and spices from as far as China came through. The Greeks of Istanbul, they did well for themselves. Now they were destitute.
Aphrodite married Costas even if he was a stevedore. At least he had a job, and she had to marry a different class. Costa was famous for something he did. Women from Tsitalia came down from the ocean to wash hair goat kilims and make them soft with wooden flat mullet on the racks. One of them Elini the wife of the coffee shop owner at my village, she fell in the ocean and she was drowning. She was pregnant with a baby coming soon. Costa dove in. For his heroic deed he baptized the baby. The girl’s name was Margarita. She was my fellow student in school. Aphrodite, she was proud of her husband. They owned a plot of land, no more than a couple of shotgun houses in Birmingham, Alabama, no more than fifty feet from the ocean, and that’s what they worked everyday.
The donkey, it was going around the well for hours, bringing the buckets of the water wheel for the fruit trees and vegetables. Lemon trees and orange trees with the fragrance which makes even the bees dizzy and fruits, tomatoes and cucumbers, onions, green and red, eggplant, the famous Tsakoniki. Long like Japanese and light purple. If you closed your eyes and smelled the vegetables, you knew exactly what kind it was. My favorite food, Imam Baldi, it was from the plot of land.
Lots of times our chimney was not producing smoke. The cupboard was empty. Aphrodite opened the window and hollered down to us across the yard to come for coffee. What a yard was? A couple centuries old house of which only the walls were standing, and the old cistern which never held water probably for the last hundred years. My sister and I always went for coffee, but mostly, I would like to see her cooking and smell the food. She would take the eggplants, wash them, and she cut them lengthwise. She put a little salt and pepper. She’d take a skillet, put a little olive oil in, and cook the eggplants until they were soft. She would put them on the side. She chopped a few onions, ripe tomatoes, garlic, basil from her balcony, oregano from the mountains, a few celery leaves chopped by hand, and she sautéed those with the olive oil.
It was effortless for her. The onions, they would become transparent, the garlic soft, and the ripe tomatoes were peeled and chopped with the juice.
The basil, it was small leaves, and the oregano, it had an aromatic smell. She never burned anything. The little gas stove was on low heat and the aromas soothed the senses and the soul. She would wear a small apron, which I never saw with one speck of dropped food on it. She could tell stories and cook. Barba Costa, he would not dare give instructions about the food.
He would tell us stories about the Germans who came to his house, and she cooked for them, because they ordered her, and about the communists who came down the mountain and stole the bread. The partisans execution, fifty feet from the fence, of seven men, unknown to anybody, and buried with anonymous names. Lots of times as young kids we would ask lots of questions. I ask Barba Costa about the drowning episode. He would always tell me no big deal. Everybody was ready to dive in and he was the fastest. I knew the truth all them waiting around and point their finger saying that the lady was drowning. Real heroes they don’t brag. Barba Costa knew that. A wood spoon stirred the vegetables with such technique all them mixed evenly in a skillet. Then, she would take a pan, put the eggplants down, put the vegetables on the top, a little bit of olive oil, a little salt and pepper, she would have the salt and pepper mixed in a little wooden bowl. Then she put in the oven. Temperature, I don’t know, it was an oven fired by wood. Thank God I was not knowledgeable enough to ask for a temperature. Real cooks, they know the temperature of the oven. She looked at it a couple times, and then she’d take it out. She’d sprinkle feta cheese on it, and she’d put it back in the oven to melt the feta cheese. The food would erase any fears or bad memories for Barba Costa.
Then, the ritual started. She asked us to stay to eat. Known or unknown to her, we are not supposed to stay to eat. We came for coffee only. My parents instructed us we should never stay to eat with anyone. Especially if we were hungry, because they don’t want people to know sometimes they cannot provide for us. Food, it would come in a few days. My sister, she always poked me for us to leave. I always told her, if they ask us four times, they mean it. They always asked us four times. I always won. Or I think she let me win. The food’s name is Imam Baldi. It’s a Turkish word. It means the Imam, the boss, fainted from pleasure after eating this food. We Greeks, even if we fought the Turks for 1,000 years, and we hate to use the words, this one we call Imam Baldi. War or no war, good food came first. On my visits to Turkey the last few years, I always tried that. Any restaurant or as a guest of a house I go to, I pray for them to have it. Sorry to say, none of them is as good as the God sent Aphrodite’s. Maybe because we were hungry, maybe because she was a kind lady, maybe because of the bread accompanying the meal was made from her hands with the wheat from the farms, a few hundred yards away, but hers was the best. The very best. I wish she was alive for me to tell her again, and not only about the food, but about her kindness who showed it at the two little kids living next door to her. Christianity at its best. I still remember the prayer she would say before we ate. She always thanked God she had us next door. We thank God for letting us visit her. Sometimes our prayers are dictated by our stomachs.
Ours the “daily bread” it was a big deal. The Imam Baldi it was little side miracle God give us from the hands of Aphrodite.
George Sarris is a renowned chef and restauranteur in Birmingham. He is the owner of the Fish Market on Southside and George’s Boxcar Cafe, as well as co-owner of Dodiyós in Homewood and Pianeta 3 in Mountain Brook. He also runs the catering business Yellow Bicycle.