As a half-Greek person, I can identify with confidence two things that we take more seriously than life itself: Our food, and...well, actually, maybe there's only one thing. After all, my relatives have been known to yell at strangers for pronouncing "gyro" as "juy-roh". There are no two ways about it: Don't mess with Greek food.
Traditionally - and stereotypically, for anyone who's seen "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" - with Greek food comes meat. A book title like "Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts," then, almost seems like a work of fiction. What? Are you sure you're thinking of the right part of the world? Well, yes. Just ask the book's author, Aglaia Kremezi, who has called Greece home her entire life. Today, she lives in Cyclades, a group of islands that provides the perfect climate for growing produce; unlike the eastern U.S., for example, "our winters are green," she says. After growing up shopping almost exclusively at farmers markets, among year-round, bountiful produce, who wouldn't want to write a book about vegetarian feasts?
Kremezi takes her cue from the entire Mediterranean region; the recipes in her book are not limited to Greek food, but rather, are a bit of a synthesis "from my travels throughout the world." However, like most Greeks, she remains culinarily faithful to what her mother and grandmother taught her. She's full of amusing tales; not only about her grandmother's "dictum [for] a pot of yogurt every evening," but about life, in general. She emphasizes the importance of creativity in cooking, especially when doing so seasonally. Go to the farmers market first, she suggests, and then plan your meals around the fresh produce found there. By George, Aglaia. Is that a suggestion that vegetarian cooking can be (gasp!) fun?
Absolutely. Life without good food, she seems to uphold, is no fun at all. I ask her about the so-called standards set by society today: What we're supposed to eat, what we're supposed to look like. She shakes her head and laughs, noting, "There's nothing wrong with a little bit of cheese every day." I'm inclined to agree; since entering my 30s, I decided that if loving cheese and bread also means loving cellulite, then bring it on. It's as if Kremezi's book is simply nodding toward the fundamentally practical lifestyle from which we have strayed, but are slowly re-adapting: Eat seasonally and locally, and enjoy your food. I like this woman. Sure, we have to eat to live. But Greeks? Obviously, we live to eat.
What I particularly like about "Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts" is its well-rounded approach to food. Bread and cheese aren't banned; in fact, Kremezi dedicates an entire section to the cheeses of the Mediterranean that are essential accompaniments to dishes. It's more than a cookbook: It's a guidebook, providing tips for properly storing and extending the life of seasonal produce, along with menu suggestions for every season, and every occasion. I can see the sequel now. "Eat Your Damn Cheese: The Aglaia Kremezi Guide to Life."
Greek-habit-humor aside, Kremezi has managed to make food her life's work. With a background in journalism, penning cookbooks comes naturally. She's turned it into a business, too, with her husband, Costas Moraitis, also an author; together, they operate Kea Artisanal, offering culinary vacations on the island of Kea, replete with coastal hikes, cooking classes and tastings. Of course, it c0mes with guidelines; the Kea Artisanal outlines a disclaimer for those who may not enjoy such a destination:
- People who don't like garlic, vegetables, and olive oil.
- People who hate nature, wild plants, and walking.
- People who don't like dogs.
Are these my people, or what?
During a recent visit, my mother - the one from whom I get the Greek half - began leafing through "Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts" while she was bored. It didn't take long to lift her fatigue; 15 seconds into picking up the book, her silence turned into cries of, "Oh, my God, this looks good!" and, "Yeah, this is the real deal."
Later on, I asked my mother which recipes she liked the most. She couldn't remember her exact favorites, but remarked, "The key is, she's probably a YaYa who cooks what she grows." We all should be so lucky to have such a person in our lives, and by keeping Kremezi's book in my kitchen at all times, I feel as though I am paying tribute to my lineage. No meat can replace that sense of family: The kind that only comes from cooking with heritage, the way Kremezi describes in her book.
Eat to live, and and eat to love.
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