FINDING CONNECTION TO MY FAMILY & HERITAGE COOKING DURING COVID-19
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
When COVID-19 hit, I decided to make Sunday dinners memorable by roasting Greek chicken and potatoes the way my mom, Mary, had during my childhood. First, she’d bathe it in gallons of Greek olive oil, fresh lemon juice, garlic, oregano, and of course, salt and pepper. To this day, my childhood friends still talk fondly about “Mom’s Greek Chicken.” Every time I make it, I think of her and those Sundays. After living for years in the throes of dementia, she’s passed, and now, she’s lost to me. For me, roasting a chicken— filling my home with the scents of roasted garlic and lemon— makes me feel connected to her. It’s as though she’s still right there with us.
Stuffed behind the popcorn maker in my kitchen cabinet, I found my Grandmother, my YiaYia’s, Greek cookbook, “Hellenic Cuisine: A Collection of Greek Recipes.” It was printed over sixty years ago as a fundraiser for the Saint Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Detroit. These cookbooks serve as mini-time capsules written for women who had crossed a vast ocean and were trying to preserve their heritage, while at the same time trying to assimilate to American culture through food. At best, these recipes are a mish-mash of traditional recipes from the homeland along with Greek versions of American favorites like tuna casserole.
Greek Cookbooks published to raise funds for Greek Churches are time-capsules capturing the Greek migration waves to America.
My mom had always said, “If you can read a recipe, you can cook a meal.” I decided I wanted to use my YiaYia’s cookbook recipes as inspiration to make Sunday dinners. I enlisted my cousin Connie and my daughter, Alena, to join me in this project to recreate the meals we grew up eating. Typically, Connie is a road warrior traveling most weeks as a food stylist and event planner. I always say it’s a real blessing to call your family a friend and your friend family. We grew up as pen pals writing letters back and forth from Chicago to Detriot. It’s a mixed-up blessing that the pandemic forced her to stay in sweet home Chicago.
Cooking together, our shared passion, during the pandemic, gave us something to look forward to; we’d text back and forth recipe ideas. Connie would call her Godmother and ask for detailed instructions that my Yiayias cookbook didn’t have. We’d call each other and settle in on our recipes and grocery lists. Then finally, when Sunday arrived, she’d come over, and we’d get down to business.
I cook because my Mom cooked, and she made homecooked meals as a single working mom because her mother cooked. My YiaYia made these massive labor-intensive holiday feasts alone in her squat bungalow’s tiny kitchen, armed only with her hairnet and her faded apron. Even though she lived just shy of a century, we never knew her real age because she lied about it. “Tell people you are older than your age, so they think you look good instead of bad. You tell them you’re younger, and they think you look old,” Yiayia explained.
Each week, for her dwindling parish, my YiaYia baked and kneaded prosphoron, the simple communion bread made from flour, warm water, yeast, and salt. Her bread was sweeter and lighter than most communion bread. And I’ll never know her secret because we never cooked together.
My Yiayia was a woman of few words who spoke Greeklish. Her sentences would begin in Greek and transition into English. “Ela tho, you move too slow,” she ordered, leaving it up to the listener to figure out what she was saying. It wasn’t surprising that she didn’t leave many notes in her cookbook. Although, she did dog-ear a page featuring unappealing but cheap and easy canned tuna recipes. The recipe for the “tuna balls” is a head-scratcher. The ingredients include: two cans of tuna, two slightly beaten eggs, lemon juice, four slices of very dry bread, chopped onion, minced parsley, mint, oregano, and salt. The directions are as follows: moisten the bread, drain, squeeze out excess water, mix with the rest of the ingredients, form into balls, roll in flour, and fry in a shallow fat (sic) pan until brown.
Because the women generations before me cooked—I cook. I never gave it much thought. I’m a Greek mother, and you’re supposed to cook warm homemade meals for your family. It’s what you do. But, I don’t have any memories in the kitchen cooking with either of them. At a young age, I invited my daughter, Alena, into my tight,made-for-one galley kitchen. One of my favorite moments cooking with her was caught on camera. She’s about four, standing on a stool in a frilly little apron holding a farm-fresh just plucked from the farmer’s market eggplant. In the photo, she’s just taken a massive bite of raw eggplant, and it didn’t taste at all what she’d expect. Her expression is pure gold, a mixture of joy and disgust all rolled into one. Now she’s a teenager, she’s drifting away from me bit-by-bit, and before she sets sail for brighter shores, I want to share this passion with her.
During our COVID cooking marathons, we’ve made Greek dishes like Domathes (stuffed grape leaves); Avgolemono soup (Greek egg-lemon soup); Chicken Kapama made with crushed tomatoes, orange rind, and cloves; fried zucchini with Skordalia—a spread made with potatoes and bushels of garlic. It has been milk and honey having hours to cook with my cousin Connie. The time we spent talking about everything and nothing, nibbling on feta cheese from Costco, which by the way, is delicious. We’d start sweating and open all the windows, only to have my daughter attempt to close them as we’d holler at her to stop.
Cooking these dishes, I garnered a new appreciation for my Yiayia and her time spent in the kitchen. Domathes, grape leaves filled with ground lamb, rice, and dill covered in a creamy lemony Avgolemono sauce took hours to prepare. The three of us working together. As we painstakingly boiled the leaves and drying them made the egg-lemon sauce, carefully mixed the room temperature separated eggs to prevent them from turning into scrambled eggs. Then carefully rolled over eighty little individual tubes as not to break the paper-thin grape leaves. My daughter, admonishing me for being too rough or rolling the leaves incorrectly.
After all our hard work, we’d sit down at the table and eat in silence with reverence for the food we prepared. My favorite meal with Chicken Kapama and thick Greek noodles served with brown butter and Myzithra cheese. Connie’s recipe didn’t call for the orange rind; mine did. The dish’s flavor is a mixture of tangy tomatoes, with the cloves’ sweet richness and the creamy, buttery taste of the noodles. As a child, when I was sick, my mother would make me hilopites, small square egg noodles, and brown butter. Anytime I eat brown butter and pasta, I instantly and cared for feel loved.
COVID-19 took so much from all of us. It has been months of loss and grief. For me, these Sundays, cooking with my cousin and with my daughter was a bridge connecting my past to my present. And for that, I will be forever grateful.