26 November 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

OK, let it be said: Thanksgiving is my top candidate for "favorite holiday."

Maybe because it's the only one our family celebrates that is exclusively American, yet not linked so garishly to patriotism as July 4th.  Make no mistake, I am a patriot, if a critical one--more the style of our recently elected president; not of the flag waving, "love it or leave it" sort.  I embrace much in our democracy and our culture, and I own up the things I'd rather disavow.  I grill burgers and hot dogs, eat greasy potato chips, and make fruit pies on Independence Day.  Plus, I love fireworks.  But Thanksgiving is so much better.

Yes, there's some unease around the story--let's call it guilt--if you want to consider the way settlers/invaders of the "New World" ultimately repaid the kindnesses of the native people, who helped the pilgrims survive the winter and celebrate their first life-sustaining crops.

And, yes, Macy's and Hallmark have managed to put their commercial spin on it all--though the annual parade in New York is still a "must" if you are or have a child.

And perhaps I can "afford" to love the holiday, because it does not involve family arguments and old injuries brought up around the table--we are so functional as to be an anomaly in this day and age, I think--and also because we do have the financial means to indulge in a hearty (but not obscene) home-cooked meal of fine ingredients.

This is the point, I guess.  It's about the turkey and gravy and cornbread dressing (my paternal grandmother's recipe); it's about the sweet potato casserole WITH marshmallows, thank you very much; it's about the pecan pie that we don't dare tamper with (again, grandma's recipe)... though one year I did make a chocolate version that was heavenly, and that I was promptly told would be appropriate for any of the other 364 days of the year!  But even more than the food (gasp!) it's truly about family, about traditions and taking a moment to honor them.  And Thanksgiving is, to my knowledge, the only public holiday that is completely secular and yet embraces this core idea that belongs to any religion: to show gratitude for the blessings we have, however they may have come into our lives.  When else are we reminded, as an entire nation, to be thankful?

There is always something to be thankful for--even in hard times, even facing global crises of finance, of the environment--and I think it's even more important now to articulate the ways in which we are lucky, too; to not lose sight of the fact that we have so much, even as many of us fear losing jobs, homes, other valuables.

This year, I am most thankful for my son.  For the way he lives in the moment, for the intensity of his feelings, his passion and boundless energy; I am thankful for his curiosity and kindness, his kisses, songs, and things made out of Legos.  I am thankful for his love of learning, and the quality education he is receiving.  (That's his classroom, decked out for a Thanksgiving feast in the photo above).

He says he is thankful "for sleeping in grandma's bed"... which he will no doubt find a way to do this year, as we head to Connecticut to visit.  And I know he's thankful for the hand-knit necktie I made for him to wear at the school's celebration this week (but that's another story!).

I am thankful that as a "class parent" I had the privilege of serving close to 20 kindergarteners, who were all adventurous in tasting the menu (some whom are from other countries and have never had this traditional American fare), and who were very well mannered at the table, remembered please and thank you, and who read aloud a statement of thanks for their parents and their school.  It was so obvious that, at least for the day, they meant it with all their hearts.  (THANKSGIVING TIP: If you ever want a true experience of what the holiday should be about, find a way to place yourself at the epicenter of a spontaneous "group hug" with a dozen plus 5- and 6-year-olds!!)

I am thankful for my husband and his hard work, without which we would not have many of the basic things.  And for his companionship.

I am thankful for my friends, their support, their honesty, and their laughter.

I am also thankful for my parents, for too many reasons to name (they know, I've told them).

This year, I am thankful that we will still gather and share the same, time-tested recipes.  We'll be doing this in a rehab center (for physical therapy; my father is recovering from knee replacement surgery), bringing the meal along with us, and toasting to health in a private space on site that we've managed to reserve for a couple of hours.  If you can't come to the Thanksgiving table, then the table will come to you!  That's how we operate in our family.  Together at all costs, with gratitude.

And now, excuse me while I get the pie out of the oven.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

14 November 2008

Athens to Methoni

Greece April 2007: Part I
(first of several posts from the journal I kept during my trip to Greece last year)

We are being driven out of Athens by Nikos in his yellow Mercedes taxi.  It is a luxury that embarrasses me intensely--I did not order it, would never have done so; I would have attempted more tedious, "everyman" public transportation--yet I admit I am thankful for the comfort.  The drive to Methoni, across the entire Peloponnese, is expected to take 4-5 hours, depending on the traffic, which promises to be heavy due to the approaching Easter holiday.  It is Holy Thursday, and already Athens is emptying out, releasing her grip on those who go back to their families' villages for the biggest celebration of the year.  The Greeks do Easter like no one else.

My mother and I are on a pilgrimage of sorts, heading first to Methoni, but eventually to Filiatra, the town where my grandmother grew up (also not far from the area of my grandfather's boyhood).  This ancestral visit has been a dream of mine for a long time.  We have only just arrived in Greece the day before, and it's still hard for me to believe we are actually here--except for the smell of orange trees in bloom, surrounding Syntagma Square, where we have met Nikos to begin our day's journey.

"They are too bitter to eat," Nikos says when I mention the heady orange scent drummed up by a light rain overnight.  That's okay.  I am content to keep the memory of their perfume in my nose; my stomach is already sated.  There is no better breakfast in the world than a Greek breakfast of rich, tangy whipped yogurt with thyme honey, accompanied by coffee with warmed milk... at least, if it's eaten in Greece!

The sights out the window roll by, still mostly highway heading toward the Peloponnese.  We stop at a toll booth, and Mom notices the women working the booths.

"I see the women have taken over the toll booths," she says.
"Yes, it's better to see a beautiful woman than a man with a mustache," says Nikos.
I can't resist: "Or a woman with a mustache."
"What a nightmare!" Nikos says with a shudder, and we laugh.

At the Isthmus of Corinth, we stop to look at the canal cut through the neck of land that separates the Peloponnese from the mainland.  It was created in 1893, Nikos tells us.  He is well informed.  Perhaps not more so than your average Greek, it's hard to say.  Average Greeks, I am willing to bet, receive a more complete, deeper knowledge of history as part of their basic education than what the average American acquires.  It's a shameful imbalance, for which I feel the need to make amends.  The canal was created by the Greeks, the French, and the Hungarians, to facilitate shipping trade.  Nikos says the first one to have the ambition and idea for the project was Alexander the Great, although the technical engineering knowledge of the age was not up to snuff.  Apparently Nero also made attempts, abandoned them.  The canal is very narrow and around 4 miles long, at sea level and minus a locks system.  It is amazing to see how sheer the rock walls are.  Looking down is a surprise--driving alongside it, you have no sense of being so high above sea level, but the drop is a long one.  The water is a lovely blue-green.

We stretch our legs, use a bathroom.  A woman sits at a table outside the door to the men's and women's rooms, a dish of coins and an ashtray on the table before her.  She sits there all day refilling the paper in the stalls and keeping things clean.  "Madame Pipi," the colloquial French members of my family would call her.  It's quite a job, but she seems to do it with some small measure of grace, or anyway she manages a cheerful thanks when we leave our tip.

Nikos is on a cigarette break (had he been getting a bit crabby as the time wore on?).  The clean air campaign has yet to turn up in Greece and its restaurants.  I'd forgotten when it was like to be asked for a smoking or non-smoking table, as we were asked at the restaurant we visited the night before--or else you are NOT asked and you take your chances.  Nikos motions back to the car, and we climb in.  His mood has improved, and conversation becomes more personal.  Nikos is a large man, but he can speak with a great gentleness, especially when he tells us about his mother from Smyrna, who came to Greece in the great population exchange that took place with Turkey in the 1920s.

The countryside opens up around us, changes, becomes more rocky once we pass through the area where the fortress of Acrocorinth looks over the canal, the Gulf of Corinth, and the Saronic Gulf.  The limestone outcrop is approximately 1,900 feet high.  We pass through Nemea, the site where, in Greek mythology, Herakles wrestled the lion.  Today this area is one of the wine-producing areas of the Peloponnese.  We pass Tripolis, Megalopolis, through the Arcadian landscape made famous by the ancient poets.  Wildflowers are everywhere now--sometimes a single flower, hearty, brightly colored, and clinging to a rock; sometimes entire fields of bright yellow.  Yellow, blue, purple blossoms on trees, the occasional red flower (a miniature poppy?)... the vibrant green grass, new this spring and newly refreshed with rain, makes the "spring green" in a box of crayons look muddy and dull.  Sheep.  Steep inclines and hairpin turns.  We know how perilous each turn is by the number of shrines at the side of the road where other travelers, unlucky, never made it to their final destinations.

Here Mom tells me a family story--a ghost story if you like--about my Uncle Louie.  Louie and one of the Kiros men (of Detroit "Coney Island Hot Dog" fame) were working on a house for Kiros and his family.  Three quarters of the way finished, and Kiros travels back here to the Peloponnese, misses one of said hairpin turns and dies.  Later, as Louie is working on completing the house for the family, he is in the attic alone and hears Kiros's voice say, "Louie, look under the boards."  He hears it twice, and scared halfway to his own death, he nevertheless manages to do as he's told.  Under the floorboards, he finds a strong box with an immense cash savings inside.  He had no idea it was hidden there.  Mom says Louie told her the story himself and that he was not a man to give himself over to stories.  Who am I to disbelieve?  Stranger things have happened in our family.  I think about how disconnected we have become, the current generation, from the kind of energy and openness, from the kind of belief and willingness to receive that must accompany these kinds of experiences.

Mountains roll by, and my stomach rolls with them as we make vertiginous turns up and up, 180-degrees this way then that.  There's something surreal about watching the landscape pivot around you.  And then we're in a valley again, moving toward Kalamata and the olive trees, leaves flashing silver in the sunlight.  Groves of olive trees that go on and on.  Past Kalamata, the olives become orange groves, then olive again.  This is a valley where things grow.  I think of yiayia, Mom's mother, and the olive trees she signed over to a cousin who remained in Greece long after she'd emigrated--this cousin we may find in Filiatra, though we have long ago lost contact.  I think of how my grandmother had a gardener's hand.  I remember she grew roses.  She could take a thorny stem from any cut rose in an FTD bouquet and plant it in the ground, put a Mason jar over it, and next year she'd have the beginnings of a new rose bush in her yard.  She loved flowers, loved making them grow, and it seems a strange paradox, an irony that this woman who lavished love on roses, made them bloom in her presence, never knew how to nurture her children's souls in the same way.

But this trip is not about the past.  It is about us, my mother and I, the hyphenated ones, the Greek-Americans.  We cut through the mountains, tourists driven in our taxi, and we oooh and ahhh like the rest of them, though it does somehow still feel like coming home, too.  We pass through Pylos, stop at Methoni.  We say good-bye to Nikos, wishing him "Kalo Pascha," a Happy Easter.  We have arrived.

© All Rights Reserved/Melting Pot Family. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from the author, Allison Cay Parker.

13 November 2008

Maria Filopoulou

Underwater Swimmers II, Oil on Canvas

It wasn't this painting, but it belonged to the same series of Underwater Swimmers.  I was on my way to Borders Books in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, NYC, looking for something I needed to purchase--not a pleasure read; it was an all-business kind of day--and the painting stopped me cold.  It was, in fact, a cold day.  Last winter I think it was.  And maybe it was the escapist in me who found this canvas so magnetic.  Before I even knew the artist's name, this painting made me think of the Mediterranean, of Greece and the Hellenic love of sun and sea.  I wanted to be there, swimming, and not at all where I was, roaming the slick public spaces of Manhattan's vertical (and very upscale) answer to a strip mall.

The painter, in fact, is an Athenian-born artist by the name of Maria Filopoulou, represented in New York by Millenia Fine Art.  My sense of affinity increased upon seeing the nameplate next to the luminous canvas, and yet again once I did a little biographical research: not only is Filopoulou Greek--born in 1964, only five years my senior--but once she reached her twenties, she made her way (as I also did) to France, where she studied painting in Paris at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, working through the equivalent of an M.F.A.

Filopoulou has achieved some measure of international success.  According to the artist's website (linked above), her works grace the National Gallery and the Greek Parliament, and belong to private museums and collections across the globe.  I find it easy to understand why.

As you stand in front of a canvas belonging to this "Swimmers" series, the peripheral world fades away.  The picture seems to extend beyond the two-dimensional confines of the canvas, seems to envelop you, pulling you with a strong current into the underwater world of light and motion.  It is hard to turn away, especially if you succumb to the suggestion of secrecy--the idea that you are viewing a private, sacred ritual of swimming.

Okay, reality intrudes: I would be dishonest to say there were not a few crass gawkers, some unsophisticated tourists doing double-takes as they realized, Those swimmers are naked!  I was embarrassed for them--and also for myself and the condescending turn my thoughts took in their direction.  How quickly people can twist the sacred into something base; how quickly our looking becomes voyeuristic, dark.  It's absurd.

But to be voyeuristic, you have to hold yourself at a distance, which I find impossible to do when facing Filopoulou's paintings.  The key to her success lies in this--in the masterful way she manipulates space in the plane of the canvas.  I do not think it's outrageous to make some comparisons to paintings in the canon of art history: I am thinking of Monet's water lilies, the ones just a half dozen blocks farther south, hanging in the Museum of Modern Art.  The play of water and sky, object and reflection, the illusion that creates depth and infinity within a finite, flat space of stretched canvas... these qualities are similar.

Look at that blue, though.  God, just look at it!  Look at the dazzling hue and the dancing sparks of light, and you know at once that this art could never be born of gray Paris, or even the gardens of Giverny.  The Greek summer sun is unmistakable--the harsh light and honesty of it--and the fact that only the sea can lure it to playfulness.  Filopoulou's scene is not cultured or cultivated as a cosmopolitan city or a garden; rather, it is simple in its joy.  It is open and innocent, as well as free.

In her own statement, Filopoulou writes: "My compositions enable me to liberate myself from the enclosed space, providing me with the wide perspective that I need for my work.  I inhabit the space I create and it becomes a secure refuge.  The feeling of security gives me the vital sense of freedom to look at everything calmly and objectively, to experience vertigo, movement and even rebellion."  Yes, there is rebellion, too.

In her talk of enclosed space and refuge, of security and freedom--in her talk of rebellion, too--I find an artist I'd like to imagine is a kindred spirit.  Both of us born in the 1960s, a time of turbulence.  In America, there was the Civil Rights movement, the counter-culture rebellion; in Greece, the "Colonels' Coup" that brought the Junta to power.  Such different childhoods we must have had, she and I, but our countries were both preoccupied with the idea of freedom (America's at Greece's expense, I admit the argument will be made when it comes to the Junta).

But back to the canvas.  Here, there is no sign of struggle, only of organic, utopian life--rhythmic and pulsing, wonderfully vital.  There is something at once modern and classical, ancient even, at work in the "Swimmers" paintings.  And in the moment of standing there--no matter the bitter weather outside or the storms of daily annoyances and emotions within--I become part of it all.  I feel grateful for the innocence, the openness of bodies, the caress of water and light.

Maria Filopoulou's art is, for me, a wonderful discovery.  I hope it is for you, too.

10 November 2008

Black-Eyed Peas

We are on an Alan Jackson audio binge, my son and I.  I have to admit, it's amusing to hear my native-NYC kindergartener sing, "Where I come from, it's cornbread and chicken…," and he even nails the down-home accent!  He throws his heart into this song, even though he doesn't eat the same kind of chicken as they do in Dixie—we're not big on fried anymore.  But he does eat cornbread, plus another culinary nod to the American South: black-eyed peas.

There's a thing about black-eyed peas in my family--on both sides, though the obvious connection is paternal. My father is the one from the Deep South--Alabama, to be precise--and he's the original Alan Jackson fan (we danced to the song "Drive" at my wedding).  When I was small, I learned about black-eyed peas from my dad, and from his parents.  From them I learned about cornbread and chicken, about collard greens and grits.  I learned about the salty-fizzy-sweet of peanuts dropped in Coke, and about the sour tang of buttermilk (which I love to bake with, but simply never could bring myself to drink!).  And despite my mother's Yankee status (Detroit born and bred), my immediate family has, for most years I can remember, enjoyed the New Year's Day good-luck ritual of eating "Hoppin' John," a dish of black-eyed peas and rice, in which we hide a shiny new dime—an extra bit of luck for the one who receives it. (Warning: it behooves you to eat slowly before the dime gets found!)

The tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day is common throughout the South, and it is thought to bring prosperity for the coming year.  Some people will tell you that the peas represent coins—which is why you're supposed to eat a lot of them—and that they should be eaten with greens, which represent paper money.  Although we ate collard greens periodically, I don't think we always ate them on New Year's, and maybe this explains my own modest income.

Black-eyed peas are, of course, a modest, inexpensive food—"poor folks" food—and for many people, this member of the cowpea family is loaded with significance.  I have a friend, for example, whose parents (maybe only one parent, I don't recall which one) won't eat them because they pretty much subsisted on them during the Great Depression, and this lowly pea on the plate brings back too many bad memories.  My father's family also knew poverty, but for him I believe there's nostalgia of a happy kind when he eats black-eyed peas.  It's "comfort food," "soul food," and he's transported back to the red dirt and honeysuckle of his boyhood.  Soul food, however, is most appropriately claimed by African-American culture—and, to be historically honest, this may as well be euphemism for "slave culture" in this country.  Black-eyed peas were most likely brought to the New World from Africa aboard the slave ships.  Perform even a cursory search for black-eyed peas on the Internet, and you will turn up references to the slave trade, and also to Union soldiers in the Civil War whose disdain for crops such as these inadvertently helped sustain the Confederate states.  For more than three hundred years, black-eyed peas have been a staple in the Southern diet, but not every association is one of luck, prosperity, or a happy childhood.

Nor is every association of the Southern United States.  It's embarrassing, but I don't know when this second-generation Greek-American finally realized: Greeks eat black-eyed peas, too!  I grew up with many traditional dishes, but black-eyed peas did not seem to be in my Greek family's repertoire.  Other beans, yes, and other greens.  My grandmother mortified her American-born children by picking dandelions from abandoned urban lots and boiling them for supper when times were difficult.  And although I was never the beneficiary of these impromptu, hard-luck meals, I did have my own taste of beans-with-greens: "fassolakia plaki me spinaki" (white beans baked with spinach).

So black-eyed peas weren't "Greek" to me in the slightest, and this view was aided by the paucity of commercial offerings.  Only recently have I seen recipes with black-eyed peas showing up in Greek cookbooks or on menus in Greek restaurants here in the U.S.  There is generally a very narrow allowance for "ethnic" dishes in America, despite our being the "melting pot" nation.  Living in NYC, I can find authentic Greek fare, but for many, there is no room to expand the notion of Greek cuisine beyond the stereotypical gyros or souvlaki in your local diner, a Greek salad with vegetables that don't taste anything like the flavorful ones you'd get in Greece, maybe a mediocre moussaka or the ubiquitous lamb, with a cloying baklava for dessert.

But, eaten in Greece throughout the year--and particularly during Orthodox Lent and other fasting periods, when observant Greeks shun all animal meat and dairy—black-eyed peas (called "mavromatika," literally the "black-eyed," plural) appear in tomato-based soups, in hot dishes mixed with greens, and are featured in cold salads.

So, why eat black-eyed peas (and why write about them)—at New Year's, or at any other time?  Obviously, taste is a matter of personal preference (and I will save the North/South debate on firm vs. "cooked to within an inch of its life" for another time).  Beyond taste, they are nutritious, being good sources of protein, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, fiber, and folate.  For the superstitious, the link between black-eyed peas and good luck goes a long way back: according to one site I visited, yet unverified, the tradition can be traced to Babylonian Talmud (Jewish law) from the early centuries CE.  Why not?  These are good reasons.   For me, I can say that when I eat them, I think of "comfort" and childhood memories, like my father does.  But also, I eat them every so often because of their humble origins and history, and because I married into a Gallic world of "haute gastronomie," fine dining and rich foods.  Every so often, I need a good dose of humility.

Our Greco-Dixie Family Recipe for "Hoppin' John"

1 TBS butter

2 TBS olive oil

1 large onion, minced

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound dried black-eyed peas, picked over

1 ham bone, or ½ pound piece of smoked ham

½ tsp fresh thyme, chopped (in a pinch use ¼ tsp dried)

1 bay leaf

1 quart chicken broth

1 quart water

½ cup brown rice

1 lemon, juiced

1 tsp lemon peel, grated

salt and pepper to taste

1 tsp chopped chives

Heat butter with oil in a large pot over medium-low heat.  Add the onion, cook 1 minute.  Add garlic; cook five minutes.  Stir in black-eyed peas.  Add ham bone, thyme, bay leaf, chicken broth, and water.  Heat to boiling, then reduce.  Simmer, partially covered, 1 hour.

Stir in rice and continue to cook partially covered until black-eyed peas and rice are tender.  This may take at least another hour.   Remove ham bone.  Cut off any meat from the bone and chop fine.  Add ham to the soup and cook a couple of minutes.  Stir in lemon juice and lemon peel.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve hot, sprinkled with chives.   Don't forget to hide a shiny new dime in the serving dish for good luck!

05 November 2008

Yes We Can!

Last night, history was made in America, and I witnessed it.

How proud I feel.  It is not often that we are able to know and deeply appreciate, in the very moments of our lives as they unfold, the significance of events in the stream of time.  We all know that history is a revisionist's terrain, an exercise in looking backward, in editing, judging.  How often are we allowed to experience history in the now?  And how often do ordinary people claim authorship of it?  History books are written by the winners of wars, the conquerors, the ones in power, yes?  Yet I truly feel, on Election Day 2008, we were all empowered to speak, individually and collectively, and to send a clear message: Enough!

This sounds naive, I'm sure.  Especially from a longtime cynic.  But I remember the words of George Carlin, and I know their truth, that inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist.  Well, today, I am not disappointed.

Last night, America elected the first (half) black man to the highest public office of the nation.  Last night, America reclaimed for itself the image of a land where anything is possible, where if you dare to dream it you can achieve it.  With the election of Barack Obama to the White House, America has again become the land of opportunity, has bought back the soul it sold these past decades.  And what an opportunity that must be seized.  We can, perhaps, begin to repair the damage to our international reputation.  We can, perhaps, truly leave behind the past eight years of "regime change" and arrogance, war and torture, deprivation of civil liberties, and governance by fear.  Perhaps we will be able to hold our heads up again when we travel abroad.  Perhaps this will be a renaissance.  The artist in me hopes so.  Time will tell.

Today, though, I want to believe in possibility.  I want to believe in the American Dream.  It's the same dream that brought my own grandparents here from Greece during the first decades of the 1900s--the dream that was the difference for them between life and death.  The dream they were willing to suffer for and never give up: not during the Great Depression, not during World War II, not during the social unrest and the race riots that came to their chosen hometown of Detroit in the 1960s.  It's the same dream that my father strived to help bring about in the South in the 1950s and 1960s--yes, that dream, the dream of Martin Luther King, Junior, a man my father knew personally, and who lost his life for his efforts to make the American Dream color-blind.  Finally, it's the same dream that lured my husband across the Atlantic: the dream of job opportunities that he did not have in France.  We are a family of dreamers.  Practical, feet on the ground, roll up your sleeves and get to work dreamers.

In 1956, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, with the State Capitol building a couple of blocks away, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke, as my father tells me, with the quiet confidence of a Biblical prophet: "It will happen. The day will come when equality will walk the street outside this church.  It won't be easy; there'll be many crosses along the way, but it will happen.  Someday, a black man will hold the highest office in the land.  We may not live to see it, but it will happen."

I am so grateful that, although MLK did not, my father did live to see this day.  I have lived to see it.  And my five-year-old son, who is right now dreaming his own dreams with the night light on, has seen it too.  Of course he cannot know the weighty significance of this event; he sees nothing unusual in what has happened.  But this is in fact the biggest gift: that the eyes of his generation may see the American Dream in every color of the spectrum, take it for granted, and in the face of whatever future adversity comes their way, they will perhaps be that much better equipped with a role model in the office of the President who tells them: Yes you can!