05 January 2009
Kolyva for Aunt Bea
Sometimes, being part of a multi-cultural family, I feel like a fraud no matter where I turn. I am, at best, half Greek. I am second-generation American and have no history with the Greek Orthodox Church, being raised nominally Presbyterian. In an Orthodox service—although now I've been to quite a few—I still hesitate and watch the women in black for some clue of when to sit or stand or how to cross myself properly. But there are some occasions when, for me at least, it will do only to be Greek, or to claim this mantle to the best of my ability, and the only satisfaction comes from observing Greek Orthodox custom. One such occasion is when it comes time to memorialize a family member: at these times, I make and eat kolyva.
Today is the 3rd anniversary of the death of my Aunt Bea, who was my mother's closest sister—they may as well have been twins; it just wasn't a biological fact. My aunt was the first of this generation of the family to pass away, and because she was the youngest of six (and because of the swift route from apparent health to final days), it was a bit of a shock to put it mildly.
Bea did not, to my knowledge, embrace Greek Orthodox tradition, though some of her older siblings certainly did. By the time she was born, my grandparents had likely given up trying to force Greek identity in the New World, or very nearly. No more mandatory Greek School, no longer the arranged marriage. But my aunt was, I know, a very spiritual person. She had an artist's eye and an angel's soul, I think. Certainly, she deserves a memorial rich in symbolism, deep in feeling—something akin to drama and poetry—not the stiff, remote pretension I've always experienced in Protestant death ceremonies. It's not that these other rituals and remembrances lack emotion or meaning for families; I don't mean to suggest that. However, I have always had the impression that fear of death (coupled with an emphasis on propriety at all times) causes too great a distance, a desire to pad ourselves from the idea, no, the knowledge, that this will someday happen to us, too.
This is where the kolyva comes in, the special memorial dish prepared in homes and served in church for the benefit of departed souls. Something happens—that restrained, safe Protestant distance is blown away—when you prepare and share a meal for the dead.
This is the introduction to a kolyva recipe from a 1957 cookbook of the Orthodox Church, Saints Constantine and Helen, in Detroit, Michigan—the church my grandparents attended, and the church where my mother and her siblings were baptized; it was written by The Reverend Father Harry J. Magoulias: "Amongst the many and varied church rites, the Church Fathers have included a special service for the departed souls of the faithful. This is the 'mnemosinon,' or Memorial Service. . . . The boiled wheat symbolizes the resurrection. . . . Just as the grain of wheat must first be planted in the ground in order to take root and bring forth fruit, so is man buried in the earth because of death—but with the promise of the Risen Lord that one day he too will be resurrected. When we receive kolyva. . . it is to recall to mind the departed soul, and the bereaved make a special appeal to us to pray with them. . . . According to Church tradition, kolyva is offered in the Church three days, nine days, forty days, six months, one year after death, and whenever desired thereafter." When it is served in church, kolyva is scooped into little wax bags or onto napkins and distributed at the end of the liturgy.
Something appeals to me—beckons me like an ancient call, something more deeply rooted than anything in my newfangled world—about this ritual of eating and remembering. This dish exists to feed the dead, to nourish them in the Underworld and let them know we are thinking of them. In certain areas of Greece, at certain moments in history, I know that the belief was more literal than it is these days: the departed souls still need nourishment. However metaphorically we interpret this now, I still believe it to be a basic truth: we, and our ancestors, need life to continue, sustained in memory if not in a corporeal sense.
The other thing about kolyva, though, is that it tastes otherworldly. It's a fabulous dish; its meaty grains and its sweetness make it hard to resist. I do not know how offensive it might be to make this dish without proper occasion, so I eat it only a couple times a year, with the specific intent of remembering my Greek relatives. But I long for it often. It's the kind of thing I could eat daily, and probably never tire of it.
Below, however much it would please my sense of nostalgia to prepare the recipe found in the parish cookbook of my own family, I am reproducing the version of kolyva found in Diane Kochilas's book The Food and Wine of Greece. She adds pomegranate and rose water—and because I love the taste of pomegranate and the symbolism of this, Persephone's food, I have doubled the amount called for, using the whole pomegranate.
Here, then, in fond memory of my aunt, is the recipe I have prepared (cut in half) for today's memorial.
(makes 1 large tray, equal to 16 cups for 50 servings)
Ingredients4 cups whole wheat berries
1 cup sesame seeds, lightly toasted
2 cups ground walnuts
2 cups ground almonds
2 cups golden seedless raisins
1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
3 TBS rose water
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup honey
2 cups confectioner's sugar, for garnish
blanched almonds, silver dragees, rose petals (fresh or crystalized) for garnish
In a large pot, bring ample, lightly salted water to a boil (enough to cover wheat berries by 3 to 4 inches). Add whole wheat berries and simmer uncovered for 1.5 to 2 hours, until tender, stirring occasionally to keep wheat from sticking to the sides and bottom of the pot.
Drain the wheat thoroughly and spread to dry on a lint-free cloth or towel.
[Note: This takes quite a while. I try to make this dish when I am not in a rush, as that seems counter to the act of memory, contemplation . . . but I have been known to speed the process by applying a hair dryer set on the lowest setting. In fact, it's the only thing I've used the dryer for in the past 10 years or so!]
In a large serving bowl, combine whole wheat with the walnuts, almonds, raisins, parsley, pomegranate seeds, rose water, and cinnamon. Add honey, tossing to mix well.
To serve as a commemorative dish, cover a large serving tray with paper napkins or doilies. Spread the kolyva over the napkins or doilies, forming a gentle mound toward the center of the tray. Sift confectioner's sugar over the top and pat down to pack with a large sheet of wax paper or rubber spatula, so that sugar forms a kind of icing on top of the kolyva. Make a stencil out of cardboard of a Greek cross and the initials of the deceased. Use the stencils to make a simple design with the silver dragees, adding blanched almonds and rose petals if desired.
You can also use powdered coffee to form the initials of the person you are memorializing against the powdered sugar.
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