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Back to the Classics

How Greek Cooking Lost Its Way, Then Found It

By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2004; Page F01

Sports fans headed to the Olympics this week in Athens are undoubtedly looking forward to what Americans think of as classic Greek cooking -- things such as shish kebab, Greek salads, grilled fish, stuffed grape leaves, roast chicken with egg and lemon sauce, spinach and feta cheese pie. These basic foods celebrate the quality of the primary ingredients.

But wind the videotape back to 1896, when Athens hosted the first modern-day Olympic Games, and you won't find those dishes on the menus.

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Back then, the food on the very best Athenian tables was French -- chicken in a red wine sauce or a white sauce thick with Gruyere cheese, and boned poached fish with mayonnaise. More traditional regional dishes such as eggplant caviar or the caper, potato and garlic dip known as skordalia or braised wild greens were shunted aside as lower-class.

"The fashionable food of the time was completely French," says Aglaia Kremezi, a Greek culinary historian and cookbook author. "The chefs were French-trained. The menus were written in French, with all French specialties."

Kremezi, whose new book, "The Foods of the Greek Islands" (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), celebrates regional foods, thinks that's a shame. "At the end of the 19th century, they wouldn't have been interested in these [regional] dishes," she says. "They weren't considered fashionable. Even up until the 1970s, no one would imagine cooking these foods at dinner parties or serving them in restaurants. They were considered foods of the poor."

Greek society was still in flux when the modern-day Olympics started. Until its War of Independence, and the emergence of Greece as a sovereign state in 1832, the country had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. "Athens was a very small city then," says Kremezi. "Like a village. The country was not only poor but out of touch with European culture, food and society."

As wealthy Greek families returned from self-imposed exiles in cosmopolitan cities all over Europe, they brought the latest food trends with them. "They knew what the rest of the world was doing," says Kremezi. "They knew that French was the 'in' cuisine. This is what they tried to imitate and cook for guests in their homes. And they were setting the scene in the newly formed city [Athens]."

Enter Nicholas Tselementes, a Greek chef who trained in Europe and who wrote what is considered the first comprehensive cookbook in modern Greek. Published in 1910, it became an important resource for fashionable Greek women and sold more than 100,000 copies in 10 editions by the time Tselementes died in 1958.

Although he pointed with pride to the ancient origins of the Greek culinary arts, Tselementes had a cooking style that was unabashedly European, and his influence was pervasive. In his kitchen, traditional regional dishes languished: No garlic for Tselementes -- or as little as possible. No affection for the spicy dishes of the Turks and Slavs either. And no particular pride in highlighting the bounty of the countryside or the sea.

"Traditional Greek cooking is just taking an ingredient and doing the least possible to it," says Kremezi. "And French cooking is exactly the opposite. Tselementes tried to conform Greek cooking to the classic French.

"He really changed Greek cooking -- he destroyed it," says Kremezi, who has been studying his work and its impact for a decade. Instead of olive oil, Tselementes preferred butter. Instead of presenting foods naturally, he preferred them covered with precisely made French sauces, like bechamel.

In fact, his affection for the classic white sauce made with flour, milk and butter transformed two of the most internationally famous Greek dishes, moussaka (usually made with eggplant and ground meat) and pastitsio (pasta and ground meat). Before Tselementes, the casseroles came to the table without their familiar creamy topping. Ever since, they are rarely served in their original naked state.

The many reprints of his popular 500-page cookbook, "Odigos Mageirikis" ("Cooking Instructions") -- even after his death -- extended his reach to several generations. (It is no longer in print.)

"His book made the trend official," says Kremezi, "so people who were preparing the traditional foods were made to feel inferior."

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