History largely speaks of a process through which many seemingly trivial, everyday actions cumulatively acquire enough importance to become the basis of what we refer to as ‘culture’. It is the study of human activity in all its forms and expressions, and the preparation and consumption of food is one of the most ancient ones, preceding language. I would like to take this double occasion to briefly touch on the role of gender in shaping much of the history of Greek cuisine. It is a history of hardship and pain, but also one of resilience, creativity and cooperation
The Greek kitchen historically represents a microcosm within a patriarchal society where women could exercise the control they were lacking in other areas of their lives. In ancient Greek mythology, Hestia was the goddess of the hearth, of domestic life and of family. The hearth was used both for cooking, and as a gathering point for the family and its guests, who were drawn in by the light and warmth it emitted. It is hardly coincidental that this deity was female; food, family life and the role of women are inextricably bound in Greek tradition. For example, Greek grandmothers are notorious for being as proprietary with their recipes as they are generous with their pies and desserts, a contradiction which speaks of a desire to bring the community together while guarding the exclusivity of the family’s culinary heritage. Holding on to such secrets is a way for them to retain the limited power they’ve held as women, a power which was restricted to the domains of household and meal preparation. Even as the hearth became obsolete and modern appliances were increasingly available to Greeks during the twentieth century, women often preferred to use the oven of the neighborhood bakery on Sundays, claiming that it roasted the food better. In truth, it was a form of social display, allowing housewives to show off their creations and to inspect what others had made.
Renée Hirschon, an anthropologist who did extensive research on the social life of Asia Minor refugees in Pireaus during the 70s, noted that this type of culinary competition was a major aspect of neighborhood life. Women would often gather in each other’s yards to assist with food preparation, and it was an unspoken rule that when a neighbor helped her friend with the chopping of vegetables or nuts for desserts, the latter would thank her by giving her a plate with a small portion, a ‘smell’, of the finished dish to take home. The plate would not be returned to its owner empty, but containing a sample of a dish the second housewife thought worthy of displaying. This pattern of reciprocal gestures helped establish exclusively female forms of socialization, and was crucially one of the ways in which local women became exposed to, and started imitating, the more complex cuisine of the Asia Minor refugees, whose influence changed Greek culinary tradition for good.
Food writer Kalliope Pateras recounts meeting an old woman from Prespes who, referring to the local cuisine prior to 1922, said: ‘We used neither herbs nor spices. It was the refugee women (prosfigopoules) that taught us how to cook’. In contrast to those of mainland Greece, recipes from Smyrna insisted on techniques more complex than the mere grilling of meats – the latter was even characterized as ‘prostitute’s food’ because it was quick and easy to cook and did little honor the housewife who made it. Real culinary skill lay in preparing more complex, time-consuming dishes, from aromatic soutzoukakia and layered pilafs with raisins and pine nuts, to fine phyllo pastries. Phyllo, whose tradition is a common legacy of all of Greece, requires a certain dexterity to roll properly – and women have compared their skills in this field ever since shepherd clans cooked savory pies as a way to make a filling, mobile meal out of some foraged greens and a little bit of cheese. The expectations and judgments associated with food point to the underlying gender dimension permeating the history of Greek, cuisine; food was a domain in which women could exercise the authority they lacked in other areas of their lives, and they used it compete socially with other women much in the same way that men used income or work achievements. At the same time, women used meal preparation to open a dialogue, share everyday experiences and turn strangers into friends; and that is the quintessence of the Greek table.
Finiki Papadopoulou is the guide for my Athens by Fork historical, cultural and culinary walks. Check them out here.