Monday, December 22, 2008

Peasant Food Fusion

My friend Jennie U. called me from Titan Foods, "America's largest Greek specialty food store," located in Astoria, NY. She wanted to know if there was anything Greek that I may have been craving. Trachanas was the first thing that came to mind (but also bucatini pasta for pastitsio). A few weeks earlier, I had been perusing through the Portuguese section of my local supermarket in Middletown, CT. Something called "Milho Para Cachupa," or Yellow Samp caught my attention; it looked a little like corn but was otherwise totally foreign. After some research, I realized that samp is hominy, or maize kernels. According to the Oxford Companion to Food (by Alan Davidson, 1999, p. 383), hominy was one of the first foods that Europeans accepted from Native Americans. The Portuguese-American connection, thus, makes sense. Hominy is peasant food, or at least in the lower scale of economic value, similar to grits in the American South or polenta in the European South. The Joy of Cooking (1997 edition, p. 250) instructed me in the preparation of hominy, which involved soaking overnight and boiling for 2-hours.The end result (baked with tomato) was fantastic. I appreciate this kind of taste, a thoroughly deep and nourishing state of pleasure that only peasant staple offers. If one had to assign a taste to survival, it would be the taste of such grains. Like garbanzo beans, hominy expands. Since I was eager to use up the 2-lbs of samp that came in the bag, I prepared a massive quantity with lots and lots of left over.

Then the trachanas came in the mail. Trachanas has an almost magical value in Greek cuisine. It is the food of shepherds, a grain infused with milk or yogurt. As dry food, it does not spoil, it is light, making it transportable and ideal to trans-humance. Once the shepherd builds a fire and boils the grain, the dairy is released. Protein-infused carbohydrates provide sustenance to the nomad.
Although trachana is basic food for most village Greeks, it is snubbed by metropolitan society, so it's rarely available. I remember my father would reach nirvana with the smell of trachana, reminiscent of his youth herding sheep after school in Leukada, a small village in Fthiotis, the home of Achiles. To read more than the Wikipedia entry on trachana (or tarhana in Turkish), I recommend Stephen Hill's and Anthony Bryer's "Byzantine Porridge: Tracta, Trachanas, and Trahana", in Food in Antiquity (Exeter, 1995). Needless to say, I cooked the trachana the moment as it arrived. The house was filled with the smell of goat milk, transporting me to my father's village but also driving my vegetarian wife practically out of the house.

Noting the left-over hominy in the refrigerator, I couldn't resist throwing it into the trachana soup. The end result, a fusion of Greek and Native American foods, was refreshingly good. The probability of native American food--translated into Portugese cuisine--mixing with an equally obscure shepherd dish from Greece is so low, that I think my combination might be totally original. Perhaps, I have invented a new dish.

1 comment:


I just found your blog - lots of interesting observations

My late mother-in-law used to make Trahana - remember helpinh her to turn over the grains as they were drying in the sun in Almyros, Magnesias !

An e-mail friend is Susanna Hoffman who researches Greek and mediterranean foods - her book "The Olive and the Caper" might be of interest to you since is discusses trahana (pp247-149)

I also noticed your blog on Cyriacus of Ancona and another friend of mine Diana Wright.

The internet makes the world a small and fsacinating place !

Chrona Polla

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