Monday, January 05, 2009

More Trahanas

In an earlier post, Peasant Food Fusion (Dec. 22, 200), I expressed my excitement (and bizarre need to experiment) with the Greek staple of trahanas. Since that posting, I've received many emails from Greek friends with stories and personal memories about trahanas, confirming the magical place it holds in the Modern Greek consciousness. It is the grain that best encapsulates Greece's unique process of urbanization. Rural Greeks of the 1960s migrated to Athens en mass, but they never left the village; they returned for holidays, voting, etc. In the same way, Greek immigrants maintained an emotional connection to their homeland that few ethnic groups have sustained in the United States. A large number of Greek immigrants of the 1900-1920s even returned to the homeland, see Theodore Saloutos, They Remember America: The Story of Repatriated Greek-Americans (Berkeley, 1956).

I remain optimistic about the survival of Greece's culinary tradition into the 21st century without it becoming elitist, the way that French and Italian (but not Spanish or Central European) cuisines have been commodified. Greece has been rediscovering its culinary past that was twice flattened in the 1920s and in the 1950s. The first suppresion began in 1910 with Nikolaos Tselementes' publication of the first cookbook written for an audience of urbanized housewives. This is typical to the genre internationally; cookbooks become important only after the oral transmission from generation to generation is under threat. Down to this day, the word "tselementes" in Greeks means "cookbook." Like the linguistic katharevousa, Tselementes purified Greek cooking from traces of Ottomaness by injecting Frenchness. Mousaka and pastitsio came into being, dishes lavishly covered with the uber-French bechamel cream sauce. The second flattening occurred in the 1950s with mass tourism and the need to export a manufactured Greek essence. Tourists arrived with specific dishes in mind, and Greek restauranters (many of whom only served foreign crowds) provided in unitary flare. The wave of culinary rediscovery can be seen in the revival of ouzeries, accompanied by a new focus on Greek wines, and oinothekes. The Greek wine craze seems to have evern caught up in the United States, see Eric Azimov, "Wines of the Times: Crisp, Refreshing and Greek," New York Times (Aug. 6, 2008). Food writers Aglaia Kremezi and Diane Kochilas are the best guides for the Greek food renaissance that Tselementes and tourism once suppresed. Kochilas, a Greek American, shows the cultural depth of the Greek omogeneia.

Going back to trahanas, I would like to share a comment that Nassos Papalexandrou sent to me via email. I know Nassos through Amy Papalexandrou (a fellow classicist-Byzantinist plus trans-national couple). It was by great surprise to learn last summer that Nassos' maternal family is from the same region as my paternal family. In other words, we are symptatriotes. Nassos is a professor of Classics at UT Austin and has just written a wonderful essay on a Cypriot mosque, see "Hala Sultan Tekke, Cyprus: An Elusive Landscape of Sacredness in a Liminal Context," Journal of Modern Greek Studies 26 (2008) 251-281. Bill Caraher's blog brought this article to my attention.

From Nassos Papalexandrou
January 2, 2009

"Re. Trahanas: your piece brought up lots of my childhood memories: in my mother's place, also in Fthiotis (now: Pelasgia formerly Gardiki Kremastis Larissis), the annual making of Trahanas was a communal undertaking (precisely like making soap or chilopittes), with several women getting together, sharing labor, tools (e.g. the cauldron, "kazani"), materials, and the end product: I relished the still wet pieces, creamy and very tasteful, as they were laid out to dry and very often I earned my samplings by playing guard against cats and other interested predators. In my father's place, in Bardounia of Lakedaimon (Petrina, also known for its Paleologan tower-"o pyrgos tou Koutoupi" with which I presume you are very familiar) , they make a different king of Trahana: they fry it so that it makes a pudding-like substance (like deep fried beans) which is sweet and sour at the same time. The Stereoelladitiko makes great soup (my mom still calls it "chelos"), especially when cooked with chicken or in chicken stock instead of water--do try it with a bit of tomato (my mother's version of "comfort food") !!!!"

On a later email communication, Nassos also passed on his mother's special recipe

From Nassos Papalexandrou
January 13, 2009

"you saute some finely chopped onions in olive oil, you add some freshly pulped tomato (crushed or puree would do), you bring to a boil, add trahans, salt and pepper, and hten you let it boil till it becomes thick (να χιλώσει). It also works well if you add trahanas on the stock of kotopoulo kokkinisto."

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States