Thursday, June 25, 2009

Food: Avoiding the Acropolis Museum

While everyone else is obsessing over the opening of the Acropolis Museum, I turn my attention to another touristic matter, Greek food. Satellite TV, a staple of every immigrant home, has brought low-end pop culture inside every Greek American living room. The cast of characters includes Vefa Alexiadou (left), the culinary consultant in Antenna's morning show, Πρωινός Καφές (Morning Coffee). Back in 2005, Phaidon Press published an English translation of the classic 1950 Italian cookbook, Il cuchiaio d'argento. The marketing idea behind The Silver Spoon was to introduce English-speaking audiences to contemporary cookbooks used by native households. In May 2009, Phaidon hoped to make the same impact with Greek cuisine by publishing Alexiadou's Vefa's Kitchen. Friends that are expert in Italian cooking swear by the Silver Spoon; I have only tried the classic 1960s recipe for vodka-tuna pasta sauce. I hope that Vefa's Kitchen has the same impact as the Silver Spoon. See some earlier thoughts on Greek cookbooks, Mediterranean Cooking (Aug. 20, 2008)

While I'm a great supporter of culinary fusion and experimentation, I must air some complaints about a dessert variation I had in Greece. Loukoumades (fried dough balls soaked in honey and cinnamon) is a well known Turkish/Greek/Arabic dessert. Kamena Vourla, a summer resort town, is famous for its loukoumades. My sister, brother-in-law, nephew, niece and I stopped at Kamena Vourla this summer on our way back from visiting relatives in Lamia. Evoking our childhood memories, my sister and I insisted on having some loukoumades. On the menu, we noticed a variation of chocolate-covered loukoumades. My sweet-toothed 5-year-old niece was thrilled by the combination as was my Swedish brother-in-law, who argued that anything covered by chocolate must be an improvement to the original. My sister and I stuck to the traditional version. Once our order appeared, we realized that the chocolate lovers had a plate of loukoumades smeared with Nutella. They didn't complain. I had a try and found the combination deeply unacceptable. It was like shoving Vienna into Istanbul. The next weekend, I found myself on an archaeological project in Dilessi, where I was informed that the chocolate loukoumades had made an appearance there, too. The American students (who had never tried loukoumades before), moreover, were fond of the chocolated fare. As much as I support fusion and taste combinations (see Peasant Food Fusion posting), I must resist this innovation. My brother-in-law thinks that my sister and I are forever imprisoned inside our childhood memories of pure loukoumades. To a certain extent, he is right. Nevertheless, some combinations should be rejected despite their popularity. Although I would never endorse any kind of culinary essentialism mandated by a foodie police, I like to set a few firm limits: no chocolate should interfere with honey-dripped loukoumades.

"Behold the Greek Nacho," Mark Bittman's Minimalist column in today's New York Times, rekindled the militant state of mind I first noticed in Kamena Vourla. First, I do not abhor nachos the way that Bittman does (watch related video), and second, I find his recipe totally silly. Call it some ad hoc Californian concoction, and I might eat it. But call it "Greek" and I'll revolt. I have clipped the recipe and will certainly try it.

I cannot leave the topic of Greek food without pointing out two discoveries from my trip to Greece, a bookstore and a newspaper dedicated to culinary matters. The bookstore is called Chef in Love and is located on Em. Benaki 17, Athens; it holds the largest selection of Greek cook books I have ever seen. I was particularly intrigued by a selection of monastic cookbooks, including Τα μήλα του μάγειρα: Παράδοση της μονηστηριακής τράπεζας, 4th ed. (Indiktos, 2009). The new monthly culinary newspaper is called
I Cook Greek. Free copies are available in major bookstores and on line. Last night, I tried out a stuffed tomatoes recipe, which turned out OK but was not as good as the recipe in my benchmark, Diane Kochilas' The Food and Wines of Greece (1990). Although not available in English, the newspaper has interesting and unexpected articles. My favorite is, "Τα γλυκά των 70ς" (May 2009, pp. 14-15), where Christina Tsamoura decodes the complex semiotics of Greek sweets in the 1970s. This was a golden decade of Greek desserts from a fusion perspective. Social events as simple as name days involved negotiating a whole mess of pressures, old and new, Greek and non-Greek, high and low, urban and suburban. American desserts were caught in a similar maelstrom of rapid modernization in the 70s, but Greece was under additional pressures springing from nearby European capitals. Although it embraced laxities of comfort, the Athenian middle class retained some formalities, such as always bringing sweets to house visits. These old bourgeois traditions, interestingly enough, were rather new for many new Athenians. Remember, the city's population boomed in the 70s, while "Paris of the Balkans" (as Athens was described in the 30s) became transformed into a concrete nightmare.

Perhaps, I write about food because I'm compulsively avoiding the hype over the New Acropolis Museum that opened its doors last Saturday. Christopher Hitchens, "A Home for the Marbles" (New York Times op-ed, June 19, 2009) and "The Lovely Stones," (Vanity Fair, July 2009, pp. 44-47) are typical in the media's obsession over the Elgin marbles. Bernard Tschumi's building needs to be considered in its own right. But more importantly, it needs to be related to Tschumi's architectural corpus and the fiasco surrounding the architectural competition(s) over the last 19 years. If nothing else, a Tschumi building in Greece should elevate theoretical discourse to the altitudes of Foucault and Deleuze. Tschumi is meaningless without the theoretical armature, see Architecture and Disjunction (New York, 1996). Shouldn't Deconstructivism annul the banalities of "patrimony"?

The museum competition(s) took many turns. Tracing the consecutive victories and annulments over the last two decades tells an interesting story about architecture and politics in Greece.
Calatrava's Olympic stadium was an equally botched up job. On the occasion of the momentous opening, I've pulled out the journal Tefchos 5 (1991) that documents the results of the first competition in 1990. Articles such as "The 'Landscape' of an Architectural Competition" by Yorgos Simeforidis illustrate Greek architectural culture at its highest. Tschumi's museum is definitely an interesting building, but general readers might never know why. Hitchens certainly does not understand it. In all fairness, I have not been inside the building; I've only seen the exterior. For the time being, I should just stick to my area of LEAST expertise, cooking.


Sharon said...

If one must have chocolate on loukoumades, at least make it dark chocolate. Nutella? Yuck.

Niki said...

There were actualy 4 competitions in total and they started in the late 70s not 1990. The history of this Museum has little to do with architecture I believe, and more to do with interest groups, lack of maturity, professional insecurity and circumstance. One must really see the inside of the Museum to appreciate it - the outside is essentially an outcome of the needs of the exhibit and the visitor on the inside.

Palimpsest said...

I'm not so interested in the Museum. Koulouria on the other hand... Have you noticed that the traditional bread delicacy, koulouri, has also undergone some alterations? Unacceptable.

Blog Archive

Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States