Greek food critic Diane Kochilas traces her country’s cultural ups and downs of the last few decades by examining its cuisine:
The Athens I knew in the 1970s and ’80s was a provincial city of bougainvillea-draped neighborhood tavernas, mostly family-run, that were cheap enough to visit almost nightly. The wine was rough and the service rougher, but the real reason for going was social. The dining scene was commendably egalitarian; even Aristotle Onassis mixed with the hoi polloi.
But Greece evolved. With tourism bringing the enticements of affluence and with the return of a generation of Greeks who had studied abroad and become more sophisticated in their tastes, the classless taverna was eclipsed by high-design restaurants where people could show off their ease with chopsticks and discuss whether a risotto was sufficiently al dente. By the mid-1990s, foreign cuisines were reaping the top prizes in nascent restaurant awards. Beyond the few lingering neighborhood tavernas, souvlaki joints and tourist traps in the Plaka area, there were few notable Greek restaurants in the capital. In retrospect, the country was wholeheartedly forsaking its traditional cuisine and, by extension, its traditional values.
E.U. membership ushered in a torrent of new foods, many available for the first time on supermarket shelves. Restaurant menus from the 1990s read like a catalogue of novel ingredients that were embraced more or less indiscriminately. In the early 1990s I reviewed dishes such as spinach-cheese pies in wonton wrappers, potato pancakes with smoked trout and heavy cream, and baked wheels of camembert with berry sauce. There was smoked salmon or salmon roe on what seemed like every other plate of pasta, with the then-requisite vodka-cream sauce.
As the ’90s progressed and stocks rose, restaurants reflected new wealth and unabashed hubris. Bouncers became fixtures at the doors, controlling who was allowed in. At one now-defunct restaurant, where my ancient Volkswagen Beetle was the only jalopy in a row of gleaming BMWs, the chef served me fish on a plate garnished with a large rock. Lavishly designed restaurants opened one after another. Mostly, the food was flashy with little substance, a metaphor for what was happening in society. The stock market eventually crashed, and the well-guarded, oversized and over-designed eateries began to close.
When the 2004 Olympics loomed large, chefs began to embrace regional ingredients and to rework forgotten dishes to fit a modern nation. Pride and provenance pervaded the restaurant scene almost to the point of excess, with menus reading like maps of the country’s food products. Greek was in.
But the five years after the Olympics marked one of the most corrupt and decadent periods in modern Greek history. Scandal after government scandal soured headlines. Crooked officials cooked the books. The epitome of excess for me came at one of Athens’s most fashionable restaurants, when I sampled, with (much justified) hesitation, a heaping mound of freeze-dried feta, numbingly cold, dry as sawdust and about as flavorful. Like the tenuous foundations on which Greeks erected their glorious glitz, so did chefs serve food that was the culinary equivalent of a house of cards: They fashioned foams from the components of skordalia, the unapologetically heady garlic-potato puree; fed us feta in myriad guises, including ice cream; and tumbled cubes of Greek-salad-flavored gel and even sacrosanct moussaka into martini glasses.
To be fair, not all of it was bad, but most of it was intimidating, food that bullied even savvy diners into feeling that they had to like it in order to fit into some new socio-culinary order. The media, meanwhile, waxed poetic about every spritz of foam. No one asked why so much of what had been a robust, earthy cuisine had been deconstructed into hot air, much like what was happening on a larger stage with government coffers.
Now, as the crisis begins searing the pockets of ordinary Greeks, the Athens food scene has suddenly retrenched. The bright side is that this is a time of much self-examination in a society not usually given to such ruminations. People are trying to figure out how to regain the dignity and perseverance that have always fueled the Greek spirit.
What is happening in Greek society is also happening in Greek kitchens: Chefs and home cooks alike are again embracing the understated splendor of their essential cuisine. The traditional fare is founded on real nutritional value and respect for the unadulterated flavors of seasonal ingredients. I see it in a resurgence of casual tavernas with affordable prices and familiar, if more artful, foods and in a food press that is catering to the needs of regular people who are looking for simple, healthy recipes that will nourish them in these hard times.
So how does American cuisine of the past few decades, from fast food to the local food movement, exemplify American culture? And is it possible that our economic problems here, as in Greece, may force us in other ways to “get real”?