Food as cultural barometer

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.

via Diane Kochilas – As goes Greek cuisine, so goes the Greek economy.

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”?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Winston Smith

    ” … even Aristotle Onassis mixed with the hoi polloi.”

    I have to take the quoted author to task on one point. “Hoi polloi” means “the many” in Greek, so “the hoi polloi” means “the the many,” which is a repetitive redundancy, like “ATM machine” or “HIV virus.”

  • Winston Smith

    ” … even Aristotle Onassis mixed with the hoi polloi.”

    I have to take the quoted author to task on one point. “Hoi polloi” means “the many” in Greek, so “the hoi polloi” means “the the many,” which is a repetitive redundancy, like “ATM machine” or “HIV virus.”

  • Tom Hering

    Most supermarkets today have two aisles lined with freezers. You can “get real” and save a lot of money by minimizing your purchases in these aisles.

  • Tom Hering

    Most supermarkets today have two aisles lined with freezers. You can “get real” and save a lot of money by minimizing your purchases in these aisles.

  • Orianna Laun

    With the proliferation of food shows, do-it-yourself has become increasingly popular, especially combined with the “locavore” concept. In the midwestern city where I live, there are a plethora of farmer’s markets; and a number of grocery stores have cooking classes and demonstrations. Working with a combination of convenience foods and fresh also helps. It’s easier to make a stir fry with pre-cut, bagged veggies.

  • Orianna Laun

    With the proliferation of food shows, do-it-yourself has become increasingly popular, especially combined with the “locavore” concept. In the midwestern city where I live, there are a plethora of farmer’s markets; and a number of grocery stores have cooking classes and demonstrations. Working with a combination of convenience foods and fresh also helps. It’s easier to make a stir fry with pre-cut, bagged veggies.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Well, I try not to eat out much, so I’m not sure how to compare here.
    but perhaps it will force us to return to those hot dishes I grew up on. Pretty simple fair, but meaty, and hearty. Not expensive.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Well, I try not to eat out much, so I’m not sure how to compare here.
    but perhaps it will force us to return to those hot dishes I grew up on. Pretty simple fair, but meaty, and hearty. Not expensive.

  • Winston Smith

    There is cheap food, and there is good food, and they are not always the same thing.

    If you are very poor, you can survive on ramen noodles (about 85 percent sodium) and soft drinks, if survive is the right word. The crying shame is that high-quality, nutritious food, like the organic produce sold at upscale stores like Whole Foods, is priced out of the market for the poor. On the bright side, the poor in America aren’t starving — we must be doing something right if one of the biggest problems faced by the disadvantaged is obesity from chowing down on Biggie-sized meals from Wendy’s — but they are quietly killing themselves with bad food choices. I suppose neighborhood or backyard vegetable gardens like those promoted by Mrs. Obama are a solution.

  • Winston Smith

    There is cheap food, and there is good food, and they are not always the same thing.

    If you are very poor, you can survive on ramen noodles (about 85 percent sodium) and soft drinks, if survive is the right word. The crying shame is that high-quality, nutritious food, like the organic produce sold at upscale stores like Whole Foods, is priced out of the market for the poor. On the bright side, the poor in America aren’t starving — we must be doing something right if one of the biggest problems faced by the disadvantaged is obesity from chowing down on Biggie-sized meals from Wendy’s — but they are quietly killing themselves with bad food choices. I suppose neighborhood or backyard vegetable gardens like those promoted by Mrs. Obama are a solution.

  • Dan Kempin

    Winston, #1,

    Not that a doctor of letters needs me to defend his linguistic honor, but while a literal rendering of the Greek would make the article redundant, it is being used here as an English idiom–the whole Greek phrase serving as a synonym for “common people.” (As when a restaurant offers a French dip sandwich ‘with’ au jus.)

    And neither of us can get back the time it took to type this . . .

  • Dan Kempin

    Winston, #1,

    Not that a doctor of letters needs me to defend his linguistic honor, but while a literal rendering of the Greek would make the article redundant, it is being used here as an English idiom–the whole Greek phrase serving as a synonym for “common people.” (As when a restaurant offers a French dip sandwich ‘with’ au jus.)

    And neither of us can get back the time it took to type this . . .

  • Louis

    Food & food culture is a bit of a pet interest of mine, so I found this very interesting. I have observed the commonality between faux food (whether McWhatsisname or boxed 1000 ingredient surprise or pretentious offerings), faux wealth (no need to explain) and a general faux culture, with pretend music etc etc. I applaud the tendency towards farmers markets etc., but far too often the alternative to say fast food becomes a fashion accessory only. When the telos is wrong, the essence will follow…

  • Louis

    Food & food culture is a bit of a pet interest of mine, so I found this very interesting. I have observed the commonality between faux food (whether McWhatsisname or boxed 1000 ingredient surprise or pretentious offerings), faux wealth (no need to explain) and a general faux culture, with pretend music etc etc. I applaud the tendency towards farmers markets etc., but far too often the alternative to say fast food becomes a fashion accessory only. When the telos is wrong, the essence will follow…

  • http://www.goodandlost.org Tim Raveling

    Another thing to consider is that this article focuses on Athens–so generalizing to Greece at large would be a bit like trying to find America’s culture path by studying the cuisine of New York. It certainly helps, but that’s not the whole story.

    So, perhaps it might be helpful to look closer at the goings on, in order to get a fuller picture. In other words, examine the changes in Cuisine in the big cities like New York, L.A., etc., as well as in less populated regional areas. I suspect that when you include those regional areas, these rapid cultural changes might not seem so rapid after all. For instance, New York is a hotbed of cultural (and gastronomical) change–the last decade or so has seen a huge rise of vegan ‘alternatives’ (soy burgers and the like) as well healthy and cheap ethnic dishes, like falafel. Meanwhile in my home town in Montana (population 4000), home-grown vegetables and fresh venison are as common as they were fifty years ago.

    Likewise in Greece, Athens has been changing greatly, because change is what all cities do, but on the islands and in the small towns I suspect you’ll find many of the same restaurants and tavernas that served people in the seventies.

  • http://www.goodandlost.org Tim Raveling

    Another thing to consider is that this article focuses on Athens–so generalizing to Greece at large would be a bit like trying to find America’s culture path by studying the cuisine of New York. It certainly helps, but that’s not the whole story.

    So, perhaps it might be helpful to look closer at the goings on, in order to get a fuller picture. In other words, examine the changes in Cuisine in the big cities like New York, L.A., etc., as well as in less populated regional areas. I suspect that when you include those regional areas, these rapid cultural changes might not seem so rapid after all. For instance, New York is a hotbed of cultural (and gastronomical) change–the last decade or so has seen a huge rise of vegan ‘alternatives’ (soy burgers and the like) as well healthy and cheap ethnic dishes, like falafel. Meanwhile in my home town in Montana (population 4000), home-grown vegetables and fresh venison are as common as they were fifty years ago.

    Likewise in Greece, Athens has been changing greatly, because change is what all cities do, but on the islands and in the small towns I suspect you’ll find many of the same restaurants and tavernas that served people in the seventies.

  • Joanne

    Ah, late October 2005, in eastern Germany, the food was unrelievedly marvelous. The selection of breads and the potatoes in curds served in an aluminum foil swan at Tanta Emma’s in Wittenberg, steamed forellen and pumpkin soup at Herr Kaethe in Torgau. Then on to the Wettiner Keller in Dresden for walnuts and apples in our sauerkraut and the Cosell Palais for venison with a chololate sauce. Eating in Germany was an unexpected heaven. Then we flew to Greece.
    Thought we were going to starve. We avoided Athens and drove straightway to the Vale of Sparta to spend the whole of November at a boutique hotel in Mistras. Breakfasts were lovely, but we never stayed up late enough to eat dinner with the Greeks, however late that might be. After a week we found a small family taverna that would feed us around 6:00 pm each day. It was simple, traditional, and good. I liked the stuffed tomatoes and fried cheeze.

  • Joanne

    Ah, late October 2005, in eastern Germany, the food was unrelievedly marvelous. The selection of breads and the potatoes in curds served in an aluminum foil swan at Tanta Emma’s in Wittenberg, steamed forellen and pumpkin soup at Herr Kaethe in Torgau. Then on to the Wettiner Keller in Dresden for walnuts and apples in our sauerkraut and the Cosell Palais for venison with a chololate sauce. Eating in Germany was an unexpected heaven. Then we flew to Greece.
    Thought we were going to starve. We avoided Athens and drove straightway to the Vale of Sparta to spend the whole of November at a boutique hotel in Mistras. Breakfasts were lovely, but we never stayed up late enough to eat dinner with the Greeks, however late that might be. After a week we found a small family taverna that would feed us around 6:00 pm each day. It was simple, traditional, and good. I liked the stuffed tomatoes and fried cheeze.

  • Mike Westfall

    Yes, people today are obsessed with getting an “authentic” experience of the culture of some other part of the world. The easiest way to do that is to go to some ethnic restaurant that serves food that purports to be typical of the other part of the world in question.

    What we really get, though, is just the second derivative of authentic. Who can often afford to go to some small town in a far away pace where tourists don’t actually go very often to do the real thing that locals do?

  • Mike Westfall

    Yes, people today are obsessed with getting an “authentic” experience of the culture of some other part of the world. The easiest way to do that is to go to some ethnic restaurant that serves food that purports to be typical of the other part of the world in question.

    What we really get, though, is just the second derivative of authentic. Who can often afford to go to some small town in a far away pace where tourists don’t actually go very often to do the real thing that locals do?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I don’t doubt that culinary tastes vary somewhat with the economy — with more money, people can buy more or fancier food — but I think Kochilas is probably reading too much into things.

    For instance, most of the food trends he observes in Greece could be found, I believe, in the U.S. at roughly the same time. Was the U.S. going through the same thing as Greece? Maybe, to some degree. But not really.

    It’s all in how you choose (or attempt) to frame things. Is the trend of vegetable gardens a sure sign of the recent economic downturn? Or is it just another extension of the local/organic trend that’s been building up for decades, mostly as a rebuttal to industrial food production? If I were answering Veith’s question a la Kochilas, I might go with the former answer. And sure, that plays a role. But I think the latter answer is more likely.

    In short, this is an oversimplification.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I don’t doubt that culinary tastes vary somewhat with the economy — with more money, people can buy more or fancier food — but I think Kochilas is probably reading too much into things.

    For instance, most of the food trends he observes in Greece could be found, I believe, in the U.S. at roughly the same time. Was the U.S. going through the same thing as Greece? Maybe, to some degree. But not really.

    It’s all in how you choose (or attempt) to frame things. Is the trend of vegetable gardens a sure sign of the recent economic downturn? Or is it just another extension of the local/organic trend that’s been building up for decades, mostly as a rebuttal to industrial food production? If I were answering Veith’s question a la Kochilas, I might go with the former answer. And sure, that plays a role. But I think the latter answer is more likely.

    In short, this is an oversimplification.


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