I have never been to Greece and I’m not really close to many Greek people. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know a few things about Greek heritage does it? I’m always amused when the few Greek acquaintances I have will mention a personal quality, or describe some endearing foible of a family member and then say something like, “well, we’re Greek and you know Greeks….” I don’t but then I do. Because we are all Greeks really. Or some sort of thing like that.
Upon consideration and perhaps even some research I will ponder what they have told me and usually realize that being Greek has nothing to do at all with what they just told me! You see, most human qualities are, in fact, universal. Even those we associate with our heritage. Sure, we like ascribing certain attributes to our own cultural groups because that is what we know. Right? So if you are Greek the love of big families, good food, pressures to get married to our own, etc. all become Greek. If you are Italian, well, then they are Italian. And so on. You name your cultural background and I’ll say, “Well, you are [fill in the blank], and you know the [fill in the blank]. You will shake your head with familiarity.
And I’ll be right too! So even though I don’t know many Greeks real well, I still feel like I know a bit about their values and heritage. I’ll just look inside my own self and my own heritage.
Also…it might sound a bit silly but…now bear with me here…
The surprise hit movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” came out only a few short months before my future spouse and I were just starting to get serious with each other. Our families had not yet met.
My honey comes from a very large Persian family. They emigrated to the US throughout the 1970’s and early 80’s and while rebuilding their lives found comfort here by bringing along their own heritage and traditions.
On the other hand, I came from a decidedly not-so-large WASP family — not unlike the one depicted in the movie.
My side of the family considered a ‘large family meal’ one where there was one extra guest at the table, usually my grandmother who we saw once a month even though she lived next door. It wasn’t that we didn’t ever get together and eat. It was just something that we thought Christmas was for and once a year was enough.
To my Persian in-laws, inviting “just the close family” to dinner keeps the guest list down to a manageable two or three dozen eaters.
So we enjoyed quite a bit of laughter throughout the movie at the expense of the cultural differences and misunderstandings between the fictional Portokalos family – played by Nia Vardalos, Michael Constantine, Lanie Kazan and Andrea Martin – and the WASPy fiance, Ian Miller – played by John Corbett.
When the credits rolled my soon to be partner-in-life leaned over to me and said:
“So, you thought that was funny did you? Well….get ready then.”
He knew then what I hadn’t yet learned: when any two families come together from any two different cultures there are always going to be some misunderstandings, misadventures and personal adjustments to make along the way. Some of them will even be funny and worthy of including in a screenplay.
Its been many, many years and I now feel as if I’ve lived this movie and also learned its lessons. Becoming the newest family member in such a tight knit family (of dozens) has been one of the the greatest gifts in my life. The Greek good living and heritage depicted in the movie really does belong to everyone and all cultures.
In this regard it doesn’t matter what ethnicity you come from, Persian, Italian, African, American, African-American, Danish, or whatever. We’re all Greek. Experiencing the ups and downs of daily life through the lens and security of membership in a family is what good living means .
In the end it just takes some time for our true shared human natures to take over and show us what we have in common with each other. This was the lesson of the movie and it is a good lesson for all of us regardless of our cultures or national origin. Don’t sweat our differences. Good living is about seeing what we share; as families, friends, countrymen, or world citizens.
So about those ‘just the close family dinners’? I now go to them weekly. Everyone shows up, tons of food is put on the table and we get to be together for a few hours to laugh, cry, and share our way through whatever is going on in our lives. Good news or bad, its all good living when it is with family. Just like in the movies.
And like the movies, big families and good living means big food. It has been a big adjustment for me to learn to learn how to cook for larger groups. “The buffet” has become my friend and the “sit down dinner party” has become a memory. This Greek pastitsio is the perfect “big family dish” and so I cooked it up when it was my turn recently to host “just the close family.”
Like its Italian cousin the lasagna, Greek pastitsio is rich, nourishing and can be made in advance. It can also feed a lot of people! Just pop it in the oven when it is time to enjoy the big family get-together so you aren’t stuck in the kitchen.
Yeah, a lot of pots get dirtied in its making but then what are big families for if not to help you with the dishes?
Some day it would be fun to get a bunch of Greeks and “my Persians” together for dinner. They could argue about whose family is more eccentric. Or which culture gets to claim credit for kebabs. And just for dessert I would throw some gas on the fire and ask innocently enough which culture makes the best baklava?
Then the food would come out and we would all realize what a good life it is to be gathered together and living our lives with family. Greek style.
If you are lucky there are leftovers!
This post is part of an entry to a contest sponsored by Fage Greek Yogurt . They are making me add this little bit of language as well:
“As a selected blogger, I have been entered for the chance to win a trip to Greece courtesy of FAGE. You too can enter to win one of three trips to Greece by entering the FAGE Plain Extraordinary Greek Getaway here: http://www.fageusa.com/community/fage-greek-getaway”
The truth is, you don’t have to offer me a chance at a trip to Greece to use Fage Greek yogurt or talk about good living. Writing about life and family is kind of what do all the time, right? For the record, I use Greek yogurt all the time too and you should as well. Its creamy, tangy, healthy goodness finds its way into all manner of soups, salad dressings and breakfasts at our house. I don’t even buy sour cream anymore. In this dish Fage Greek Yogurt adds just the right amount of zip to the creamy béchamel so it can stand up to to the strong flavors of the sauce.
Pastitsio Equals Good Greek Living
Adapted from Ina Garten
This is what you will need:
- 3 tablespoons good olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion (1 large)
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 1 pound lean ground lamb
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 large cloves)
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
- 1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes in puree
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan or Kasseri cheese
- 2/3 cup Fage Total Greek Yogurt .
- 12 ounces (3/4 pound) small shells
- 2 extra-large eggs, beaten
This is how you make it:
- For the sauce, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pot.
- Add the onion and sauté for 5 minutes.
- Add the beef and lamb, and sauté over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until it’s no longer pink, crumbling it with the back of wooden spoon.
- Drain off any excess liquid, add the wine, and cook for 2 more minutes.
- Add the garlic, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, and cayenne, and continue cooking over medium heat for 5 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 40 to 45 minutes.
- Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- For the béchamel, heat the milk and cream together in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until simmering.
- In a medium saucepan, melt the butter.
- Add the flour and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly for 2 minutes.
- Pour the warm milk and cream mixture into the butter and flour mixture, whisking constantly. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until smooth and thick.
- Add the nutmeg, 1 tablespoon of salt, and 1 teaspoon of pepper.
- Stir in 3/4 cup of Parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup of the tomato and meat sauce,
- And allow to cool for 10 minutes.
- Stir in the yogurt and set aside.
- Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling water until al dente.
- Don’t overcook, because the pasta will later be baked.
- Drain and set aside.
- To assemble, brush a large (at least 12 x 14 x 2-inch) square or oval baking dish with olive oil.
- Add the pasta to the tomato and meat sauce, stir in the eggs, and pour the mixture into the baking dish.
- Spread the béchamel evenly to cover the pasta and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan.
- Bake for 1 hour, until golden brown and bubbly.
- Set aside for 10 minutes and serve hot.
Who gets to help with the dishes?