by Tom Barras
They were all staring at me — the first American-born descendant of my mother’s family to visit her village in Greece. It was a warm summer evening in 1963, and I was seated at a rustic, round wooden table surrounded by relatives: my aged, black-clad grandmother, several plump aunts and white-haired uncles, numerous ruddy-cheeked cousins, and a swarm of curious children who came to scrutinize this visitor from America. I was nervous, excited, and overwhelmingly self-conscious.
It was dinnertime on an earthen, tree-shaded patio, and the table was topped with a kaleidoscope of small plates of food. Stuffed grape leaves. Grilled octopus. Black olives. Golden cheese filled filo triangles. Crimson tomatoes. Cucumbers, celery and carrots. Grilled eggplant. Chunks of feta cheese. There was also a large bottle of ouzo, the crystal clear liquor of choice, and a carafe of water.
“Some ouzo, Thanasi?” my uncle Strati, offered, addressing me by the shortened version of my Greek name, Athanasios.
“Of course, Theo, but will I get a little tipsy?”
He and the other adults chuckled at my naiveté, and the children giggled. I reddened.
He poured to the mid-point of a small tumbler, and topped it off with some water. I watched it turn milky white as he handed it to me, explaining that when consumed with food, as it always is, one seldom gets drunk. In fact, he said, the ancient Greeks always watered their wines, for it was considered barbaric to become inebriated. And wagging his finger, he cautioned me not to forget that Lesvos, the island of my mother’s village, produced the finest ouzo in all of Greece. I sipped it, savoring the pleasing anise flavor.
“Please, take some food,” said Aunt Maria, as she passed me one plate after another to sample.
They wanted to know everything. What kind of a company is this that sends a young man to travel around the world? What work do you do? Which countries have you been to? My God, you’ve been there? What are the people like? That strange food, is it really edible?
My language comprehension was near perfect, but my articulation was dreadful, so I took frequent sips of ouzo and numerous bites of food, using the intervals to rehearse my next sentence. To no avail, however; I sounded like a wind-up toy.
“Why is he speaking so slowly?” my grandmother asked, “What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s Elly’s son, Yia Yia, he’s an American. They don’t speak Greek in America.”
“He looks thin. Give him some more food. We can’t send him back looking like that.”
After more questions and answers, and more food and drink, my self-consciousness waned, and I eventually got into the rhythm of it.
“Try this, have you eaten this before?” an aunt asked, handing me plate of grilled octopus.
“You haven’t tried any of these yet,” coaxed a cousin as she slid the plates of olives and cheeses directly in front of me.
Stimulating and sensual, it was finger food of the poor, with a variety of flavors and textural contrasts: salty and sweet, fresh and cooked, chewy and creamy, flaky and crusty. It was eaten in any order, at one’s own pace, and the ouzo was an ideal foil. Not wanting to offend them, I ate heroically — everything they handed me and more. I ate for them. I ate for Mama. I ate for all Americans. And I topped it all off with ouzo from a bottomless glass. I would be one of them or else.
In time the sky changed from clear blue to speckled black. Some of the children were dozing on their parents’ laps. Replete, sated, slightly tipsy and not wishing to overstay my first dinner invitation, I pushed back my chair, rose and said to my uncle, “It’s late, Theo, shouldn’t we be going?”
“Going? Going where?” he said. “We haven’t even eaten yet.”
I was stunned. “What have we been doing for the last two hours, if we haven’t been eating?”
“That’s not eating, that’s just mezethes, we’ve still got dinner to go yet. The evening has just begun.” He reached for the ouzo, poured himself another glass, and gently banged the table with his fist, gavel-style, signifying the start of the next round of food and drink.
That was my introduction to the ritual of Greek small-plate food: mezethes. I traveled through Greece for several more weeks that year, visiting more relatives from both sides of the family, and the tradition repeated itself wherever I went — small plates of food, water-thinned ouzo, conversations and connections, with hospitality as the centerpiece. But it was clear that more went on than just eating and drinking. Those dinnertimes with relatives did more than fill my stomach — they helped me to take part in an ancient custom of my ancestors.
Athanasios Barchokas, a.k.a. Tom Barras, lives in San Mateo, CA where he can be found chopping onions and garlic in his kitchen or chopping his way through the tall rough of nearby golf courses.