In Search of Home(s)
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A decade ago, a year ago, yesterday: Food and memories

A decade ago

I grew up in a house of celebrations.

My mother, ever fond of decorating, was appalled when baby Roxanne was afraid of the Christmas tree. Five-year-old Roxanne learned to love how the house reflected the seasons. For Apokries, the Greek Halloween, streamers and costume hats would adorn the staircase. Greek Independence Day, Easter and the advent of spring arrive intertwined in my homeland, so my mother always took care to fill the house with bird’s nests and dyed eggs. Decor-induced injuries were not uncommon in that house. My uncle notoriously emerged from the bathroom massaging his bald head one Christmas: not even the bathroom was exempt from my mother’s love of celebrations and a part of the tree (yes, in the bathroom) collided with my uncle’s head while he was flushing.

It was my father, however, who taught me the quintessential ritual of Greek Easters: roasting lamb on a spit. As a college student in America, I noticed that one did not happen to walk past butchers that had full lambs hanging from hooks on the sidewalk. While I was living in Cairo or traveling through India, I further observed the squeamishness of tourists as they walked past the animal carcases. To me, it was normal. You buy a whole lamb for Easter and it still looks like a dead lamb, not like sliced fillet.

My father was determined to teach me the art of turning said dead-lamb-that-looks-like-lamb into a delicacy one might like to eat as an informal pledge of allegiance to all things Greek and mighty. My father had glaucoma, so the entire teaching process involved his giving me directions without actually being able to demonstrate or check on my progress. As anyone who has been in a kitchen with me knows, I have no culinary instinct. None of this “keep adding flour until the mixture needs no more flour” suffices for me. I need instructions, demonstrations, pictures, supervision, and a YouTube video to boot. What I got was a basement, a lamb, a spit, thread, wire, and a dumbfounded father who could not understand what was so strange about the process.

Here is what I learned: First you secure the neck and the legs onto the spit using the wire. Then you stuff the tummy with tomatoes, cheese, oregano, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper. Then you stitch it. Then you check the alignment – you do not want your lamb falling off the spit mid-roast. Then you leave it like that until the next morning. And you do not go to the bathroom at night because, really, who wants to pass a lamb on a spit prostrate in the hallway?

That was one of my father’s last Easters. We all took turns roasting the lamb, dabbing it with butter, fanning the wood fire, feasting on the tzatziki while we waited for the lamb to cook. My cousin Neni tried to pick some meat off the lamb while it was still roasting, my mother yelled at all of us to put on sunscreen because “the ozon layer degradation is a real thing!”, and my uncle tried to use the bathroom without getting attacked by the Easter bunny.

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A year ago
For the first time since I began designing and implementing programs for women in conflict zones, I was lonely. Not alone – lonely. I had just bid goodbye to a life, community and project I loved in Colombia. I had not had a conversation in two days (Gchat does not count). Sitting at a Guatemalan cafe playfully named “Y Tu Pina Tambien”, I wrote that “there is beauty in isolation”, but I now know that was just me being an Eternal Optimist who cannot write a story without a positive spin. There was, however, some truth to my sunniness. Every time I had moved to a new place, there was a moment when I knew that I would eventually belong. The moment in Guatemala involved Couchsurfing, the invaluable network for travelers that enables them to find hosts and reciprocate hospitality to those passing through their own city. There was a party for the Couchsurfing community in Guatemala that evening and, armed with cake and rum, I was ready to burst my loneliness bubble.

Lainie and Miro were hosting the party and, little did I know, they would host me for the rest of my time in Guatemala too. Lainie is a firecracker who will dance on tables, unschool her son, and always believe — in you, humanity and the ‘everything happens for a reason’ paradigm. Miro, Lainie’s son, also a firecracker, was learning card tricks from Chris. Chris had just moved to Guatemala to become involved in a Motorcycle Cafe, giving tours of the country and Central America to fellow lovers of the two-wheel thrill. Jonathon, a writer, worshiped Jack Kerouac, sang the praises of a life on the road, and started talking to me about guys, girls and friendship. Juan Pablo quoted Neruda.

Everyone left and the house grew quiet. The sun came up. Juan Pablo caught me stuffing more cake into my mouth. He asked me, incredulously, if I was going to eat more. Between the cake, the dancing, the Kerouac and Neruda, and the dreaming, I knew I was no longer alone.

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Yesterday
Christians and Jews are celebrating religious holidays at once, as it is simultaneously the Holy Week and Passover. The Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt was allegedly so quick that the bread did not even have time to rise. To commemorate this, no leavened bread is consumed during Passover, leading to everyone around me stuffing themselves with cake, dinner rolls and pasta in the past week in a ritual of elimination-by-gorging. Elijah recalled his mother making matzo brei by soaking matzo, cutting it into pieces, soaking them in egg, frying them, and drizzling them with sugar and cinnamon. He recreated this version of ‘kosher-for-Passover French Toast’ in our kitchen in the Israeli desert. It was not Easter lamb. I had never had it before. Yet, it tasted like avgofetes – the egg-sugar-and-cinnamon bread of my childhood.

14 Comments

  1. You so beautifully captured the elements of the feasts that feed us all. As much as I look forward to decorating for the holidays, it’s the food preparation that is so significant to me. The idea that your hands are mixing, stretching, rolling and shaking in the same way your ancestors did at the same time of year centuries before you is SO powerful. It makes all the delicious treats taste that much better!

  2. Akhila, thank you for those incredible compliments. I completely agree with you on how memories of food are that much brighter when we also associate them with good company and treasured moments in time.

    Kim, thank you — your words are an encouragement to write more. I get nostalgic for Greece this time of year and, through writing, sometime I feel it all as well.

    Shawna, a very happy Easter to you! The rituals and traditions are the part of Holy Week I still treasure, no matter how my religious and spiritual beliefs evolve or my location at the time of celebration changes. It has been my pleasure to share them with you.

    I hope you are all celebrating whatever you believe in and that you are welcoming spring wherever you are.

  3. Happy Easter! I’m just learning to appreciate the full rituals of the church and Holy Week. I grew up Evangelical: we went from Palm Sunday to Easter. I love how visceral Vigils is. It has become my favorite Holy Week service.

    I hope you have a joy-filled and peace-filled Easter!

  4. Wow, you are such a talented writer. I loved every bit of that post. I could taste and smell and feel it all. I smile every time I see you’ve posted something new because I just can’t wait to read it.

  5. The pictures you paint with your words are absolutely inspiring, lovely and beautiful, Roxanne. I feel like I am with you on this round-the-world journey of food and friends. Funny how the best memories of food come when are with family, friends, and loved ones, yes?

  6. Thank you all for the lovely words!

    Celina, this time of year, I smell the smells of the story too, no matter how far from Greece I may be!

    Katie, I know that lonely place well. I may actually be in Boston this summer and would love to (re)discover it together.

    Roy, thank you for the sweet words – I am glad you stopped by!

  7. What lovely, rich, delicious memories. I’m in that lonely place right now…hoping for some moments of belonging soon. xo

  8. Kim, thank you. The feeling is very mutual. I am honored to share the traditions (and traumas!) of a Greek childhood with you.

    Tracy, I would love to write a book. Alas… It’s a longer conversation than blog comments allow for, but let’s have it. I am blessed to know you as well.

    Marjory, avgofetes were egg-sugar-and-cinnamon goodness indeed. I still miss them sometimes. Grateful for you as well; and, indeed, we are never truly alone.

    All my love and gratitude to you wonderful women.

  9. Roxanne, this is so beautiful. Your words, your story filled me with laughter and with that knot in my throat that comes when my heart is deeply moved.

    “the egg-sugar-and-cinnamon bread of my childhood.” Heavenly.

    Yes to blessed food that feeds our souls and fills us with remembrance. Grateful for you and for all kindred spirits who remind us that we are never truly alone. Thank you dear.

  10. I am SOOO glad you posted this! I was hoping you would! Lovely! Lovely! Lovely! You should write a book, Roxanne – seriously. Please do because we would be lined up to buy it. I love hearing about (reading rather) your experiences and life and culture. LOVE IT. Thank you for giving us a window into your world. It is as Kim said, I must stop now because I could go on and on and on and on. SO blessed to know you!

  11. If I go on much longer than one sentence I know I’ll just restate the same thing over and over: This is sense-deep and lovely, and exactly what I needed to see today, and I am so happy to know you.

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