On the island, during the summers, YiaYia (my paternal grandmother) would always have a big tapsi (pan) of something stewing, braising or simmering over the low flame of her gas stove. Maybe it was gemista (stuffed vegetables) or faki (braised lentils) or gigantes (tomato-ey broad beans). Dozens of dishes from that stove live in my memory and heart and hands.
Hers is the epitome of peasant cooking, the kind that cross-cuts the villages that dot the southern European continent, and especially my Greek island home. Cook something, eat a little today, pack it away, then eat a bit more tomorrow. Stretch that dinner with some good bread and feta, and serve the next day’s over rice pilaf, then eat the dregs cold from the fridge with horta (braised dandelion greens) doused in as much lemon juice and olive oil and flaky salt as you can muster.
These endless dishes, when I was a girl, were an oddity. Here: the midday meal, a procession of half-full pans parading from the fridge, accompanied by whatever new addition graced the stove that day. Always, the bits and bobs matched with a big horiatiki (village salad — never lettuce!) and bowls of olives and a slab of feta and a jug of hyper-peppery olive oil that my Uncle Kleanthe pressed at his grove on the mainland. Hunks of bread dotted the flowered vinyl tablecloth wherever they landed. We’d tuck in — a dozen different plates for as many people — a choose-your-own-adventure sort of lunch.
This summer, my dad has sent a few snippets of these everlasting meals. He’s a boy back on the island at his family table — the yiouvetsi (beef and orzo, scented with cinnamon and clove) and spanakopitas (spinach pies) and bamiyes (stewed okra) of his childhood coming forth from the kitchen, by his mother’s loving hands. It’s my long-distance taste of faraway summer afternoons and a reminder of how I want to feed myself; to feed my family.
Grown and responsible for my own cooking, I’ve come to appreciate YiaYia’s sourdough starter approach to the daily meal, the style of cooking my ancestral islanders embrace as quotidien. Austin and I love to cook for now and for our future selves, dreaming up what dinners will become leftovers, what we will make tomorrow into something new. I’m sometimes weary of people who unequivocally dislike leftovers, especially as I consider all the foods so much tastier tomorrow — tomato-based dishes and long braises and stews and soups… food that rests and evolves into something greater.
Beyond lunch and dinner, this is how we may choose to live: piecing together the already-good bits to make something changed and more delicious. It’s the principle that underlines resoling old shoes and bringing together disparate friends for a communal dinner and reshaping a tradition. Life is tastier when you take the best bits from today and carry them re-imagined into tomorrow. We too are better as we evolve, come together and apart, and are reinvented… like at the island table.