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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Wednesday, February 8

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« Mai Tais and Omelettes Beyond the Ghetto (Fries) »

Feature Thu May 15 2008


If you’re non-Orthodox – like me (unorthodox?) – Greek Easter always seems to just pop up out of nowhere. If it pops up for you at all. While the Western calendar follows the lunar cycles and spring equinox to determine where Easter will fall, the Eastern Orthodox churches tie Easter to the Hebrew calendar and Passover. My first experience with the concept, let alone practice, of Greek Easter (or, Pascha) was during study abroad in Athens four years ago.

Our Greek language instructor tried to prepare us, the poor unattended Americans. On her advice, we dressed nicely and went to church on Saturday night; deftly avoided the woman setting her hair on fire with her absent-mindedly clutched taper when the priests, altar and congregation moved as one outside into the courtyard; and smiled and shrugged at each other when the clock struck twelve and things went a little crazy. I remember it being beautiful, almost eerie, with the entire city quiet and candlelit. And shortly after leaving the church, I remember that sense of awe fading away as I felt both hungry and jealous. And I remained hungry and jealous for DAYS afterwards as ever-bustling Athens ground to a stop – families either left en masse for their home villages in the country, or cloistered themselves behind their garden walls to privately roast the lambs that had been hanging creepy and lonesome in butchers’ windows and market stalls for weeks. Even the stray dogs seemed to evaporate from the streets. While I subsisted on olives and rice in my apartment, the smell of lamb covered the city like a warm blanket. It was torture.

After this first brush with a familiar holiday I suddenly found myself knowing nothing about, I have since found myself surrounded by various Greeks in Chicago – and this year I sweet-talked my good friend Emilee into crashing her family’s Greek Easter. (A few beers and an Ingrid Michaelson show never achieved so much for my culinary curiosity.) This holiday, which had haunted me for almost four years, was finally an experience up for grabs.

On the way up I-90 to her aunt and uncle’s suburban home, Emilee gave me a run down of whom I would likely be meeting, complete with physical descriptions and approximate placement on her sprawling family tree. There seemed to be an inordinate number of Jerries in the bunch – “When in doubt, Jerry is a good guess,” she conceded. I made a mental note.

Long before the majority of the guests had arrived, the kitchen was packed. And long anyone was anywhere near ready to eat, it was perfumed with notes of nutmeg and yeast, punctuated by the green scents of asparagus and olive oil. The kitchen table, only supporting a fraction of the bounty, was already sighing under the weight of a huge bowl of salad, while baking sheets covered with potatoes and little spinach-meatball-like creations rotated between oven and counter in a chaotic but well-choreographed assembly line. Though it was chilly and the air felt like rain, we had to step outside for more space – where, on the flagstone patio, where, spitted over a gas grill and carefully guarded by the menfolk, there it was.

The supine form, head thoughtfully covered in tinfoil, charring and spitting as the grease popped and hissed over the heat. The smell that had so cruelly tormented me and my empty refrigerator in Athens. Two adorable second-cousins came around into view of the patio, stopped short at the sight of the grill and whispered something to their mom, who rolled her eyes and, after greeting Emilee, explained, “They thought the lamb was our family’s dog. With the head covered, I guess it’s hard to tell.” Gross – but it was also beautiful. And in only a short time, it would be mine to share. I was in.

The meal ended up being roughly a five-hour affair, spread out over enough time and different courses that while I’m sure I ate my weight in tiropita and feta and (of course) arni, I only felt like I’d eaten, like, half my weight by the time we piled back into the car for the dangerous post-prandial journey back to the city. It started innocently enough as the first course crept in under our noses – like Alice in Wonderland’s table, food seemed to magically bloom on the Easter themed tablecloth out on the patio. Bread and cheese, perfect flaky tiropita triangles to rival anything I ever ate in the mother land – all buttery phyllo and salty-sweet cheese, hummus and garlic. And like a sluice had opened in the kitchen, suddenly more and more platters were hefted out by ever-arriving family members – yet another aunt would arrive shouldering a plate of meatballs, moments after a cousin carried out 2-liters of Diet Coke and Sprite to crowd the plate of grilled and lemony shrimp an uncle had just placed on the table. The stream of food and family members emerging around the corner of the house seemed never-ending, until I stopped paying attention and just focused on my overloaded paper plate.

It was like heaven. Only the chill in the air and the grass stains on my new satin flats seemed to belie the divinity of that backyard feast. And it was only the beginning.

In Greece – and presumably in pious Stateside Greek families – a pre-Easter fast is the norm, like a miniature but very intense Lent before the big day. So by the time the Pascha spread is rolled out on Easter morning, the faithful haven’t eaten any meat, dairy or eggs for six weeks, an entire lamb is literally a little tough to chew on. Easter is celebrated at midnight, usually with fireworks and cheering and sometimes gun shots drowning out the reading of the gospels – and after traditional exchange of “Christos anesti” and “Alithos anesti,” everyone bolts out to break the fast. This meal is often a soup called magiritsa, infamous for its main ingredient – lamb offal. While the Skokie celebration I attended did not have magaritsa anywhere on the menu, organ meats were not only available, but tinfoiled and roasting on their own spit over the grill. Watching me extend a tentative fork toward a plate of meaty tidbits, Uncle Tassos squinted at me and said, “It’s…special meat. Try.” It was liver. And while the texture was a little spongier than I was prepared for, the richness of the meat floored me. I overheard a great-aunt extolling its virtue later to another guest: “It’s good for the heart! You should eat it!” One piece was enough for me. Not because I lost my nerve, but because the rest of the lamb was done and being moved inside.

The kitchen tablecloth had transformed into a tapestry of food, and the entire party was crammed into a tight ring around the food, and a line that wrapped all the way out through the dining room and down the front hall. I grabbed just about everything I could on my pass around the table – salad and rice, dolmades in lemony sauce, asparagus, bread, feta and other cheeses, roasted potatoes, pastisio, some sort of potato gratin, and of course, more lamb. Fully intending to make a second run at this bounty, I dove whole-heartedly into my plate (pausing only to take a picture). 40 minutes later, stuffed and staring with glazed eyes at the basement walls, where paper Easter bunnies and pastel colored egg decorations co-mingled with framed prints of Santorini and other islands, I had been defeated.

And there was more. There was an egg hunt outside for the kids. There were bags of candy for the “grown-up kids,” (ooh! Including me!), and sometime during this multi-generational sugar high, the kitchen table transformed itself into a dessert buffet. All I could handle was a shortbread cookie or two and several bites of a dense and custardy piece of galaktoboureko off of Emilee’s plate. Somehow hours and hours had passed and the city was calling us back. We cracked our red eggs together – Emilee’s cracked against mine, which seemed to be good luck for me, until mine cracked against her cousin’s. Short-lived good luck. Emilee said her goodbyes, circling the room in the opposite direction of the earlier food assembly line – up the hallway, past the tables set out in the family room and through the dining room where the men had gathered to talk and drink coffee, and into the kitchen to dodge a great-aunt brandishing a briki and thank the hosts for another wonderful Easter…

Greek Easter this past year was April 27 – already it seems like a fondly remembered dream, not unlike that Easter on the steps of an Athenian church four years ago. Why didn’t I take more pictures? Have I accurately painted a picture of the warm inclusion and hospitality Emilee’s family so graciously extended to me, a party-crashing Protestant? Did I really eat lamb liver?

For listing of Greek events in and around Chicago, check out the calendar on Daily Frappe.
To buy your very own briki (or at least a slab of galaktoboureko), visit the Artopolis bakery in Greektown, at 306 S. Halsted.
And for your very own spit-roasted lamb, stop by the Parthenon, at 314 S. Halsted.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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