You can learn a lot about a person from their family. I have always thought that it was an important piece to the puzzle. Our family shapes who we are and what we become.
I grew up in a large Greek and Macedonian family. The kitchen was always the center of where we gathered. Laughter, teasing, stealing the crispy edge bites of spanakopita. It’s funny how much our childhood memories can leave lasting impressions and shape us to who we are today.
My mother’s side of the family is from the small village of Atropos, Florina in Greece. They didn’t have much, but they did have a hard work ethic. Working days in the fields, my Baba (grandmother) tells a story about how a donkey had saved her life. A land mine was steps in front of her and the donkey happened to trod on it, in turn saving my Baba. She’s shared stories of hiding a young woman when the soldiers came looking for her, praying they wouldn’t find that she was lying to them. This was a life we couldn’t imagine here today.
My Papou (grandfather) came to the United States first. He established a home and job, then sent for my Baba, aunt and uncle. Paying a man extra money to ensure they did not have to travel below deck, the man stole the money, leaving my grandmother and the two little ones to dread for their safety as they were forced to lodge at the lower level of the ship. Braving the ship’s journey and fighting off men with bad intentions, Baba safely made it to the United States to begin her new life with my Papou in the United States.
On my father’s side, my Baba grew up in Albania and my Dedo (grandfather) in Greece before fleeing to Skopje, Macedonia where my father and uncle were born. My Baba has shared stories of working day and night to to care for the elderly parents of her husband, while also attending to all of her family’s needs. She speaks often of the soldiers that invaded Albania and took away their land and freedom. Upon escaping to Greece, they faced similar discrimination. Their homes were invaded, live stock taken and it was expected that what you grew and owned, was to be shared with the government. Listening to escape stories, fleeing in the mountains and across borders amazes me each time I hear it.
My dad told different stories when we were growing up. He often said “When you get older, I will tell you more. I can’t share it all with you now.” I remember laughing at a story we labeled “Ants in the Pants” in which him and his friends use to climb trees to peek into the drive – in movies. There were ants that happened to be in a tree and they had attacked them, causing them to itch all over. I’m sure this story may have been exaggerated, but it made it one of our favorites.
He would also tell us as kids, how they use to find mines left over from the war. Luckily they were never harmed, but the threat of it didn’t stop them from inspecting. As we got older, he shared about some of the violence and brutality that occurred. How the mindset of those he use to call friends, had changed as they got older, ready to face danger at any given moment, consumed by the lies of their government.
At age 19 my dad came with my Dedo to the United States. My Baba had come over first and established a job and home supported by her sisters who had come here first. She recalls working all day long, not knowing English, unsure of how to communicate to the American workers and people she encountered.
I embrace my culture. I love listening to the stories passed down from my grandparents and father from “the old country.” I started noting the stories from my Baba’s recently as I’m worried that once they pass, who will be there to share this important part of our history?
As often seen with immigrant families, culture and tradition is passed down. A big part of this for me was growing up with gardens at both of our grandparents. We had an abundance of cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. My dad’s yearly tradition became (and still is) preparing the peppers for the winter season. He grills, then skins and deseeds both hot and sweet peppers – no gloves. It became quite the experience for neighbors; for us, it was just a typical day. The scent of hot peppers stewing in the kitchen, watery eyes, and coughing is a yearly “tradition” that we know and expect.
Any reason to get together and celebrate around food and family was and is something to look forward to. It always surprised me when I had friends who did not experience this. I feel lucky that I was able to grow up surrounded by these experiences and it has influenced my growing interest in the culinary world. Whether I’m looking for a new recipe, tasting a dish at a restaurant, or secretly asking the chef to share the seasoning that he used in my order that night, it all connects back to my influences growing up.
I have a notebook that I keep my family recipes in. I still can’t figure out how to adjust my seasoning to taste exactly like my Papou’s lentil soup (he made it THE BEST) or the seemingly simple, yet complex flavor of my Baba’s stuffed peppers, but it doesn’t stop me from trying.
As much as I love cooking for others and being in the kitchen, I won’t turn down a fun afternoon with my friend Marie, of Edible Photographs, for a trip down memory lane at Voula’s Greek Sweets. Marie is a food enthusiast, adventurist and a gifted photographer.
Voula Statton, owner, opened doors on February 11, 2012. She opened the doors not just to her restaurant, but welcoming restaurant go-ers into her family kitchen. This is as true reflection of how she grew up eating at home. Vegetarian then, now vegan, Voula modified the menu to reflect this. “I wanted to create a family business where the staff and customers feel at home and safe.”
Truly a family business, as you often see in Greek culture, Voula’s father shops and preps hours each week. If you have sampled the baklava, koulourakia, or any other of the delicious pastries, those have been prepared by her aunt and uncle who work there 3 days a week.
A strong family connection, tradition, love and a bit of pride (we are Greek, we can’t help it!) exemplifies what it means to be a Greek Macedonian. I’ve always embraced the food, history and challenges of my family’s journey, hardships and fulfillment. I see this in Voula’s journey as well and am excited for her accomplishments and for what is to come in the future.
Maybe one day I will document more of my family’s life in the “old country” but for now, I will continue to ask for the same stories I have heard since a child, but that never get old. I’ll coax my father to share the dangers from his youth, that he is still hesitant to divulge. And I’ll thank God that my family not only underwent these struggles, but is here today to share them with us. We grow in strength through struggle. We grow closer in hardships. These stories bind us together and have flourished into a loving family who did everything they could to make a better life for us here in the United States. My story may sound similar to others, but it is unique to me. It’s my family’s story.
All photos included in this post are by the talented Marie Williams of Edible Photographs. Marie, thank you for always being up for an adventure and being an unforgettable food date!