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I can see her standing there in a billowy sleeveless dress, her hair tidy.
My grandmother, cooking in the kitchen of her Bankstown home.
Cutting a piece of meat and placing it into the frying pan – so focused.
The smell of the oil frying the meat…it made me dizzy with hunger.
One of her cakes would be baking in the electric oven. On the sink sat her fifties mix-master, the leftover batter from the cake tempting me to run my finger along the inside of the bowl.
An oil candle burned on top of the fridge. It was from the Greek Church and it never went out, this burning flame from God. The radio played Greek music, non-stop, only interrupted occasionally by the Greek news, which I never understood, except for a few odd words.
Occasionally, my grandmother would write words in Greek on a blackboard for my brother and me. She would try and teach us and I still have a few of her words. Milk, horse, cow, chicken, rooster, pig. She had a funny relationship with the English language – the influence of French and Arabic and Greek was just too funny, to our young ears.
The sunlight would flood her kitchen through the fly-screen on the window. Just outside, in the garden, giant old oil tins housed basil bushes that would later appear in one of her many different dishes. Nearby, my dad would be head down, working under the bonnet of his car, my grandfather (Papou) adjacent, reading the Greek newspaper. He was a very quiet man, Papou. He survived the war in Turkey. He still had the bullet from a near miss in a rusty old tin…
So many of them, still precious, that I still carry with me today.
If there is one person from whom I get my theatricality, it’s my Greek paternal grandmother.
My Dad’s mother.
She was born on May 25, 1914 in Port Said, Egypt. One of eight children, her father died in a terrible accident at work when she was very young. She spoke five languages. Apart from cooking very well, she could sew and knit and crochet. Her ancestry goes back to Tsagkarada, Volos in Greece.
Yia Yia was fiercely Greek through and through.
She would talk to me about her life in Egypt. I loved to look at her old photos of her life there and the way she dressed in the thirties and forties, and of her mother and siblings. She had a great sense of style (in the year I was born she won a lottery and toured the world visiting all her siblings.) She would tell me about living with my grandfather, her much older husband, Manolis (Manuel), who was from the south in mainland Greece, the Peloponnese. About raising my dad, Chris, and his younger brother, Uncle Con. That’s where her theatricality would come in. She painted the pictures so clearly. I got a strong sense of place from her.
My maternal grandmother, Angela, is also important to me theatrically, although in a quite different way in that I wrote a play about her – Angela’s Kitchen. Ironically, it had nothing to do with food. In Angela’s house, the kitchen was the focal point for the family. It’s where we all met. My Maltese Nanna was not that interested in cooking. Her food was basic. I called it ‘war food’. The good stuff to get you through. Her Maltese Ravule was amazing though. And there were her baked rice dishes and her rice pudding.
Well, maybe it was better than war food after all…
My Yia Yia’s cooking was the best though. Not that there is any competition. This isn’t ‘Master-YiaYia’, this isn’t television. She would take hours preparing the meals. She had great skills. She would shout at me when I went into her kitchen to watch her cook and prepare the food. She would say, “Noooo, men no do cooking, this woman’s job” and “Your wife, she cooks for you, when you get marry.”
Little did Yia Yia know…
What a shame I was never able to cook like her, or, for that matter, that I can’t cook much at all…except for Stephanie Alexander’s Pea and Ham soup from The Cook’s Companion.
I’m trying at least.
I would sneak in and watch my Yia Yia cook, and I can’t forget the delicious smells coming from her kitchen – it’s what I will never forget about her. My favourite dish was her baked pasta and mincemeat – her creamy Pastichio. The taste was amazing, and the smell – I wish you could keep it in a bottle. She used to make it for me right up into her ninety-fourth year. Even though she could barely stand up anymore and used a walking frame, she still made me my very favourite dish. It was as good as ever.
The other fave food memory of mine was when Yia Yia baked cakes. My older brother Manuel and I would beg to lick the spoons from the mix-master blades. I would go absolutely crazy with delight. The batter, at least to my simple child’s palate, tasted better than the cakes themselves, which were always very plain yet still somehow tasty, not too sweet.
Then there was her rice, chicken and lemon soup (Avgolemono) and her boiled spinach; Greek salads or her Loukoumades – Greek donuts hot and dripping with honey; roasting gemista-zucchini flowers filled with meat and rice – dolmades, taramasalata, tzatziki and, of course, souvlakia.
My Yia Yia had a cookbook that she pasted things into and in which she wrote all her recipes in Greek. My younger brother Elias has that now. He says one day he hopes to translate it into English. He also likes to cook, so I guess he must be the one to take after her in that department, although if she knew this she would probably nod her head and cluck and offer her customary, “Noooo, men no do cooking, this woman’s job.”
As a typical Greek grandmother, she made us all eat our meal, clear our plates, so she could pile on even more food. Eating was a very serious matter in my Greek family. We were not allowed to talk during the meal and we had to eat it all up. My Papou would sit at one end, my uncle and my grandmother on one side, and my dad would sit next to my brother and me.
“Eat all your foods,” Yia Yia would warn.
Oh, I just remembered – her Greek coffee – thick, syrupy, tar-like but heaven for a seasoned coffee drinker.
There was also the lamb on the spit for special occasions, like Greek weddings, and with this always came the dancing. The dancing! Opa! My grandfather danced with a glass of beer on his head, perfectly balancing it no matter how frenzied the music was. You know Greek music. It’s full of life and energy.
My childhood is filled with these memories – the smell and flavour of mouth-watering Greek food, cooked and eaten against a soundtrack of mad Greek music.
Yia Yia’s deep connection to the Greek Orthodox Church meant she had icons around the house and a constant burning flame in front of the picture of Jesus. Every year there was the midnight mass at Easter holding dripping candles and then going back to her house in Bankstown for a huge meal.
To remember the death of Jesus.
And with Easter there were the eggs, so many eggs, done in the classic Greek style. She spent hours labouring over the detail on the eggs, making them colourful, as is the custom. There was also a ritual around cooking meat. She cooked all sorts of exotic dishes, including brains and offal. I couldn’t stomach these as a child. I’d cry, staring in horror at the brains and refusing to eat it while Yia Yia did her best to try and make me.
Just as she prostrated herself before the kitchen alter, her stovetop, I remember her similarly prostrating herself in front of the altar in the Bankstown Greek church in front of the congregation. In her later years, the priest would visit her house and bless it, and even though she could barely stand, Yia Yia still tried to hit the floor with her prayers like she had for so many years as a younger woman.
The woman was unstoppable.
I miss her.
She passed away on April 21, 2008 at ninety-three, a month from her ninety-fourth birthday.
But these memories of her kitchen.
They outlive her, through me.
Religious or not, whatever you believe, the taste of everything Yia Yia cooked had a dash of divinity in it.
A massive sprinkling of her love.
And, above all else, the smells coming from her kitchen were always heavenly.
They could only be from God.