By Mark Antonation
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By Mark Antonation
I like Greek food, but it's never seemed like much of a cuisine to me.
Greek food isn't a cuisine because it has no rules. Ask a hundred Greeks how to make tzatziki -- the ubiquitous yogurt and cucumber sauce -- and even though tzatziki contains only about four ingredients, you'll get a hundred different answers. Ask four Greeks at the same time, and the discussion will go on for hours. Drinks will most definitely be required. And by the time you're all done talking, not only will you have four absolutely authentic methods for preparing tzatziki, but also four new friends (or four bitter enemies), a complete history of Greek culture, from Homer to Melina Kanakaredes, and vivid descriptions of what everyone's grandpa did during the war.
I've worked with Greeks and I've worked for Greeks, and I've been eating Greek food since forever. Greeks have long ruled the Rust Belt greasy spoon and all-night roadhouse diner scene. In towns like Rochester and Buffalo and Cleveland and Scranton, I lived on gyros and feta, on souvlaki and eggs, on grilled pitas stuffed with cheese and eggs and tomatoes and potatoes heavy with paprika, and never thought of it as "Greek food." We -- my cooks and I -- never said, "Let's go eat Greek" when the bars closed. We just called the places by name: Nick's, Tom's, Pano's or whatever, though they were always run by guys named Alex or Jimmy -- guys not much older than us, the sons of Nick and Tom and Pano. Irish parents, well-versed in their own history of tenant farming and occupation, consider the American Dream achieved when they can pass a house or a little bit of property down to their children. But the Greeks (or at least the East Coast Greeks, the ones I knew) leave a legacy of restaurants to their offspring and a tradition of sobering up all the Micks with muddy coffee and baklava before sending them home to the ancestral suburban manse. It's a good system.
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Lamb souvlaki: $13.95
Still, Greek food is not a cuisine. When you talk about the world's great food cultures -- French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Indian -- you're talking about hundreds, sometimes thousands of years of refinement. You're talking about classifiable regional derivation (Cantonese versus Szechuan, Tuscan versus Neapolitan) and a depth of possibilities that can make an entire career for a guy who cooks only in the Lyonnaise green-market style and a totally different career for the guy next door who cooks only Parisian bistro food. You're talking about rules and canon and strictures more severe than the most conservative bogwater Baptist Jesus cult.
But when you talk about Greek food, it's all feta, kalamata, souvlaki and baklava, in endless variations. It's the stories your weird uncle tells about the honeymoon cruise through the Greek Islands he took with his third wife because he totally had the wrong idea of what he'd find on Lesbos. "They eat squids there!" your weird uncle says. "And they light the cheese on fire!" Then he unbuttons his shirt, pushes aside the gold chains and, for the dozenth time, shows you the scar where his first and only saganaki experience got out of hand.
Greek food is a tradition, certainly a style, arguably a system designed to feed lambs to Americans who only think about consuming lamb on Easter (a creepy bit of cannibalistic Christian transubstantiation, that) and to get as many people as possible to eat meat on sticks. A true cuisine is more serious than that, and these days the best cuisines (French and Italian and so forth) are serious about returning food to its traditional roots. French at its most haute, Italian at its most honest -- both are designed to get food back to the farm or kitchen table where it originated, for stripping away pretense and complication and presenting it like the stuff grandmère cooked for grandpère. Slow food, farmhouse and green-market techniques have all been imposed on runaway cuisines in hopes of stopping arrogant young chefs from wrapping everything in gold foil and serving dishes with sauces made of strangled pepper and Styrofoam flambé.
But Greek cooking never went too far, because the Greeks cut out the middle step of codification and convention. If you never write anything down, if you never make any rules about how a thing must be done, cuisine never develops. And if cuisine never develops, the food never moves beyond the kitchen, the cafe, the dining-room table. The Greeks have never had to worry about returning their food to its peasant roots -- because no Greek ever thought of taking it anywhere else.
At Yanni's Greek Taverna, which has occupied the same spot in a quiet South Monaco strip mall since 1981, you can sometimes smell the honesty a mile away. When the wind is right, when owner Yanni Stavropoulos has the gigantic outdoor rotisserie grill fired up, the odor of roasting meat and garlic and wine mixes with car exhaust and the stink of hot blacktop into an aroma of history cut loose from chronology. You see Stavropoulos standing over that grill like some kind of minor laughing spirit from an expurgated chapter of The Iliad -- the Lamb God, bringer of barbecue -- and you understand at a very basic, gut level why Greek food never really developed: because there was never any reason for it to change.