Greek frugal cooking, circa 1941

Frugal cooking is nothing new, especially here in Greece.  Rather than reinvent the wheel, I thought I’d post an article that I’ve translated from Greek to English for you.  The article is written by a middle school history teacher here in Greece, who is the author of a successful book that came out here recently, called “The Recipes of Hunger.”  Eleni Nikolaidou used newspapers from the period of the German Occupation of Greece to see into the kitchens and dining rooms of Greek families at that time.  This article is a sort of summary of the book itself.

The Germans Are Back: The recipes of hunger

By Eleni Nikolaidou

Thousands of homeless on the streets of Athens try to find a warm place to sleep during the winter. Thousands stand in line for a plate of food from the soup kitchens set up in every quarter of the city. Layoffs and unemployment haunt every household. Children go hungry to school. In every neighborhood, the number of people searching through the garbage for something to eat is increasing. There are many suicides, and infant exposures by parents unable to feed their children. The youth of Athens are forced to emigrate.

Then and now… You can no longer determine to which time these images apply. And all of this brings to mind the German Occupation Diet. Then, about seventy years ago, regular columns ran in the newspapers with recipes, with instructions like “Crumbs and How to Gather them” and recipes like “roasted weeds” or “grapemust biscuits without grapemust.”

The Great Famine of the winter of 1941-1942 made Athenians find different ways to get nutrition – ways they would never have considered otherwise. They were called ‘war dishes.’

The only edible thing in abundance was weeds. In addition to weeds, restaurants served fava beans, artichokes, and plain barley. For sweets, raisin paste, made from black raisins and resembling cake, was popular.

Hunger can be cut with appetizers that …kill the appetite. A plate of appetizers can include olives, with pits removed and replaced with bread or tomato with parsley, capers, radishes, cucumber.

Stuffed tomatoes can be eaten raw, when they can be found for sale, and for whomever can afford to buy one. For stuffing, don’t consider ground meat or rice, almost impossible to find during the Occupation. Here, in the Occupation Stuffed Tomatoes, put capers, olives, chopped peppers, a little cucumber, parsley and whatever else you can find in the kitchen. These ingredients will “tie in” with the tomato flesh because there are no eggs to make mayonnaise.

The vlita weeds, aside from being a delicious summer Occupation salad, can be cooked au gratin. One newspaper column recommend: “Boil them, put them in a pan with a little mint and put some “cream” (made of flour) over that. And if you don’t want vlita in the oven, fry them. Make vlitaballs!”

During the Occupation, weeds were cooked in all recipes. Every type of weed can be made into a jelly with its juice. They can be boiled for a main dish if some flour is added to the water; or rice flour or potato flour.

If there are potatoes available, then you can make the famous Viennese nockerel. The recipe: “Without oil, without butter, all you need are potatoes, an egg and water to boil them. If milk is available, boil the potatoes in the milk with a little salt.”

Most importantly for the homemakers during the Occupation is “watch the crumbs!” The “dietician” of the time tells us: “Carefully gather crumbs from the table, from the kitchen when you cut bread, from the breadbox. Within a week, you’ll probably be able to save a whole cup of breadcrumbs!”

Housewives are recommended to make a soup with a quick and easy recipe: “Take tomatoes, if you can find any, grate them and boil them and then add olives. 5-6 olives for each member of the family. A delicious soup you hadn’t thought of before.”

If a plate of green beans or zucchini or something else cooked in tomato sauce is left over from lunch, Mr. N. Tselementes in his newspaper column at the time recommends: “Cut up the leftovers into very small pieces, throw them in a pot, add water, add a few olives, and you have soup for dinner.” Likewise he prints recipes for corn soup, eggplants stuffed with mashed potatoes instead of rice or ground meat, which was unavailable, potato pancakes, and zucchini stuffed with flour paste.

The book cover can be seen here.  The article appeared in the Avgi online newspaper today.

15 thoughts on “Greek frugal cooking, circa 1941

  1. It sounds so very bleak. I know that during the Great Depression that many people died of starvation, and the USA had rationing during the great wars, but as a nation we’ve not seen such widespread deprivation. It’s so sad. Was she implying that there are a lot of homeless starving and with no shelter in Greece now? 😦

    • Hi Yolanda. The Great Depression was indeed horrible, but here in Greece, the big starvation period was during the winter of 1941-2, when over 300,000 people starved to death in Athens alone (and some estimate far higher numbers). Currently homelessness is up 25% this year and a huge, huge proportion of Greeks go hungry at least several days a month (and there are many cases of malnutrition). We haven’t yet started hearing about deaths from starvation, but stories of children fainting from hunger at their desks are a daily reality, no longer considered “news.” A year ago that would be unthinkable.

      • I had NO idea. Our news media, at least on the radio and internet at the sources I read, say nothing about the suffering of the Greek people. They only talk about rioting and economic problems. How very sad. Oh, how I hope things will improve very soon. Thank you for telling me.

        • Others have told me this as well – to be honest, until a few days ago when I saw other comments mirroring yours, I had no idea that foreign news coverage was so limited in scope. But I can tell you that “riots” is a very strange way of putting it – peaceful demonstrations should be encouraged in any democracy, and the stuff that gets shown on the international news (flames, smoke) happens in a very, very small space (one city square) and it’s always in the same place, and is no different from pre-crisis times. I used to live a few minutes from there and that sort of thing always went on there, for years, and is not related to the crisis, just never attracted international attention before 2010. I have seen foreign media show videos of protests that happened several YEARS ago (usually Dec. 2008, before the crisis!), in order to make their point about “violence.” I’ve walked through those “riots” many times – including in May 2010 which were supposed to be the worst ever – and then turn on CNN and the BBC and wondered if I were living in a different Athens.

  2. This was really worth posting. I had no idea that it was that bad during the occupation and it probably explains a lot of things about Greek people today and their reaction to the current crisis.

  3. I really like your blog, Heidi! Nice post, I’ve heard about this book, but haven’t read it. But this is the reality for many people living in Greece now. I see people every other day searching in the garbage…for things they can sell, or maybe even for something to eat – it’s horrible!
    Let’s hope for a change soon, the politics in Greece and EU has to change tactics. At the moment they’re pushing the country more and more to the bottom…
    Best wishes

    • very true… there are garbage and recycling bins within view of our balcony and I very often see people going through them. The other day I saw an elderly man, nicely dressed (suit jacket), with a sort of ‘claw’ type implement on the end of a stick, going through the trash looking for food. It’s very hard to see knowing that just a few months ago, he might have been a business owner or a retiree with a pension he could survive on. When I moved to Greece in 2009, I didn’t even see that sort of thing in Athens, much less in small cities.

  4. Pingback: surviving the new unemployment | homeingreece

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