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.


supermarket frustration

Where we live, there are a number of supermarkets, large and small.  I live just a few blocks from one of the largest, which is where I usually shop.  They have the lowest prices in town and very good sales, and I can buy coupons that are only valid at their store in the Sunday paper.  Generally speaking, I love this supermarket, because I can walk there, and they have a good selection.  It’s a massive international chain, with stores all over the world.  Ours is medium sized, not huge but definitely adequate for this city of 66,000.

When they have food, that is.

They haven’t had eggs for weeks.  Chickpeas haven’t been available since we moved here in July 2011.  The little label for them is there, in at least three different brands, but the chickpeas are missing.  Same with the eggs.  Yesterday when I went, they didn’t have a single package of plain old sugar.  There was only one kilogram of all purpose flour!  And I’m not talking about a particular brand – I mean they didn’t have any brand of these items.  And yesterday they had almost no toilet paper.

If you want to talk about the inexpensive store brand, it gets much worse.  They frequently don’t have their own milk, yogurt, dishwasher soap, and many more.  I’ve only seen their brand of ‘Swiffer-style’ cloths once.  I love their store brand – it’s very cheap compared to the name brands, the quality is just fine, and they have a remarkably wide selection of products, when they are able to keep them in stock.

We’re supposed to be in the middle of a deep economic crisis.  People supposedly don’t have money. So what is going on?

I’ve stood in line behind enough people over the last months to realize that most people that shop at our store have switched over to buying the store brand, but that doesn’t explain the absence of the basics in every brand.  I can’t explain it.  Maybe people are stocking up on basic goods because they are worried about their ability to buy them in the future (I fall into this category myself).  But none of these things explains the chickpea shortage.  I visit the supermarket several days/week since last July, and there have never been chickpeas.

Why is our supermarket failing to stock basic food items that are never, ever reaching expiration date on the shelves?  If they purchased more of these goods, they would sell.  Why not do it and collect the profit?  I don’t get it… and I also don’t get chickpeas and eggs 😦