Local Greek Americans celebrate ancestral foodways

  • A cousin of Dorothea Sotiros, left, visits a butcher in advance of a feast to celebrate the arrival in Greece of visiting relatives from the U.S. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY JIM SOTIROS

  • Dorothea Sotiros of Greenfield visited a beach on the eastern coast of Greece near Mavriki, her family’s ancestral village.

For the Recorder
Published: 1/17/2022 1:44:20 PM
Modified: 1/17/2022 1:43:16 PM

Dr. Theodore “Ted” Zervas speaks passionately — and frequently — about food. As he finished up with a dental patient at his Greenfield practice, Zervas described the virtues of a bottle of olive oil that had recently arrived from an aunt in Greece.

“Greek olive oil is the best,” he said. “There’s simply no discussion. Wait, I’ll go get the bottle. You have to taste for yourself.”

Many Greeks have olive trees at home, according to Zervas, 57, whose parents grew up in the Peloponnese region. Zervas and his five siblings were raised mainly in Germany but spent a lot of time at their parents’ ancestral homes.

“My mom’s birthplace had a lower village with lots of olive trees, and an upper village where shepherds tended sheep,” he said. His grandfather also raised goats for milk and meat. “My grandfather made delicious cheeses, including feta, kefalotiri, and mizithra.”

Zervas’s father’s village produced similar foods, as well as tobacco.

“My uncles gathered in the evenings to drink wine while comparing tomatoes they’d grown,” said Zervas. “It was quite a competition.”

The competitive spirit wasn’t lost on Zervas. “I got too serious about tomatoes,” said Zervas. “Friends on Holly Avenue in Greenfield let me grow a garden on their property, and I did a really nice job. But the tomato thing took on a life of its own.”

Success growing tomatoes

Zervas shared tips for success: “It’s all about not stressing the plant. Don’t start plants too early. Water frequently, but never too much at a time to prevent root rot. You want roots to go deep and spread out.”

The intensity of sunlight matters less than the length of exposure, said Zervas. “Indoors, I put grow lights close to the plants to prevent spindly growth. You want stumpy plants — not tall and leggy.”

Zervas used water barrels in a greenhouse to optimize heat and employed plastic-covered hoops to extend the season.

Passionate about growing organically, Zervas purchased manure to amend the soil: “The more rotted, the better — without much sawdust.” He suggests winter rye as a cover crop: “Then plow it in to feed the soil.”

But it’s his description of methods for supporting tomato plants that indicates that Zervas is no ordinary human. “I’m not normal when it comes to growing tomatoes,” he said.

He’s grown plants as tall as 15 to 20 feet, using “not just stakes, but whole structures to keep them vertical. I built the supports with rebar, heavy steel wires, and sections of concrete fencing panels. I did the research. I can’t help it. It’s an obsession.”

His set-up was so unusual, the plants ultimately weren’t easily recognizable. “I’d bring relatives over to my garden and they’d look right at my plants and ask, ‘Where are your tomatoes?’ My plants were so big, they just didn’t register.”

Zervas’s horticultural experience includes harvesting olives from family groves in Greece. “When I was at UMass Amherst, I’d help with the harvest during my winter break,” he said.

While olives (Olea europaea) are drupes, or stone fruits — related to mangoes, cherries, peaches, almonds and pistachios — bringing in the olives doesn’t involve picking individual fruit.

“We put a blanket under the tree,” said Zervas, “and use rakes to bring the olives down. Each village had their own press, but the old ones are no longer used. My family now takes olives to a commercial press south of Sparta.”

Olives for eating aren’t edible until they’ve sat in brine. “Vinegar, salt, and water,” said Zervas. “Sometimes oil, too. They’re so delicious. Listen, let me call my aunt. She can tell us more about it.”

He dialed a number and grimaced when the voicemail activated. He tried another aunt: same thing. Members of Zervas’ family apparently don’t hang around waiting for calls. “Darn, no one’s taking calls today. I’ll try another aunt. Maybe my uncle. Huh…where is everybody?”

It’s fascinating to hear Zervas alternate between English and Greek: each time he left a message in Greek, his speaking patterns changed completely. Finally, he reached his Theia Pota, (“theia” meaning aunt). A rapid-fire, high-volume discussion ensued, with Zervas offering quieter translations to his interviewer.

Once off the phone, he said, “I know: it’s weird. I’ve had to explain to my staff that we’re not arguing. When Greek friends or relatives stop by the office, everything gets a lot faster and louder. But we’re not arguing! It’s just the way we talk.”

When asked for cooking tips, however, Zervas says, “I’m not a good cook. I boil vegetables and put oil on them. Maybe some sardines, if I’m lucky.”

Inspired by local foods

For Greek culinary wisdom, we head south — but just a couple of blocks to the home of Dorothea Sotiros, another Greenfield-based Greek American with an affinity for food.

“I’ve worked as a private chef, and I adore cooking,” said Sotiros, 74, who grew up in San Diego around Greek immigrants. “The women in my family were incredible cooks, and Greek dishes are among my favorite projects.”

Sotiros’ condo kitchen is small but well-stocked and organized. She turns out scrumptious, aromatic dishes and loves to share.

“In our extended family, my mother was the recognized expert at cooking leg of lamb,” said Sotiros. “And she always used the juices to make a noodle dish called hilopites, as well as a zucchini dish called kolokithakia.”

Sotiros recalls her grandmother’s dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), avgolemono (egg-lemon soup with meat), spanakopita (savory spinach pastry), pastitsio (baked pasta dish with ground meat and béchamel sauce), and moussaka (“like lasagne made with eggplant instead of pasta”).

Descended from Greeks on both sides, Sotiros recalls a family trip when she was about 20. “We visited my maternal grandfather’s village of Mavriki in the northern Peloponnese region, and I was so impressed when my relatives killed a lamb and grilled it outdoors on a spit.”

The visit inspired Sotiros’s interest in the concept of local foods. “I saw many people raising chickens for eggs and meat, and growing grapes for wine. People made yogurt from sheep or goat’s milk.” As her family toured the region, “it seemed like around every bend there appeared an olive grove.”

Zervas and Sotiros both mentioned Horiatiki Salata, “Village Salad” made of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, olives, feta cheese, and dressed in olive oil. “Those of us from the U.S. were surprised there was no lettuce,” Sotiros said.

Bread came up in both interviews. Zervas said of his grandmother’s homemade loaves, “Her bread was so fresh, so delicious.”

Sotiros’s grandmother produced round loaves for Greek Orthodox church services attended by her family in San Diego. “She used a wooden stamp to make an ecclesiastical pattern on the bread,” Sotiros said.

Her grandparents also had a big garden in San Diego which included “fig trees, zinnias, chickens, and lots of vegetables.”

Sotiros and Zervas each recalled enjoying a festival in Greece known as Panagias (“Pa-na-yee-us”), corresponding to the Christian Feast of the Assumption in other parts of the world. (It’s also referred to as “Thekapendeavgousto”–literally, the fifteenth day of August.)

“There’s lots of Greek dancing, wine, and of course, food,” said Zervas. “Oh, the food.”

Eveline MacDougall is a local author, outdoor enthusiast, and mom. She welcomes feedback at eveline@amandlachorus.org


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