The Greeks have their own, particular way of doing things: eating, speaking, dancing with chairs balanced on their chins, dressing, getting excited when anything that can be broken is smashed onto the floor.
I like to call it Greek style. Or Greek-style, depending upon the activity.
Whatever they are doing, it is often loud and (sometimes irritatingly) proud. This brashness isn’t particularly different from any other once-great culture who happened to spend centuries getting kicked around by other Empires-du-jour. It’s just the culture I am surrounded by for thirty hours every week at work.
Five or six days a week, I see the Greek men who proudly show off my place of business to their dinner guests as if it were their own home. I count the little Greek flags pinned to their lapels, I bring them more food than anyone could possibly eat because, as one Greek said to me years ago when I quietly suggested he might be ordering too much food for his guests:
“Of course it’s too much. I want these people overwhelmed. I can’t have them saying they never got enough to eat.”
Well, okay then. When I went upstairs to order the 27,000,000 plates of mezethes he demanded, I realized something: This guy may have been one of the richest men in San Francisco– a self-made, honest-to-God Greek Tycoon, but he was also a child of the Great Depression who grew into an early manhood under the oppressive thumb of Nazi occupation and its resulting near-starvation– a time when people survived on little more than boiled weeds (horta)– a dish we also serve, but was conspicuously absent from his order.
The Greeks– at least the old ones– know about starvation. To let anyone who comes under their roof go hungry is to shame an entire culture. It would break the laws of philoxenia (hospitality) or, worse– it would break the heart of their dear, sainted yia-yias.
Perhaps that last statement was a little melodramatic, but it’s the Greeks we’re talking about here. I mean, they invented drama. I can’t say I blame them for overdoing it on the food.
The odd thing I find about Greek people versus Greek food is that, where the Greeks themselves can be frequently over the top in their hand gestures, speaking voices, clothing and just about everything else, Greek food is refreshingly, wonderfully simple. It is what it is, which is often straightforward, fresh, and unadorned. And totally delicious.
Maybe they avoid high numbers of ingredients for any given dish because they know they’re going to wind up cooking enough of it to feed Alexander the Great’s army.
Ah, those were the days. I can just hear an old Greek woman saying, “Now there was a great Greek man. Of course, he broke his mother’s heart by not marrying a Greek girl and look what happened…”
Greek rice pudding is just one of those delightfully straightforward, simple dishes.
However simple it may be to make, it is not so simple for non-Greek people to pronounce. And I feel strongly that this dessert must be pronounced correctly before one should be allowed to eat it. Otherwise, one is just eating some rice pudding that any other culture might make. And then it wouldn’t be Greek, so what would be the point?
It didn’t take me long grasp the need to tackle the difficulties of mastering Greek pronunciation. In fact, it was this particular dessert that made me realize that, if I was going to be working in a Greek restaurant, I was going to have to start saying things correctly in order to be taken seriously.
One evening as I delivered dessert menus to a sweet, elderly, Old Country Greek couple, I mentioned that our Ree-zo-Gah-low was delicious. The woman blanched and said to me, “You are not Greek!” and then, took my arm and uttered the correct way to say it, pulling down as if to tear my limb from its socket at the correct moment of emphasis.
She then let go of my arm, ordered some Greek coffee and asked,”If you are not Greek– and you are not Greek, where are your people from, because you look like you could be Greek.”
“Well, my dad’s family is Sicilian,” I answered, not wanting to explain that my father is, in fact, only half Sicilian.
“Sicilian?” she said as she looked at her husband. “That’s okay, isn’t it?”
To which he replied, “Una faccia, una razza.” One face, one race.
His wife beamed. She took my same arm, but this time, she patted it. She gave me a barely perceptible nod and then said, “You’re okay. We like you, but learn to pronounce Greek!”
Serves 4 to 6 old greek men, a mere scraping of the bowl by their standards.
4 ½ cups whole milk
3/4 cups arborio rice, washed
1 cinnamon stick
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (or more to taste)
1/2- 3/4 cups of granulated sugar, depending upon your love of sweetness
Powdered cinnamon for garnish.
1. In a medium saucepan (why is it that I feel as though I begin everything with “In a medium saucepan?”), pour the milk and add the cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, then let simmer over low heat for about 5 minutes. Add rice and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently (think of it as a very loose risotto– you want to release the rice starch).
2. Temper your awaiting, lightly beaten egg yolks with some of the hot milk, then add the yolk/milk mixture to the simmering rice. Stir in sugar. Stir everything. Stir Crazy, for all I’m concerned. Continue to cook until the you can draw a line in the custardy sauce on the back of a wooden spoon (see: above photo). Add Vanilla extract. If you like your rice pudding loose and very creamy, stop cooking now. If you like it firmer and drier, continue to cook until most of the liquid has been absorbed.
3. Pour out into a large bowl to cool. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
4. To serve, spoon the pudding into little yogurt glasses you bought for breakfast at the little grocery store in the Marais and then took home with you because they remind you of someone from a Greek family who makes you very, very happy whenever you think about him. Garnish with cinnamon.