Our oldest son, Jonathan, married a Greek woman named Jorgi. When you marry into a Greek family, you become part of that Greek family. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The Greeks have a lot going for them. Jorgi’s uncle (Manuel Antonopoulos, a.k.a Mike, a.k.a. the Greek) has been one of my best friends for 30 years. We have a constant, running verbal battle about whose ancestors were smarter, tougher, braver.
Mike: “Everything goes back to the Greeks!”
Me: “My Nordic ancestors would kick the crap out of your Greek ancestors every day of the week and twice on Sundays!”
Mike: “You’re nuts!”
Me: “You’re nuts!”
Mike: “You wanna grab a cold beer?”
Me: “Okay, fine!”
As parents of the man who married a Greek, we’ve become part of that same Greek family. While I’ll never abandon my proud Norwegian heritage, (you know, strong backs...weak minds) I’ve embraced the Greek culture as much as any outsider could. I love a lot of things about the Greeks. For starters, my favorite color has always been blue. I have a brother named Mike; I love gyros; I’ve danced to Greek music; I’ve been to many of the beautiful Greek islands and stayed in the city of Athens; I use Windex on everything; Finally, I periodically get the Mati, a result of the dreaded Evil Eye.
It’s not easy to explain the Mati, but I’ll give it a try. The Greeks, among other cultures, believe it’s possible for one person to put a curse of sorts on another person. It’s done with nothing more than a spiteful or bitter look. The person receiving it is usually unaware it’s happening. It’s a negative sort of energy like jealousy, anger or hostility. The Mati manifests itself differently in each person. For me, I get a dull headache in the right, front part of my head. Since I rarely get headaches, whenever I have one, it’s quite often the case that somebody has given me the Mati. There’s only one way to cure the Mati and that’s by having a Greek relative say a special, ancient prayer over a shot glass filled with water and a couple of drops of olive oil.
The first time my wife and I saw this, we were at our son’s mother-in-law’s house. Their three-year-old was acting up. Jorgi asked her mom to check her for Mati with the shot glass and olive oil. She said, “Gianna has the Mati.” She said the prayer and said, “I just broke it.” (When a person has the Mati, the olive oil will dissipate on top of the water. When the Mati has been broken, the oil will bead up and come back together again.)
Meanwhile, Jonathan looked at the both of us wide-eyed and mouthed the words, “Did you guys know about this stuff?” We both started laughing and nodded yes. And, also, immediately, the three-year-old stopped acting like a little twerp! Later that day, strangely enough, I had a headache. My daughter-in-law thought that maybe I had the Mati. She asked her mom to check me. I was in the other room when five minutes later I heard her mom yell, “Dan, you had the Mati! I just broke it. Do you feel better?”
My headache had disappeared instantly just before she called out from the other room. That’s all it took for me to get on board! Now, when anybody in the family feels funky, we just call one of our Greek relatives to break the spell of the Evil Eye. (If you ever travel to Greece, you will notice blue eyes everywhere. These are hung in homes and shops or worn by people to help ward off the Evil Eye.) By the way, I understand anybody who might be dubious about this whole scenario. Unless you've had experience with the Greek culture, it’s difficult to grasp.
What’s not difficult to grasp is that the Greeks make some of the best appetizers ever! Which is why I started writing this blog in the first place. So, let's get back on track.
My wife and I usually spend Thanksgiving with our Cali family, including any Greeks that happen to be lurking around. Our son’s mother-in-law, Thea, has also been a family friend for years. Her mom, Vasiliki (Bessie) Balafoutis Antonopoulos, a.k.a. Great Yia Yia, a.k.a Boppin’ Bess, is 97 years old and lives with her. Bessie’s parents emigrated to the U.S. in 1920. She remains the matriarch of the Antonopoulos (Anton) family. Like most Greek women, she’s a wonderful cook. Last week, before Thanksgiving, I asked if she’d be willing to teach me how to make two of her Greek specialties: tiropita (cheese pie) and spanakopita (spinach pie). She agreed and we made the date.
Thea purchased all the ingredients. Bessie had handwritten recipe cards waiting for me.
We got busy right away. We started with the tiropita, or cheese pie. The recipe is simple, but it takes a lot of time to make them. The cheese mixture (see recipe) is wrapped in Phyllo dough, a tissue paper-thin specialty dough, and then rolled into small triangles before baking.
Spanakopita is made in a similar fashion, except with a spinach/cheese mixture. Both snacks are baked at 350 for about 20 minutes. The result is a flaky, crispy culinary delight that can either be an appetizer or side dish for any meal, Greek or otherwise! We spent four hours making and baking before sampling a few of each delicacy. Mmmm-mmm! So good!
Michael Constantine played Gus Portokalos in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He was fond of reminding his kids and future son-in-law that any word could be shown to have Greek roots. “Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek.”
The family took Bessie to see the movie when it came out. Everybody in the theater was laughing at all funny Greek stereotypes: the painted house, slaughtering a lamb for a meal, old Yia Yia spitting at the Mati, the typical Greek names of the family members, kids living with their parents until they got married, spraying Windex on everything. At the end of the movie, Bessie, who hadn’t laughed once, said, “I don’t know what everybody thought was so funny. That’s exactly the way it is!”
Now that I’ve learned how to make a couple of Greek dishes, I hope to share the recipes with my kids and grandkids. Along with some Norwegian delights like lefse and krumkake, of course!
Gus Portokalos: “There are two kinds of people – Greeks, and everyone else who wish they was Greek!” My buddy Mike would agree. It all goes back to the Greeks! Or does it?