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Grandma Secrets : Greek Philosophy in the Kitchen

January 13, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

Sitting down to a meal cooked by Evriklia Kapantzos, who learned all the old Greek dishes from her mother, who in turn learned them from her mother, one taps into something powerful and ageless: generations of women, talking, cooking, tasting, spending all day in the kitchen. At Kapantzos' table, the olive oil flows as freely as water, the olives are gloriously salty, the lamb is always well done, and the women are very much alive.

Sadly, Kapantzos seems something of an anachronism. Much of the household knowledge once transmitted from mother to daughter is no longer passed on--and, we might argue, that's not necessarily bad. Now women can be lawyers, secretaries or artists and can be too busy to cook, let alone instruct their children on recipes and cooking tips. Even full-time homemakers may find that the recipes their mothers did give them aren't practical or even healthful by today's standards. Old skills and techniques--kneading bread, making pie crust, whipping up a frothy egg-lemon sauce--have been obviated by contemporary gadgetry or can be learned from cookbooks. But nothing can replace the one-on-one apprenticeship that comes from cooking and eating daily with a gifted cook, ideally a grandmother, someone for whom the old ways come naturally.

I'm tempted to say that Kapantzos spends all day in the kitchen, the way an artist spends all day in the studio, but this analogy might say more about me than it does about this Greek grandmother. Homemaking in general and cooking in particular is her principal mode of creative expression, her passion, the thing she does to give her daily life shape and focus. But the truth is also this: Kapantzos spends time in the kitchen the way most women have for centuries, with or without much choice in the matter.

When Kapantzos left Athens to visit her son and daughter-in-law in Redondo Beach for two months, she packed a supply of aprons. Every morning of her visit, after she showered and put on her clothes, she tied an apron snugly around her waist. She does not consider herself fully dressed without one.

Kapantzos is small, sure and quick, with light-filled eyes and a ready smile. When she likes someone, she takes them by the hand firmly, with resolute affection. You can tell by her touch that this is a woman sure in her movements, capable, no-nonsense. Hers are hands that know how to coax, nudge and tug flavor from food.

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Born in Thessaly, Kapantzos moved with her family to Athens as a young girl. Growing up, she says, she had meat only once a week. The rest of the time, the family ate soups, vegetables, pastas and potato dishes. Kapantzos' mother, a knowledgeable and wonderful cook, brought Evriklia into the kitchen when she was 15 and taught her how to cook. Her mother's teaching method was simple: Evriklia would watch her prepare a dish; the next time, Evriklia would have to make the dish herself. In this manner, she learned all the old dishes that had been passed down through the generations. She has never used a cookbook or had any formal training. To this day, when Kapantzos finds a dish she likes, she thinks, first, how to make it and, next, how to improve it.

Kapantzos considers having a knack for cooking and really loving it hereditary traits. Her mother and grandmother were both famous for their cooking. Still, the gene doesn't hit everyone in the same family. You can't teach someone to cook who has not inherited the talent, Kapantzos says.

She knows: She's tried for decades to instruct her younger sister. She's had much better luck with her son, Cosmas, who's a restaurateur in Hollywood.

When her visit in Southern California was over, Kapantzos left behind the memory of countless dinner-time feasts. She also left dozens of jars full of bright preserves: quince with lemon-scented geranium, candied eggplant, tomatoes stuffed with almonds, golden grapes, lemon peels coiled and radiant.

Kapantzos takes it as a personal, creative challenge to please everyone who's coming to dinner. And at home in Greece, somebody's always coming to dinner.

"I don't remember a day when there wasn't a visitor for dinner," Cosmas says. "People just drop by. There were always the four of us--my mother and father, my sister and I--and then four or five other people."

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At home in Athens, Kapantzos cooks for her daughter and her son-in-law and her grandchildren as well as the eternal drop-ins. Catering to the tastes of all at her table, Kapantzos often makes two or more main dishes at a meal.

Patience and a kind of nervy confidence characterize Kapantzos' manner in the kitchen. What she knows, she knows viscerally, through doing, not reading. Her cooking is full of small tricks.

"Make a fresh tomato sauce," she says to me in Greek as Cosmas interprets.

"Wait a second. Stop, hold on," I say. "How do you make a fresh tomato sauce?"

The answer is simple and unusual: "Grate six or seven tomatoes. . . ."

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