Food, Love and Memories

8 October 2021 | Written by Xenia Ayiotis

My daughter, had to give a speech for her final year mark. I was deeply moved when I heard it. Today, with her permission, I am sharing it with you because it shows so clearly that food isn’t just fuel. It is love. It’s connection. It’s memories. Sadly, it’s also fraught because of the guilt it brings up when connected to our body image.

“I will let you in on a little secret – to make the perfect gazpacho, you must peel the tomatoes first. Then add your peppers, your cucumber and some salt. Add enough garlic to kill a cold. That’s the taste of summer”. That is what my Yiayia (Granny) told me when I asked for the recipe of my favourite soup. I could never help but lick the bowl clean after a serving of her gazpacho. The smell of my Yiayia’s Mediterranean dishes waft through my memory. “Fae ligaki pio poli,” she would tell me, “eat just a little bit more”. It is in the nature of a Greek grandmother to only ever see her grandchild as underfed! In my relationship with my Yiayia, her dolmades, her stuffed tomatoes and her patates were all her signs of love.

One of my favourite Greek movies, A Touch of Spice, perfectly portrays the emotions that food evokes. This is shown in a scene where a young Greek boy living in Turkey, Fanis, is being taught about spices by his grandfather. His Pappou compares each spice to a planet in our solar system – cinnamon is venus while pepper is the sun and salt is our earth. That is how I too have grown to see food – as central to my being and existence.

It is no wonder, then, that during the Covid-19 pandemic, amongst all the chaos and turmoil of the world, all I wanted to do was shrink, return to the kitchen of my Yiayia with its breakfast nook whose roof was low enough to touch, and help her roll the rice and mince mixture into grapevine leaves to make her famous dolmades. On my trips to Greece and the Mediterranean, I show my love to my second country by tasting its freshly grown horta – wild spinach type greens – and licking my fingers, sticky with the honey from its loukoumades.

Linked to the warm memories of delicious dishes is the memory of being self-conscious of my body from a young age. This is not an unusual phenomenon for teenage girls. In fact, it has become a central aspect of our society – diets are a sort of coming of age ritual, followed by eating disorders. I remember so clearly the cartoons being sent around at the start of our Covid-19 pandemic – cartoons showing slim, toned figures as “before pandemic bodies” and larger bodies as “post pandemic bodies”. To me, it seemed so absurd that during a time when our main focus should have been to keep our minds and bodies healthy, so many people were focusing on keeping their bodies skinny.

How sad it is that this particular form of love, the love mixed in with dishes passed from generation to generation, is associated with so much guilt. I was recently asked by an older lady in my community how much I weigh. This woman knew so little about me. She did not know about my dreams and achievements. She did not know of the rich culture that nourished me – and yet she felt entitled to ask me a question to which even I didn’t know the answer. I was so dumbstruck that I couldn’t respond.

In that moment, I did not feel defensive. Instead, I wanted to make her understand. I wanted to take her hand and guide her into my past. I would, of course, first walk her into the house of my Yiayia. I would open the oven and allow her to smell the pastitsio (baked pasta), simmering and warm. I would then take her to my own home, and lead her into the garden where two bowls of gazpacho soup, freshly blended and chilled by my mother, would be placed on a table. Together we would place the taste of summer in our mouths – and she would hopefully understand.

I wanted to tell her that my body was a vessel for memories and culture. During this pandemic, our bodies have shifted – some have shrunk while some have grown. These changes are a side-effect of a need for comfort and safety. If someone ever asks me about my body and how much it weighs again, I will sit them down. I will tell them about my Yiayia. I will tell them of Greece. I will explain that cinnamon is venus, pepper is the sun and salt is our earth. And then I will let them in on a very important secret – if they want to make the best gazpacho, they have to peel the tomatoes first. Then add their peppers, their cucumber and some salt. They will have to add enough garlic to kill a cold. That’s the taste of summer.”

By Ariane Angelopulo

What is your most memorable food experience? I would love to hear from you.

Wishing you well,
Xen

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