Berks County Foodways: It’s All Greek to Me

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Growing up I was vaguely aware that some of my family’s cultural traditions were different from those of my friends and schoolmates. In general, it came down to church, food and language. As far as I knew, no one else in my grade school class attended three-hour church services every Sunday. And many of them, to my surprise, didn’t eat avgolemeno soup when they were sick, nor did they even know what it was. They also didn’t have a Yia Yia or a Popou, just Grandmas and Grandpas. (It wasn’t until later in life that I began to notice some of the other oddities of being raised in a Greek household, such as superstitious behaviors like spitting on brides at weddings or never going directly home after a funeral.) Despite my childish ignorance, there was one notably different, and glaringly alienating, cultural tradition that separated me from my childhood mates: Easter. This is largely because Greek Orthodox Easter rarely falls on the same date as what we call “American Easter.”

So why is it that while my friends were spending their spring breaks celebrating Easter, I was still fasting (painfully from chocolate, which meant NO EASTER CANDY!), and I often didn’t observe the holiday until weeks, or sometimes a month, later? Well, according to a quick Google search (don’t tell my mother), “many Orthodox churches base their Easter date on the Julian calendar, which often differs from the Gregorian calendar that is used by many western countries. Therefore, the Orthodox Easter period often occurs later than the Easter period that falls around the time of the March equinox.”

This year, the timing wasn’t too far off. I celebrated Easter with my family this past weekend, only one week after my coworkers. Although I have always had to endure the discomfort of feeling like an outsider while my friends were celebrating American Easter, it was always worth the wait. Most Greeks will tell you that Easter is the most important holiday in the Orthodox faith. For me, it’s obvious that this is true, not only because Holy Week is a marathon of church services that ends with an all-night celebration (sort of like Mardi gras for reserved church goers) but because Easter food is always the best!

Easter dinner is when we pull out all of the stops and truly indulge in our best Greek dishes. The menu often includes: dolmades, spanakopita, pastitsio or moussaka, fasolakia (green beans), lots of feta and olives, and of course, LAMB, followed by an abundance of pastries and desserts including galaktoboureko, finikia, koulourakia, and the like. To all of my fellow Greek Berks Countians you may have noticed that there is one traditional Easter dish absent from this list. Margiritsa is a traditional Easter soup that we feel is reserved for the most “old-school” Greeks, mostly because its contains lamb offal – yes, the heart, liver, lungs and other organs of the lamb.

Like all holiday meals, my family and I got together with our extended family for Easter this year, with each family contributing something to the meal.  This year, I made spanakopita, a Greek but inherently Berks County foodway, because my family has been cooking and enjoying this dish here in Berks County since my great-grandfather emigrated to Reading from Greece in the early 1900s. As I prepared this dish with my mother this weekend, I imagined my ancestors in Agia Paraskevi (on the island of Lesvos), chopping fresh spinach and somehow rolling out paper-thin sheets of homemade filo dough, but thankfully, this recipe has been adapted over the years to consider some modern conveniences.

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Ingredients:

1 large onion, chopped

1 pound butter

4 boxes of chopped spinach (drained)

8 eggs (scrambled)

16 oz. cottage cheese (large curds) – or ricotta cheese

1 lb. feta cheese (crumbled)

pepper

1/8 cup parsley

1 lb. filo dough

Spanakopita is a surprising simple dish that involves mixing together a filling of spinach and cheese that is then baked into buttery layers of filo dough. The recipe begins by sauteing onions in 4 tablespoons of butter until they are tender, but not brown. Meanwhile, the spinach must be thawed and drained. This is a particularly important step because too much water will make for a runny spanakopita. Be sure to press out as much of the water as possible.

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Then, after prepping the other ingredients for the filling (chop the parsley, crumble the feta, and whisk the eggs), mix all of the ingredients together in a large bowl.

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Next, prepare to assemble the dish with the filo dough. After buttering a 9×13 casserole dish, melt the rest of the butter in a saucepan. Begin to layer the filo dough in the bottom of the pan, brushing each layer with butter before adding another layer. Let the edges of the dough fall over the edges of pan. After about 8 layers, pour the filling into the dough and spread gently. Then repeat the layering process on top, covering the filling and buttering each layer before adding another. Cover the mixture with 6-8 layers until you can no longer see the spinach beneath. Fold and tuck the excess filo onto the top layer.

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Ideally, we should wait 5 minutes and then cut the spanakopita into pieces. Once the dish is cooked, the dough becomes very flaky. Cutting the dough before cooking helps to keep each piece in tact. Unfortunately, my mother and I both forgot this step! However, the dish was still tasty – just a bit messy. Before baking, use your fingers to sprinkle the top of the spanakopita with water. Bake at 350 degrees for about one hour, or until golden brown. Then, καλή όρεξη (enjoy your meal)!

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Growing up in Berks County I may not always have appreciated the uniqueness of my Greek heritage, especially when it came to the Easter holiday and feeling different from my friends and classmates. However, now as an adult, I truly welcome and celebrate my experience because I can see how it contributes to the beautiful, diverse and ever-changing cultural fabric here in Berks County. I may not have grown up eating pig stomach and clam pot pie but I do have cultural traditions and foodways that have persisted and flourished here in Berks County.

Written by BHC Communications Director, Alexis Campbell

This article was written as part of the Berks History Center’s 2018 Berks County Foodways Project. Click here to learn more about Berks County Foodways. 

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