GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: food as metaphor for our country’s financial difficulties.
NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman took a break from reporting on Greece’s serious problems to explore that idea.
PAUL SOLMAN: On our recent trip to Greece, we broke bread with a native New Yorker who’s lived in the old country for nearly 20 years.
DIANE KOCHILAS, food writer: Welcome to the Greek diet.
PAUL SOLMAN: Diane Kochilas writes cookbooks, reviews restaurants, runs a cooking school.
To begin, can I interest you in some ouzo?
DIANE KOCHILAS: Some ouzo, sure.
PAUL SOLMAN: And she has a foodie’s perspective on the recent economic history of her adopted land.
DIANE KOCHILAS: The toast that people were clinking glasses to over the holidays was (SPEAKING GREEK) — health and liquidity, or health and cash flow.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, to health and cash flow.
Kochilas first lived in Athens in the early ’80s, just after Greece joined the European Union. It was a time, she writes, of cheap neighborhood tavernas. But, by the time she returned for good in 1992…
DIANE KOCHILAS: The neighborhood taverna just wasn’t enough anymore.
PAUL SOLMAN: … traditional Greek cuisine was disappearing, replaced by:
DIANE KOCHILAS: Pacific Rim restaurants, Italian restaurants.
PAUL SOLMAN: Ah, globalization.
DIANE KOCHILAS: Globalization, and there was a lot of money coming into the country from the European Union.
PAUL SOLMAN: This is the new frontier in which to invest.
DIANE KOCHILAS: Right. At that time, these huge, cavernous restaurants were opening, you know, over-designed, with a lot of expensive food, without much substance.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, what’s an example?
DIANE KOCHILAS: So, I ordered a piece of fish. A filet of fish came on a plate, and the garnish then was not edible. It was a huge rock.
PAUL SOLMAN: Not a good omen, considering the rock-and-a-hard-place economy that is Greece’s today, partly a result of even further globalization, when Greece dropped its own not-so-stable currency, the drachma, for the dependable euro in 2001.
DIANE KOCHILAS: And kept borrowing in order to be part of this sort of social revolution.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, there were some good things happening, too. Greece hosted the 2004 Olympics, a time of national pride and a return to roots, on the playing field and in the kitchen, with neo-Greek cuisine.
DIANE KOCHILAS: Here’s an example of a dish like that. This is what we call in Greek loukoumades. That’s a very traditional dough fritter, usually served as a dessert with honey and nuts. This is actually a sweet and savory variety of that. It’s filled with cheese. It’s a take on tradition.
PAUL SOLMAN: The problem, says Kochilas, was that some chefs now took tradition to a new place entirely, a place of excess.
DIANE KOCHILAS: You had things like freeze- dried feta cheese, one of the worst things, if not the worst thing, I have ever tasted. You had Greek salad in the Jell-O cubes, Greek salad with feta cheese foam, Greek salad with kalamata olive foam.
PAUL SOLMAN: Foam? Kalamata olive foam?
DIANE KOCHILAS: Foam. Foam. Air. People were serving artichoke air, which was something even…
PAUL SOLMAN: Wait. Wait.
DIANE KOCHILAS: … something even lighter than foam.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, this is the period in which the rest of Europe and other parts of the world are now lending to Greece, because Greece is on the euro, and so — and interest rates are very low, so no reason not to borrow.
DIANE KOCHILAS: Right.
PAUL SOLMAN: And people were running up their credit cards.
DIANE KOCHILAS: Buying air.
PAUL SOLMAN: Buying artichoke air…
DIANE KOCHILAS: Hot air, buying hot air.
PAUL SOLMAN: … the essence of…
DIANE KOCHILAS: Right. And then everything that’s sort of puffed up, like artichoke air, deflated. And that’s what we’re living now.
PAUL SOLMAN: In retrospect, says Kochilas, Greece had forsaken its traditional cuisine and traditional values. And whatever had become bloated, from public spending to private borrowing, to haute Hellenic cooking, is now on a strict diet.
DIANE KOCHILAS: So, here’s a pretty typical Greek salad.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, tomato.
DIANE KOCHILAS: Tomato, feta cheese, your protein.
PAUL SOLMAN: Uh-huh.
DIANE KOCHILAS: A little bit of bread, your starch, green. You know, a lot’s going — olive oil, of course. It’s authentic. It’s nutritious. It’s humble. And it’s delicious.
PAUL SOLMAN: Are you suggesting that Greece might be actually better off going through this traumatic contraction?
DIANE KOCHILAS: I’m not an economist, and I’m not a proponent of shock therapy. And my heart certainly goes out to a lot of the — you know, the people who are going to lose their jobs.
But I do think that a return to basic values and to a sense of who the country — who we are as people can only be for the better in the long run.
PAUL SOLMAN: And with that, a final toast.
DIANE KOCHILAS: (SPEAKING GREEK) which means, when you’re going broke, it’s best to have a great time.
PAUL SOLMAN: I will drink to that.
PAUL SOLMAN: Diane Kochilas, thank you very much.
DIANE KOCHILAS: Thank you very much.