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Olives and Omens: Did Greek Cuisine Portend Economic Problems?

August 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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In Greece, where a popular toast is drinking "to health and cash flow," one food writer sees parallels in between the country's crushing economic problems and its departure from its simple, humble culinary roots. Paul Solman reports.
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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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: I will drink to that.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: Diane Kochilas, thank you very much.

DIANE KOCHILAS: Thank you very much.