Mari Katherine Raftopoulos: Traditions trump recipes
December 28, 2010
We all huddled around the island counter chopping onions, (three bundles per pan, to be exact), slicing spinach (four big handfuls per pan, to be exact), and crumbling up feta (half of a container, to be exact) in order to make Spanikopita for the infamous Greek New Year's Party.
We started with the plan of making three pans in a couple of hours. Well, three pans turned into five, plus some pita rolls.
A couple of hours escalated into an entire afternoon, some holiday drinks, and classic country music 2-steps and sing-a-longs.
Were any of us surprised?
Absolutely not. In fact, I blocked out my entire day anticipating this kind of afternoon.
This was the type of afternoon my mom would always tell me about as a little girl. The one when the ladies got together, shared their secret ingredients (while leaving some out), talked about the men in their life (and the ones who were out for awhile), cried because as the years passed someone was always dearly missed, and rolled up their sleeves to dig into their traditions and culture in a pan of Spanikopita.
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These are the moments, these are the times, when I wish I could call to my mom from the living room and say, "Hey, Mom, are you ready yet? They just called and said we need more green onions, so we have to run to the store. Don't worry about your hair, you always look beautiful, and besides, it's just us."
Her absence hits me in the transition, and it hits me in the journey to my next destination.
It's like a long drive on an open highway.
Most times, I feel like I'm in cruise control, cruising through the holidays, cruising through the daily chores and the tasks of life and work, cruising through all the hard times making sure I accomplish everything without breaking down.
And just when I brake to take a breath, it hits me and oftentimes I don't want to put my life back in drive. I look in my rearview mirror at the distance I've come on this road, without her physically in the passenger seat, and I miss my backseat driver, my co-pilot and my radio DJ.
I miss her on my journey.
Amongst the aroma of green onions and feta in the car yesterday on my drive out to our Spanikopita-making party at the Charchalis' house, a drive that my mom and I did a couple times a day over the holidays, her void was most present.
Wiping the tears from my eyes as I walked into the warmth of my second home, it seemed as though everyone else felt this void, too.
Their eyes were a little swollen and watery and without saying it there was a mutual understanding that no recipe or measurement would suffice for the touch of my mother.
But, we would remember and tell stories to keep her present, to keep her still a part of the Pita-making crew.
In between layers of Phyllo and spinach, one of us would chime in with their secret trick, their recommendations and their great Yia Yia's recipe.
"Butter, butter, butter," she said after I had already used a stick.
"Well, you know what they say about butter — 'When in doubt, add another stick,'" another one would say.
Just when I was about to leave and head home, the smell of the fresh pita lingering from the oven, the laughter over the "Who will get married in 2011" family game, and discussing where we would be in five years kept me there an hour longer. Because being there with my mom's best friends an hour longer for me was like another hour of being with my mom.
I probably forgot to add an ingredient, should have put more olive oil in the spinach, but I certainly didn't forget the butter, or the feeling of this special moment.
I always wondered why Greeks choose to forgo the measurements and recipes and just cook by feeling.
If you feel like adding more salt, go ahead.
If you feel like using leaks instead of onions, why not?
If you would rather tell stories instead of layer the Phyllo, go ahead.
Because in the end, it's really not about the Spanikopita, it's about the traditions.