- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Christopher Bakken’s hybrid memoir, Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures At the Greek Table, which combines travel writing and food writing, closely inspects one of the last remaining European pastoral cultures under threat by the industrial food machine. An outsider to Greek culture, Bakken’s chapters “trac[e] the circuitous route of the goat path” in order to discover not only the inherent (and subversive) values embedded in the Greek culinary tradition, but also in the very pleasures of the Greek table, in which the author revels indulgently. Bakken’s cast of characters, who were instrumental in his education into Greek culture and Greek food ways, not only teach him about the traditions of the table, but also unveil the essence of life in Greece.
Though his chapters are not rhetorically driven, Bakken’s claim is that the history of Greece “is written in the elements of its cuisine: olives, bread, fish, and cheese. Meat, beans, wine, and honey.” And to this end, each of his chapters explores one particular foundational food. These chapters pack an immense amount of information, from the chemistry of wild bread yeast, to the caramelization of onions in an island chickpea dish called revithia (because who doesn’t love a chickpea!), to the viscosity of thyme honey. Interspersed between the main chapters are little recipe vignettes that are more narrative than how-to-guides offering glimpses into the ways traditional recipes reflect the agricultural values he sketches in each chapter.
In one moment, on the island of Thasos, Bakken finds himself “wiping the flavor of the island from [his] chin, savoring the combination of tsipouro anise, squid juice, charcoal, and olive oil that triggers on [his] tongue the idea of Thasos.” One of the ways that such food writing accesses the territory regularly navigated by ecological thinkers is through the concept of terroir. Usually considered a wine connoisseur term, in Bakken’s book it is used to embody the particular characteristic qualities of a place discerned through the food he eats. Bakken searches for the ways that a local environment comes alive in each bite of local cuisine, and in each elements of the Greek table. For Bakken, both history and ecology are components of terroir, and it seems that one cannot appreciate a Naxian cheese, or a pasta dish on the island of Chios, without a full consciousness of what went into that food item’s preparation and tradition.
In A Sand Country Almanac, Aldo Leopold says: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Bakken seems to subscribe to this idea in his book and he works to create a rich sense of place, thanks to his vivid explorations of landscape and local history. For Bakken, Greece’s layered history, with its ancient roots, offer lessons in the complicated interactions between the human and natural worlds; beyond the food, he uncovers layers of human history, cultural history, geographical history, and geological history. This layering, he implies, must be understood. Such local knowledge encourages sustainability, because to truly communicate the connection between the people and the natural world is the only way to protect the place, its culture, and the future. One example of such inscription is developed in the niche specialization of Maria Mavrianou and the pasta of Chios. When questioning Maria about the name of the makaronia he helps to shape, Bakken receives an explanation for why the four pastas made on Chios, are village specific: “the only one that actually bears the imprint of one’s hand…[is] ‘hand pasta.’” Another moment that speaks to the connection between place and people appears in the chapter on honey, where Bakken recounts a dinner of locally grown zucchini, potatoes, and bread in Kythira with some local farmers, Michalis and Katarina. He finds himself awed by the simple, subversive simplicity of “a meal consisting almost entirely of plants dressed in olive oil, with just a garnish of dairy protein and some bread” and invokes Michal Pollan’s ideas of culinary balance as a “key to human longevity, not to mention environmental sustainability.”
Aligning his memoir with the slow food movement and with sustainable approaches to food in Greece, Bakken’s message, though ultimately political, is subtle in its approach. It is a book that like any good meal allows the flavors to show themselves without needless commentary from the chef. The result is an experience that is bigger than food preparation or the individual dishes he describes. It is also clearly bigger than the author himself, not to mention the rather larger-than-life Greek characters he introduces to us. The book ultimately portrays eating in Greece as an intimate experience, one which emphasizes the connection between humans, animals, and plants. The singular pleasure of eating consciously, with an awareness of local terroir, offers a gently subversive counterpoint to the American food system.