by Eleanor Marshall
When you ask someone from Ikaria, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea, what time it is, they usually respond with “late thirty”—which, Greek food guru Diane Kochilas explains, is meant to simply disregard the question. It is whatever time it is.
Kochilas even admits that she was two hours late for her own island wedding and still beat the priest. Although she grew up in New York City, she spent every summer in Greece and fell in love with the country. And after “fell in love with a person, and that’s what made me move.”
Even now that Kochilas is the consulting chef at three popular Greek restaurants in America, has written 18 books on Greek cuisine, and offers cooking classes in Ikaria and via her website, she obeys Ikaria time and her cooking is seasoned with the slowness and simplicity of the island. The recipes she selected for her Saybrook Master’s tea on April 1—parsley salad, roasted eggplant and split-pea dips, filo dough filled with olives and onion—were not flashy, and her guidance was gentle and unhurried as students chopped capers and folded filo triangles. But the results were unequivocally fresh: at once light and rich. This is an effect Kochilas attributes largely to the Greeks’ “unapologetic use of olive oil.”
Partially sponsored by the Yale Sustainable Food Project, Kochilas discussion focused on food as the roots of cultural sustainability, producing a people with such longevity and vigor they’re dubbed the people who forgot to die.
Ikaria, as Kochilas explains it, also forgot to age—keeping up the pre-war lifestyle of living in an absolute and concrete connection with a plot of earth without aspirations in material wealth. She explains that most families are rich in the gold of olive oil and honey, harvesting and processing enough to save and share, but not to sell, much less export. Most Ikarians make their own wine the old-fashioned way: by stomping on the grapes—feeding themselves largely from their own gardens and preserves, and keeping pigs to slaughter each winter. Foraging is still common, and Ikarians learned from their ancestors not to pull out the roots as they gather leaves and berries. They follow the goats to see what’s edible. Kochila’s father was known for eating boiled greens collected on the roadside on his way to the grocery store to buy cheese whiz and peanut butter for his kids, who now ask for his recipes.
For Kochilas, these vegerable-centric dishes are the centerpiece of Greek cooking, and are just making a resurgence as the economy pushes meat out of the daily price range. Traditionally, Greeks refrained from eating animal products for 200 days each year, spurring a diverse and delicious array of vegetable main courses.
These dishes are shared among all who visit—and on an island of less than 2,000, there aren’t many strangers.
“People assume they know you, or if they don’t, they’re going to know you,” said Abby Reisner ’14 after spending two weeks on a language program and a week with Kochilas in Ikaria. On her first night, the town’s baker got married and the entire town turned out to dance all night. Food was carried out on huge boards or served from large cauldrons.
Reisner said almost every weekend was filled with similar feasting and celebration.
When an audience member asked Kochilas how she finds the time to do things like grow vegetables or cook feasts, she answered that it is simply a matter of priority: if you like it and value it, “you make time.”
So make some time in your schedule, around late-thirty.
Eleanor Marshall is freshman in Silliman College. Contact her at email@example.com.