By Yvette Manessis Corporon
I was 29 years old the first time I tried mac and cheese.
It happened in the cafeteria at CBS News headquarters in New York where I was a producer in the local newsroom. The salad bar was typically more my speed, but that day, as I gave a passing glanced at the breadcrumb crusted lunch special, I mentioned to a colleague that I had never tried the all American staple. She nearly dropped her tray. And you call yourself American? She shook her head and waved a forkful of the orange hued elbows towards me.
Yes, I am proudly American, and who, despite my colleague’s disbelief, was raised neither under a rock nor in a cave, but in the New York City suburbs. It was however a Greek immigrant suburban home, dominated by very Greek values on life, culture, heritage, morality and of course, food. Did I mention that I’m Greek?
Ours was not a home where you would find boxed mac and cheese or boxed anything for that matter. In my mother’s kitchen we feasted on her meticulously made Pastichio. Much like its American cousin, mac and cheese, Pastichio is considered the ultimate in Greek comfort food. It’s a trifecta of flavors; buttery noodles topped with savory tomato meat sauce infused with cinnamon topped by a crowning layer of cloudlike béchamel cheese sauce hidden beneath a crispy brown crust of baked cheesy goodness.
You can’t get that in a box.
Growing up in that My Big Fat Greek Wedding kind of way, my mother couldn’t pronounce fluffernutter, let alone make one, a bowl of soup never required a can opener and I was never treated to rice crispy treats. In our home we made baklava, buttering and layering each delicate sheet of filo one by one and getting down on our knees to smash the hand cracked walnuts in a dishtowel against the floor with our hands , the way my mother’s mother, and her mother had done back in their mountain top Greek village home.
As a kid, I never had any interest in these dishes, making them, learning about them and for the most part even eating them. But even so, I was made to sit and watch, and despite my protests, occasionally to help. I wanted to be anywhere but in that kitchen. I wanted my food to be as crust-less wonder bread white and homogenized as I so desperately wanted to be as I clipped a clothes pin to my nose night after willing it to transform to the enviable all American button nose of my best friend. But living under my parent’s roof that was impossibility, because after all – we, my nose, and our food, were Greek.
I was 21 when I first began to cook for myself.
I was saving money for a trip to Paris with my best girlfriends and cooking, instead of ordering take out seemed the perfect way to fund the trip. As I shopped for groceries and prepared my meals, I surprisingly gravitated not to the boxes and cans that I had coveted in my youth, but to the fresh ingredients and flavors that my own mother had favored.
When I wanted soup, I bypassed the Campbell’s and instead bought a fresh chicken which simmered for hours with onions, carrots, and celery and bay leaves, like my mother had done.
When I wanted roasted chicken, I bypassed the rotisserie birds. Instead I marinated and broiled the meat in oil, lemon, fresh garlic, salt and fragrant oregano, which I had picked and shredded myself at my grandmother’s home when I visited each summer, like my mother had done.
As much as I had tried to escape my mother’s kitchen, claiming I could care less about her cooking lessons, a culinary osmosis had been taking place all along.
I saved $500 that month, enough for a week’s worth of wine and baguettes in Paris. But I also saved something else that as I cooked every meal in that tiny kitchen of my first apartment; my cultural identity.
I finally realized then what my mother had done with her insistence of the ingredients, foods and recipes of her own childhood. Those flavors, those smells, dishes and yes, even technique (just try telling your friends to smash walnuts on the floor when a perfectly good Cuisinart sits on the counter) transported her, and eventually me, back to that beautiful mountain village and to her own mother’s kitchen. These foods and flavors were not meant to separate me from my American life, they were a simply conduit to my Greek life. They were a reminder of the selfless women, like my grandmother, who had encouraged my mother to leave their tiny village and seek a better life in America so that I, as an “Amerikanida” could have opportunities she could never even dream of. These meals were a reminder of the women, like my grandmother, who has no material possessions to speak of, but poured everything they had, every dream, every prayer, every ounce of love, into cooking for the ones they loved – no matter how meager the pantry.
Today, I’m 45 years old. I am my mother’s daughter.
At the first sniffle or cough from my children, I’ll make a steaming pot of soup from scratch. I season pretty much everything with the large jar of oregano that my children shredded one summer afternoon under the watchful eye of my grandmother right after she taught them how to smash walnuts on the floor of her Greek village home.
My own daughter, Christiana, is now 12. Her favorite food is mac and cheese, which she is constantly asking me to make. Sometimes I give in, usually I don’t. I prefer Pastichio.
Yvette Manessis Corporon is a producer for EXTRA TV. She is the author of the novel “When the Cypress Whispers” (Harper/HarperCollins Publishers)
When the Cypress Whispers is the story of a young woman named Daphne and the deep and magical bond she shares with her Greek grandmother, her Yia-yia. It’s based on Yvette’s family and takes place on the magical Greek island that they still call home. She grew up listening to her own Yia-yia’s stories of life on the island and how as a young mother she befriended a Jewish Girl named Rosa whose family was hiding from the Nazis. Despite the risk to themselves and their families, not one person on their island gave up the secret of Rosa’s family – and they were saved. Even though the Nazis had said that anyone found hiding Jews would be killed, along with their entire families, night after night her grandmother would throw open the doors to our home to welcome Rosa inside. It is their stories which resonate in Yvette’s heart and on the pages of this book. You can purchase your own copy of the book from Amazon here and click here to watch the trailer.
By Yvette Manessis Corporon