Thanks to social networking, G.K. Chesterton’s remark that “poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese” has recently been given wide, if undeserved, circulation; anyone who consults the Poetry Foundation’s online poetry archive will find his claim not to be true. Hoping to disprove any larger point he may have been making, however, we asked several poets to mix memory and desire — for food — in the pieces that follow. Bon appetit!
We live in the concrete heart of Athens, divorced in many ways from the daedal earth of the Greek countryside and the rhythms of the seasons. But one thing I love about our working-class neighborhood is that, like all neighborhoods here, once a week (for us, Mondays), the farmers’ market sets up, and whatever is in season is trucked into town in the wee hours of the morning. One week, the pomegranates finally give out. Another, the first cherries appear. But even after a dozen years here, the thing that always strikes me is the bewildering number of kinds of greens on offer, and the dizzying catalog of their names.
Aside from the standard range of parsley, mint, dill, fennel, celery, arugula and coriander, lettuces and cabbage, you will run into a welter of seasonal leafy greens from almyrikia to zochos—myroni, vlita, radikia, seskoula, stamnangathia, glistridaI only know what a handful of them are in English. Glistrida, “the slippery,” for instance, is purslane; seskoula is chard. Some are supposed to have medicinal or other properties. (Glistrida evidently loosens the tongue.) Their flavors can be citrusy or mustardy or peppery, sweet or bitter, mild or sharp. I often buy something not quite sure what it is or what to do with it—though most are suitable for salads, or for savory pies with some crumbled feta, or simply boiled and dressed with lemon and olive oil.
Greeks spend a greater portion of their income on produce than any other European nationality. Television crews reporting on inflation and the crisis often focus on the farmers’ markets. The parsley index, I call it. Under the drachma, a bunch of parsley would run you a hundred drachmas. Now it is fifty Euro cents. That’s a seventy-five percent markup once you convert the currency.
If you drive out of Athens into the countryside on fine spring or autumn days, you’ll see (mostly) older women, bending with surprising nimbleness at their sturdy, matronly waists, harvesting wild greens into plastic supermarket sacks. While few of the thousands of wildflowers will be known as anything but louloudi (flower), every little edible green weed poking up out of the ground—covered generally with the word chorta, as in horticulture—will have its own name, often more than one, depending on the region. For something to have its own name, it needs to be useful. And the bounty of the Greek countryside has often been all that has stood between people and starvation. During the famine of 1941–1942 under the German occupation, when some three hundred thousand people died of starvation in the greater Athens area alone, what kept many people alive was a knowledge of wild bulbs and greens, of knowing that even the ubiquitous and humble nettle is nutritious, and tasty, when properly prepared. Nowadays, upscale neo-traditional tavernas often boast of unusual wild greens alongside their cultivated cousins. One memorable meal we had in the village of Lefkes on the island of Paros featured, alongside fried snails and garlic dip (skordalia), a mess of wild asparagus just harvested from the mountain.
It’s true that you will never catch a Homeric hero eating his greens. In Homer, the aristocratic warrior class is always depicted, when eating, feasting on meat and wine, perhaps with some bread to sop up the juice. Maybe that’s why heroes always seem to be described as a head taller than everyone else—all that protein. But there is, in the Odyssey, in the description of the city of the Phaeacians, a Golden Age paradise where pomegranates and grapes ripen year round, an intriguing mention of tidy garden beds. I like Robert Fagles’s take on it: “And there by the last rows are beds of greens, / bordered and plotted, greens of every kind, / glistening fresh, year in, year out.”
It is the roots of things that fascinate me—their bulbs, their rhizomes, etymologies. Browsing a glossary of Linear B (the pre-alphabetic system of writing used by Mycenaean Greeks), I got a taste of Bronze Age life. Linear B was a serviceable but not terribly elegant writing system, useful for lists, for the inventories of goods and services vital to the everyday workings of a Mycenaean palace—wool and textile workers, slaves and beasts of burden, swords and distaffs, harnesses and wagon wheels, livestock. But there among the hardware of war and the tackle of trades were the flavors of daily fare and feasts, the containers of wine and oil and flour. Here I find ko-ri-ja-da-na (coriander), mi-ta (mint), pa-ko-we (sage), se-ri-no (celery), ma-ra-tu-wo (fennel)—words nearly identical to the modern Greek three millennia later. How fresh and fragrant these ancient syllables are, as if someone just harvested them this Monday morning and put them on a truck bound for the farmers’ market in Neos Kosmos, with the Cretan, Attic, and Laconic dirt still clinging to their roots. I go out with my shopping basket, to make my own anthology.