Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Honey, Olives, Octopus

"Rita is the most cheerful person I've ever met," wrote Christopher Bakken in his memoir of life in Greece -- especially life in isolated villages on little-visited islands. His description of Rita is an example of what my culinary reading group found so charming about Bakken's book Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures at the Greek Table. He continues with more about Rita, a maker of a particularly valued cheese:
"When she laughs, she throws her whole body into it, scrunching her shoulders forward, clenching her fists, and nodding her unnaturally reddish curls up and down, all the while emitting a high-pitched whinny. She has a prodigious nose and thick arms strengthened by years of farmwork, and I have to suppress an urge to hug her (we've only just met). 
"She leads me into a foyer lined with shelves of homemade delicacies: salted caper berries, dried tomatoes, limoncello, raki, and spoon sweets made from quince, tangerines, and green walnuts. There's also a refrigerator full of cheese. Rita has eighty goats and a hundred sheep, which she milks in a pen adjacent to her kitchen." (p. 161)
Both the description of Rita's mannerisms and the description of her food are enjoyably vivid, we thought. A major strength of Honey, Olives, Octopus, indeed, is the vigorous portrayal of the people who live in rural Greece, motivated by the author's incredible love of the country, the local foods, and the people who produce them. Being an academic, as well as poet and translator of poetry, Bakken also connects his modern observations to historic memories of ancient Greece and its literature.

As we discussed our reactions to the book we came back often to the beauty of the writing, but we especially liked Bakken's admiration for the people who took such good care of their land and worked hard to create delicious flavors from their produce. Most of the individuals the author got to know worked at several types of jobs. One person might grow vegetables and grapes, make wine, catch fish in the nearby sea, and run a small restaurant where the fish, wine, and produce are served. Beyond work, though, the people valued their freedom to take time off for activities that they found satisfying, putting quite a few things ahead of just making a living.

Bakken is emphatic about the exceptional generosity and hospitality that these rural Greek people showed him. They were willing to allow him to come along fishing in a rickety boats; to help out with grape picking and wine-making; to learn how to catch, kill, and tenderize an octopus that would become a delicious menu item; or to come into their kitchens and find out how a favorite dish was prepared. Descriptions of such pursuits are a strong point of the book.

In my own reading of Honey, Olives, Octopus, I was somewhat bothered by a sort of disorganization or tendency to digress from the topic of each chapter. The other participants in the book discussion felt that these digressions were a valuable part of the author's self-expression, and enjoyed the messiness that reflected the varied lives of the people in the book. I concede this point. It's a very satisfying book to read.

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