My parents moved from their native Greece to the American Dakotas in 1974, but never got used to the big, stick-to-your-ribs Lutheran dinners in the Midwest. Back in the Mediterranean, evening meals were a collection of small, flavorful dishes called meze, spiced with tiny sips of ouzo or the homemade firewater called tsikoudia, courtesy of my mother's Cretan family. And the food was always shared with friends or relatives who would stay to talk late into the night.
The main ingredient was always storytelling, my father's specialty. "You know, my main meze was figs until I was 25," he would tell his posse, who had developed creative ways of enjoying even the simplest foods during their austere childhoods in post-World War II Greece.
In summer, the evening meze crowd would gather on the tiny balcony in our tiny house in suburban Athens, savoring cheese and spinach phyllo triangles, minty and garlicky yogurt dips, crispy oregano-dusted fried potatoes, the spicy little meatballs called keftedes, grilled octopus, marinated anchovies and, of course, lots of fresh tomatoes, olives and pita bread. My earliest memories include those deeply comforting scents of meze and the openhearted laughter of people bonded to cuisine, culture and each other.
The meze nights got a lot quieter when we moved to the Dakotas, but they didn't die. Sometimes it was just the four of us — my parents, sister and I sharing keftedes and a giant tomato, feta and mint salad — but sometimes my parents' friends would join us and add their own flavors. A Lebanese family inspired my mother's love for spiced lentils and labneh, while the Scandinavian-descended western North Dakota natives tried to slip some lutefisk onto the spread. (The gelatinous fish dish didn't take, though my father developed a deep love for their potato salads.)
As I grew up and moved around as a journalist, I grounded myself in each new locale by hosting meze nights for new friends. Sometimes, the gatherings were impromptu and meant getting creative with ingredients in my fridge: pan-fried olives in garlic, a quick tzatziki, an eggplant omelet, a watermelon and feta salad. When I had more time, I liked to experiment and use fresh produce from the local farmers market: fried banana peppers with whipped feta and orzo pasta salads with fresh tomatoes in Raleigh, N.C.; chard fritters, mushroom phyllo triangles, beet salads and spicy carrot-mint yogurt dip in organic produce-loving Boulder, Colo. For me, nothing breaks the proverbial new-girl-in-town ice better than sharing a homemade meze spread.
I've gotten to know a lot of people this way. So did my father, who died 20 years ago but whom I still think about when my meze nights get into serious storytelling.
I was just 4 when we left Greece and didn't learn the narrative behind his popular fig story until I was a teenager in North Dakota. My dad grew up in a village in the western Peloponnese, orphaned and impoverished as a child. In August and September, when the fig trees were heavy with ripe fruit, my father would harvest as many as he could. He shared his figs as an evening meze with his grandmother, who would sometimes lightly grill them with a little olive oil over an open fire. He became so attached to this fig ritual that even after his grandmother died and he moved with his brothers to the port city of Piraeus, he prepared figs as the ultimate cheap meze comfort food: grilled figs with feta or goat cheese, dried figs pan-fried with oregano, fresh figs tossed with greens.
North Dakota had no figs, so he recalled the story while dressing sliced tomatoes from his garden with olive oil, wine vinegar and feta crumbles. I cut up my mother's fresh-baked crusty bread and joined him in the backyard.
"You might get fancy with your meze when you grow up," he said. "But the point is, you really only need something simple, like my figs or these tomatoes, if that's all you have. Be fancy or not, but always have the heart to share."
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