Living for a month in the shadow of the Acropolis, in Athens, in Plaka, with its cobbled streets, tiny shops and tavernas, we knew we were being monitored.
It was early 1972, a few years after the Papadopoulos military coup when the Junta ruled, so anyone with an American accent and a beard was instantly suspect as hippie-communist. We feared for Ted’s Greek relatives and other locals who associated with us, as they might be under watch just because of our suspicious behavior. Our suspicious behavior was spending time with two monitored notables who were not locals: Anita and Sinclair.
Anita’s husband was jailed in Turkey, accused of possessing hashish, so Anita set up vigilance at the Acropolis House, dealing with Greek and American lawyers for months, maybe years. (The book and movie, Midnight Express, was based on a similar internment.) We had no idea about the clientele at the Acropolis House until we stayed awhile and found some of the longer-term residents fascinating .
We were young, naïve, hoping for a little adventure with no intention of a timeline—just married a few months before, now on this extended journey one might call a honeymoon, except we did not know if we were ever going back from where we came, nor did we know where this odyssey would end. We knew at some point we would head for Crete where Ted's Yiayia and Papou were born. (It was the era of root tracing and though we did not know it, close to our alma mater Alex Haley was actually writing Roots.) Our master plan was to use all savings accrued from working double and triple shifts at our last job in the borscht belt of the Catskills, as well as cash from our recent wedding.
We were looking for an inexpensive place to board a bit, to explore Athens, so for a few dollars a night, the Acropolis House—well, it suited us. At least we were able to sleep together, unlike many youth hostiles we stumbled upon subsequent to our landing in London.
Sinclair, part of the Beat Generation, was a South African poet we befriended via our adjacent room and with whom we would usually discuss literature, politics, or poetry as well as skip out for a nighttime peripato which usually landed us in a taverna sloshing local, bulk retsina, chomping on house mezes of dolmades (stuffed grape leaves)—not to forget the slow, studied ritual of coating bread with thick, green olive-oil.
One evening across the room in a favorite boite, huddled around a table filled with smoke, food, and drink, sat some Greek teenagers, heads down, singing almost in a whisper the chorus of Light My Fire, “…trying to set the night on fire. Trying to set the night on F I R E !”
The Greek Junta, now the ruling power, occurred in April of 1967, the same year The Doors released Light My Fire a few months prior. These teen boys were trying not to attract attention, hence the hushed tone, a near constant murmur of refrain—not displeasing to the three of us.
We ordered lamb and goat kebobs, and when the waiter arrived with two separate skewers he also set down a plate with several fire-roasted vegetable kabobs, each unique vegetable singularly pierced on its own skewer. We curiously looked up at him as they were unlike our usual kabobs where meat and vegetables were combined onto a single, small spit.
He nodded and said, “Nai, They no cook same—kremmýdi, onions burn, meat no ready, melitzána soft, peperies stiff. This way—perfect. No λαχανικά—how you say?
“Vegetable, we say in unison.”
Yes, no lachaniká, vegetables you no like.”
“Make over open fire.”
We nod, smiling. Made sense to us: different vegetables as well as meats cook at different rates, so to insure an even doneness each is grilled separately—and there's no waste by not leaving vegetables you abhor.
We look toward Sinclair as he revels in Priapos. "...the ancient Greek god of vegetables," he says, "born from the union of Dionysos and Aphrodite...."
He describes his own wife, Marta, and her "...khaki nunnery..." referencing one of his poems, and of course, the extended pecker of Priapos as well as his own.
More will be posted on the antics of our beat-poet friend, Sinclair Beiles, in an upcoming blog. For now you can gorge on delicious dolmadakia, learned from Yiayia who taught Linda how to make these fresh, stuffed grape-leaves which are way better than the over-cooked canned versions. Highly religious and antagonistic to anyone not of Greek heritage, Yiayia took kindly to Linda which made for their good relationship in the kitchen. Yiayia’s dolmadakia were the best ever and she shared her secret, not with Ted’s mother but with Linda. Perfect as a made-ahead meze (hors d’oeuvre) or salad garnish.
We know Sinclair would have loved this recipe.
MUSIC TO COOK BY
1 c. rice
12-14 oz. grape leaves*
1 c. olive oil
1 lb. onions, finely chopped
1 tbs. fresh dill, chopped
1 tbs. fresh parsley, chopped
1 tbs. fresh mint, chopped
1-2 lemons, juiced
1 c. tomatoes, seeded and peeled (if canned, use juice as well)
1 tbs. pine nuts
1 tbs. currants
½ lb. uncooked ground meat (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
Pre-soak rice in salted water for about a couple of hours. Drain.
Meanwhile immerse the fresh grape leaves in boiling water for 5-10 minutes. Remove and drain. (If you use canned leaves, rinse them several times to remove salt. Drain.) Line a pot with the larger pre-cooked grape leaves.
Add half of the olive oil to remaining ingredients combined in a bowl.
With the smooth and shiny side of each of the smaller grape leaves face down, cut off and discard the stem; then place about a teaspoon of the mixture in the center of the widest part.
Loosely fold over the edges and roll to make a small bundle with no openings. Do not overstuff as the rice will swell and break through the leaf or break open the edges.
Layer and tightly packed the bundles side by side in a deep pan or skillet with the seam side down. Pour the remaining olive oil over the stacked bundles. Place a plate on top for weight to keep them from moving. Add enough hot water to extend beyond covering the plate. Add some more salt and pepper. Cover the pan with a lid and simmer over a low heat until the rice is cooked as you like.
*If you have access to a vineyard growing organic or bio-dynamic grapes, use their fresh grape leaves. (Think summer when viticulturists are opening up their vine canopies and snipping off leaves, and select the young and tender ones before they head off to the compost pile.)
If you can’t find grape leaves, this recipe will work for stuffing vegetables such as zucchini, peppers, or tomatoes. If tomatoes are used, omit tomatoes in the recipe.