Big Tiny knows Greek cooking

by Brian Clarey

Big Tiny doesn’t make it up from New Orleans often – he gets uncomfortable outside the city limits, places where his very lifestyle could land him in jail. But every couple of years he makes the trek up to the little house in Durham where his mother, his sister and his nephew and niece stay. And when he’s here, I must visit. He was my partner behind the bar for nearly three years, and has remained a true and steady friend ever since. His family is our family – this clan of copious, jewel-eyed Greeks – and when we get together it has the familiar ring of my own family gatherings; we share a Mediterranean heritage, a love of storytelling and a penchant for the food of our people. It was Big Tiny who introduced me to the nuances of Greek cuisine. Before we left New Orleans, he cooked for my wife and me a meal of avgolemono, a lemon and egg soup, and the greatest grape leaves I’ve ever eaten. One year for Christmas he made us baklava. He’s shown me the versatility of feta, the wonders of homemade tzatziki sauce and why paper-thin phyllo dough is worth all the trouble in the kitchen. And for tonight’s meal Big Tiny’s been in the kitchen all day, swapping space with his mother while his sisters, brother-in-law, nieces, nephews and teenage son fill the house with sound. They’re making pastichio, kind of a Greek lasagne with layers of pasta and seasoned ground beef. But the similarities are only structural. The beef is seasoned with diced onions, yes, but also nutmeg, cinnamon and a bit of sugar. The top layer of tube pasta is held together with a bchamel sauce that firms up like a souffl while baking and browns evenly under the heat. It makes its way to the dinner table cut into generous squares, served with an abundant Greek salad redolent of feta, fine vinegar and tomatoes, and pita tips intended to be slathered with cool tzatziki. And there is a stewpot of briam, simmering with eggplant, zucchini, squash and potatoes that I swear has got some cumin in it somewhere. Big Tiny is kind of proprietary about his recipes. But he’s generous with his gift. Greek food is the product of an ancient civilization, with certain dishes, ingredients and techniques going back to the real old days. It’s a culinary bridge between the Far East and the Far West, marrying flavors from both traditions underneath the altar of its own formidable food history. Expect olives and garlic, yes, but also mint, basil, lemon, marjoram, allspice, cloves and coriander mixed in complement. And there will be feta cheese at Big Tiny’s mother’s house. The family eats. And when we lean back in our chairs, the talk turns, of course, to food – the dishes our mothers and grandmothers made, the things we ate for special occasions, the similarities and differences between Greek and Italian cuisine. Garlic, for one, figures heavily in both traditions, and we have a discussion about garlic breath. Parsley helps, we all agree, fighting the sulfurous fumes with chlorophyll. And a little red wine never hurts. “My aunts used to make skordalia,” says Mother Tiny, long after our children have abandoned the kids’ table. Skordalia is a musky dip made from crushed garlic and bulky starch like potatoes. “Anyway,” she says, “they used to eat a lot of it. And for the breath, they would take a spoonful of sugar and put it in their mouths.” Here she laughs. “And it was like superstition,” she says, “but they would kiss the wall, put their mouths on the wall and kiss it.” Every family has its bizarre traditions.

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