The instructors at the Middletown School of Mediterranean Cookery are
parishioners of SS. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church. The real
sources of wisdom, though, are the yia-yias.
Yia-yia (pronounced yah-yah) is Greek for grandmother.
As the parishioners demonstrate recipes and techniques, show how Greek
cooking can be part of a healthy diet and busy lifestyle and create a
Greek feast for their students, the grandmothers are there.
“My yia-yia made her own phyllo dough,” says Evan Carras, showing his
version of spanakopita at the recent fifth session of the school. “I use
“My yia-yia didn’t read or write, so she didn’t use recipes,” says Cynthia
Hollister as she demonstrates melomakarona, an orange-scented shortbread.
“Her recipe doesn’t use eggs, because she was from a very poor part of
Greece. Her family actually sold her as a young woman.”
“My mother and my yia-yia used to always make this for Thanksgiving,” says
Christina Papakirk, showing a stuffing with chestnuts and ground meat
“I made it for the first time this year.”
Spyro Sinis-Terezis, the parishioner who got the cooking school off the
ground, promised that at the next session she would have her mother-in-law
from Greece demonstrate some yia-yia techniques, including making homemade
Sinis-Terezis, of West Chester Township, got the idea for the cooking
school from a church in South Bend, Ind.
“It’s to raise money for the church, but people do love Greek food, so the
community really appreciates it.”
At the last session, attendees were mostly Middletown neighbors, or
friends of parishioners. The church basement was transformed into a
cooking school and dining room, with a makeshift kitchen up front and a
Tables decorated in the Greek colors of blue and white were set with
plates of feta cheese, Greek olives and bread. The teachers made enough
food to serve all the students, making the learning session also an
Tom Retzios made a dish called yarithes me feta, or shrimp with feta.
“My goal is to never take more than 15 minutes to cook anything,” he says
as he makes the simple oven-baked rice dish, which involved a little
jarred marinara sauce and shrimp. It was made unmistakably Greek with a
sprinkling of feta cheese on the top.
Sinis-Terezis is an advocate of the Mediterranean food pyramid, in which
meat is eaten infrequently, though she demonstrated a simple lamb stew
“Meat is for celebrations,” she says. “When my in-laws visit and cook
meat, they only serve it if the whole family is there to enjoy it.”
For Lisa Christakis, the church’s Presvytera, or priest’s wife, Greek
cooking is more than a cultural tradition; it has religious significance.
The Greek Orthodox tradition, she says, is built on hospitality and love.
For the cooking class, Christakis made an okra stew, sweet with tomatoes
and olive oil.
Vegetarian dishes are common in Greek cooking, not only because meat
traditionally was scarce, but the Orthodox faithful keep a vegan fast on
Wednesday and Friday all year and during Lent (Orthodox Lent begins March
14 this year).
“It’s not just about giving up or sacrificing,” says Christakis, “It’s
about making your body lighter for prayer, making room for God.”
The health benefits of the Greek diet – a plant-based diet with olive oil,
a light use of meat, a healthy dose of wine and lots of vegetables – are
undeniable, and that’s one reason that Greek cooking stays so relevant in
the lives of Greek Americans.
That, and the memories of yia-yias the food evokes.
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