Un-Conventional Traditions

How food, culture and traditions carry us into un-conventional interpretations.  

Traditions are what bring us and keep us together. They shape who we are and how we view the world. We adopt them without question and often times without fully understanding what they might mean to us. Traditions are more often than not bound to history, cultural connections and familial ritual. How do we appropriate traditions to our modern life? Do we mold them to our non traditional lives and reconnect with them in new ways or do we embrace their old world wisdom and try to re discover them for ourselves?

Long ago when trying to discover my own personal identity as a Greek-American, I had a plethora of traditions to draw from. Most were passed down to me from my Greek grandmother Eleni and my great grand mother Angela, and another from my American grandmother Pauline and her English, German family. Mixing Sauerkraut with Dolma and Eggplant Salad with traditional home made macaroni and cheese was quite the site in my Greek upbringing. Believing in the evil eye and cleansing your energy which is deeply ingrained in Ancient Classical Greek pagan traditions, with the idea of faith in a higher power and spiritual traditions connected to working hard and getting ahead by your own bootstraps was like playing a tug of spiritual/ belief war. I wanted to understand all of these traditions for myself and embrace them on my own terms

How do we transform traditions and make them our own.

For the first time in my dual Greek/American life while living and cooking in both countries for many years, I made a traditional new year’s day cake/pie called Vasilopita (Βασιλόπιτα). In Greece, cutting the Vasilopita marks a traditional start to the new year. Some households choose to make one, either from an old family recipe, or from the many variations that you can find online. Based on any given region of Greece you might find yourself in; the recipe differs greatly but the general idea is a cake that’s sweet, tender, dunk-able in coffee, and always must have a lucky coin. Each version of this “pie” is carefully embellished, to show the uniqueness and the personal touch of each household. In recent years, and throughout my childhood and adulthood, it’s become more prevalent to order them from one of Athens’ more famous bakeries and avoid the hassle and many hours of preparation. This year I got over my trepidation of making a cake from scratch and consulted my old grandmother’s Tselemedes (cook book) along with some recipes online to make my own home made version.

The result, not only surprised me but gave a much deeper meaning to sharing and creating this tradition for myself. My grandmother never taught me how to make this particular recipe but for all intents and purposes it came out beautifully. A labor of love, mixed in with nostalgia, tradition, personal traditions and a lot of humor. See video link below.

Vasilopita Cutting 2019

I’m not religious in any way and don’t adhere to or subscribe to the Greek Orthodox church I was baptized in, but for whatever reason – inexplicably so, I rejoiced in cutting each piece and sharing it with my friends and loved ones. In the end, each tradition has its roots in uniting people and rituals; be it bringing in the new year, turning 15, becoming an adult, graduating, creating a household, and sharing a meal with those you love. Personal traditions paired with those passed down to us; make for incredible insight into how much closer and connected we are than we think. From Vasilopita in Greece to King Cake in New Orleans, to Rosca de Reyes in Mexico, to Panettone in Italy, and Galette des Rois in France, our personal traditions find a global connection.

P.S We all get the coin in the end.

Eleana Kouneli

A former dancer, current yoga teacher, writer, curious traveler and wild soul. My fuel and desire is to learn from others and spread healing and joy as I go. Follow my adventures and see where they lead you! All the stories are true, all the poems are real and all the writing is mine. Enjoy

4 comments

  • Eleana, I remember your instagram photos of you cutting that cake, I think there was a video too? The whole ritual you described here reminds me of making Latke, potato pancakes, that my Grandmother would make in her “new fangled” electric skillet (given to her by my Mother) in my Grandparents apartment in the Bronx. This would happen every year on Chanukah. My Mother came from a tiny village in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and these food traditions go way back as do your family’s. My Grandmother would turn out seemingly endless amounts of these and they tasted amazing. She of course fried them in Schmaltz, chicken fat.
    I tried for years to duplicate the taste, sans the Schmaltz, as I never asked my Mother for the recipe and my Grandmother died before it ever occurred to me to make them. I finally found the secret accidentally, as these things frequently happen. I had ground the potatoes and got distracted while they were draining for about 45 minutes. When I returned and mixed the rest of the simple ingredients (Egg, Matzo meal, salt) and fried them up (Canola oil…)That was it!! I imagine that since she was feeding about 15 people she must have prepared a large amount of potatoes beforehand and they sat waiting to be mixed!! They are wonderful and I’m smelling them now… Thank you!

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    • Thank you for sharing ! I must try these potato pancakes! Oh I’m well aware of Schmaltz we did something similar in Greece when we fried things 🙂 you can’t duplicate that too easily. I have to put the video in the post soon.

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