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.
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.