Monday, July 21, 2008


It is invariably the case that life-threatening danger looms largest at moments most unsuspect. In my case, total annihilation took me by the hand as I was sitting in the kitchen, examining the flames of the gas stove licking my briki, musing at how such a humble object can be possessed of the most perfect shape.
Without warning, my wife turned to me, exclaiming: "You know what? Let's make pita!" Now my wife tells me that try as I might, I am unable to mask my emotions. Sure enough I can subsequently enshroud them in mind-numbing sophistry and casuistry but the first fleeting contortions of my face before I regain wit enough to bend them into shapes aloof and disinterested are apparently, the key to my interior world. The look of horror on my face as she spoke those words must have therefore been so startling that she repeated her suggestion. "Pita, you know? Let's make some."
Repetition is a godsend. It gives me time to regain my composure. "Why do you want to make pita?" I scowled. "There's no need. And anyway it's too late. I'll miss the ERT news bulletin." She looked into my eyes searchingly as I pursed my lips and clasped my hands tightly upon my legs, determined not to betray any discomfort. "Fine, you're right it is late." As she sailed past me into the living room, I made the sign of the cross and breathed a sign of relief.
Yet my reprieve proved illusory. For the very next night, at exactly the same moment when I had coaxed our dishes into a state of anhydration and had placed them lovingly away, she sprung upon me one more. "Come on. Let’s make pita." "But you don't know how to make pita," I stammered. "The making of pita is an art from passed down the generations from mother to daughter, from grandmother to granddaughter. You've never made it before. Your mother has never made it before. There is no causal link." When my wife's eyebrows are at rest, they have the gentle parabola of the dome of St Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople. When they are raised, however, they are as arched as the arched-window in Playschool on steroids. When those eyebrows are on the loose, no one is safe.
"No it's fine," she smiled. Reaching into her handbag, she retrieved a bundle of papers. "Have a look at these." Unfolding them, my jaws slackened and my mouth hung open listlessly in resignation. For my wife, in gross disregard for precedent and in total breach of protocol, had downloaded sundry pita recipes from questionable websites and it was upon the dubious authority of these scraps of paper of unverified pedigree that she now proposed to embark on the most hallowed manifestation of Epirotismus: the making of pita.
"We've got everything, I think," she mused. "Can you run to the supermarket and get me some spinach?" Our local supermarket is only a street away and opposite it stands the local Greek church, though without the Greek and Byzantine flags flying in front if it, it would not be that easy to tell, given that it seems, for reasons unknown, to have been designed in the form of a Buddhist pagoda. The door was open, for it was time for vespers and I walked in. As I gazed up t the icons on the iconostasis, shrouded in the mysterious vesper half-light, I pondered my predicament.
There was no way that I could assist my wife in making pita. Her plans had to be thwarted, for it she was to be permitted to make this delectable delicacy at her own discretion and whim, then the whole cosmic order forged in the mountains of Epirus over aeons would come crashing down over my head. For pita is not just a delicious foodstuff, a mouthful of which, when properly executed, transports one, in throes of ecstasy, to an Epirotic paradise (which consists mainly of rocks, and fat, large-headed middle-aged men playing the clarinet, accompanied by other not-so-fat but bald middle aged-men signing mournful songs in a nasal voice). It is the means by which the matriarchy is enforced within Epirotic families, a patent to power. "Ku eshtë pita, eshtë feja," (where there is pita, there is the faith,) as the Albanians say. Such power cannot be usurped but must be delivered only to those who prove themselves worthy. Thus, one of my aunts, who has pretensions to matriarchy, fails to command the requisite fealty that determines her status, simply because she cannot or has never attempted to make pita. My sister, on the other hand, has and that is why I fear her more than anybody else in the world. Like Lord Voldermort, my sister adheres to the school of thought that holds that pita recipes can only be passed down to females of the same bloodline. According to the commentaries of several authoritative scholars of this school, I may be permitted to know the recipe but I am not permitted to execute it, or pass on its secrets to any other female not of the blood. Interestingly enough, this is not an Epirotic school, but a Samian one. My late yiayia Kalliopi would never reveal her recipes to her daughter-in-law, my mother. Whenever asked about ingredients, she would invariably reply "έβαλα σάμθινγκ." As a result, the secret of her tear-jerkingly captivating tiganites, which inspired my first failed business idea (to use them instead of buns on hamburgers and market them as "Ionian burgers"), has gone with her to the grave.
Leaving the church, I glanced at my mobile phone. Sure enough, there was an sms message that jolted me from my reverie: "Where are you? Is everything ok?" Quickly I ran to the supermarket. As I approached the spinach, a TARDIS cloister-bell, signalling the end of the universe began to boom inside my head. I circumambulated the aisle until I came upon some silver-beet. Firm in my resolution, I took it to the counter. There was no other choice. The space-time vortex had to be preserved. Doctor Who would understand. As I drove home, the cloister bell still ringing in my ears I mused upon the situation. Since my wedding some months ago, my mother, giver of life, protector of the powerless and periodic assuager of my ego, no longer had the influence of proximity upon me that she once enjoyed. Indeed, there is nothing like a wedding to drive home to the progenitor of the species the awful suspicion that they are not as irreplaceable as commonly held previously. My mother's claim to irreplaceability was based tenuously upon her being able to read my thoughts - (something at which my wife is also curiously adept) but more firmly upon her being the only provider of pita in our household. And she who commands the pita must be obeyed. Any apparent impingement or alienation of her exclusivity would surely have cataclysmic consequences upon the clan, too calamitous even to consider.
As I walked through my front door, my wife was in the kitchen chopping spinach. "You took your time," she said. "Did you get lost? I had to go out and buy some on my own. What's this? Silver beet? Don't you know what spinach is?" I feigned total surprise in the manner perfected by Austin Powers when accosted by Miss Kensington about his Swedish penis pump. Before my very eyes, at each downswing of the titanium knife, the established harmony of the intelligible spheres was being ripped asunder. "It's not going to work," I ventured. You can't just put spinach. You need to add μπαλάσες." "What are they?" my wife asked. "I don't know what they are called in English," I responded. I only know that they grow in my great-grandmother's garden and that you can't make decent pita without them." "Never mind," she sighed. "We will make do without. By the way, does your mum mix egg in with the spinach? It says here that you should but I'm not sure." "I don't know," I answered like an automaton. However, my facial expression gave me away once more. "Right," she pronounced triumphantly. "No egg. By the way, can you call your mum and ask her whether she just uses feta cheese or a mixture of feta and ricotta? My hands are dirty." I felt all the blood drain away from my face in an instant. "No, I can't. She is not home." "But how do you know?" she enquired, giving me a quizzical look. "Because she told she would not be home at exactly this time," I offered.
By this time, the filing was ready. In order to assuage my guilt in being a duplicitous husband, I secretly drained the spinach some more, added some more cheese and salt. I then stood back and vowed not to offer any further assistance, in order to assuage my guilt at being a duplicitous son. "Where are you going to make the filo?" I asked. "The bench is too small and we don't have on oklai to roll it out with." "No, there's no time for that. I'll just use filo pastry."
I jumped. "You can't use filo pastry!" I wailed. "Filo pastry is used only by those who don't know how to make pita, like Peloponnesians and Islanders! You might as well not make pita at all. This is heresy. This house will not bear the shame of filo-pastry encrusted pita. The roof-rafters will collapse upon our shoulders." In the meantime, my wife was unwrapping the defrosted filo pastry. In an effort to stall her, I diverted her with my story about the time I visited the Pampas plant and the machines broke down, causing tonnes of pastry to be exposed to the open air and thus ruined. It seemed to have an effect, for as she unrolled the pastry, she exclaimed: "My God, I only bought this a few days ago! It's well within the use-by date and it's mouldy." "Thank you God of the Epirots," I whispered. "You stay here," my wife continued. "I'll just nip out and get some more."
While she was gone, I envisaged my imminent demise in the form of me surrounded by linear descendants of the matriarchal line throughout the ages, brandishing slabs of pita and preparing to stone me with them. I saw also the sorrowful countenance of my wife, rushing around the supermarkets at all hours, endeavouring to reconstitute a favourite food for an unappreciative husband possessed of dangerously oscillating, rather than linear logic thought processes. It was then that I decided to do the unthinkable. I would make the filo in her absence, for this was a skill I had been taught in Greece, by my mother's teacher and secretly harboured for years, in case I should ever be stranded alone, and the yearning for pita became too great.
So engrossed was I in my task, that I did not notice my wife sneak up behind me and put her arm around me. "I thought we didn't have an oklai," she whispered. Pirouetting like a disoriented adagio dancer, I faced her: "I found one. But apparently we are all out of flour. Bring the filo pastry here."
I knew I was beaten. Resigning my fate in her hands, we buttered the filo pastry, whose sheets seemed mostly to fall to pieces in our hands (a sign, a sign!), placed the pita in a tapsi and commended it to the oven, which at the last minute, I had forgotten how to operate. "I know it's not like your mum's pita," my wife apologised, "but it’s the best we can do under the circumstances. I'll call her and tell her to come over to try some." "No!" I shouted. My voice softening at her shocked expression, I explained: "No. Last time she made pita, they didn’t keep me any. So let’s eat this one ourselves."
It took me only two days to complete the consumption of the pita, a task to which I set myself to accomplishing with the ravenousness of several wolves, for filo pastry aside, it was akin to the state of sleep of the souls of the righteous before the Apokatastasis of the cosmos. It took two weeks for me to approach the matriarchs who have direct responsibility over me and inform them of what had transpired. Quoth my sister with one eyebrow raised: "Whose recipe?" "Oh, an internet recipe." Then she visibly relaxing: "Was it good?" Quoth I: "Well it was a first attempt." Quoth she, totally at peace now: "Well, you should stick to carrot cake. It was always your thing, you know."
A few days later, I approached my great-grandmother: "You know yiayia, my wife made pita the other day." Her head snapped, back, her eyes bored piercingly into me: "How? Why? Was she shown? Who showed her?" "No one, yiayia. It was her own recipe." Yiayia is far too tactful and merciful to have me stammer around her for too long. "Well, anything your wife cooks you should eat. There is nothing worse than a husband who doesn't eat his wife's food."
A week later, I haltingly approached my mother, stumbling around like a modern day terrified Emperor Claudius with his formidable mother, Livia. "Did you know, my wife made pita the other day." "Whaaaat?" my mother exclaimed, her facial muscles tightening into a knot so Gordian that even Alexander (whose mother was from Epirus) could not unravel it. "Why are you torturing the poor girl? If you want pita, just let me know and I'll make it for you. How was it? She must have used filo pastry, nai? How was it? Never mind. (Relaxed and taking deeper breaths at this point). You know, I did an apprenticeship with yiayia for fifteen years before I got it right. It's a cumulative process. Let me know when you want some."
I'm over pita, at least for the moment. But try as I might, for the last couple of weeks, I cannot for the life of me, divest myself of that inconsolable longing for a good, crisp Samian tiganita………..

First published in NKEE on 21 July 2008