Saturday, August 08, 2020



         “Now we pop it in to cook,/The timer has just begun.” 


The first thing to note about South Australian journalist Stephanie Timotheou’s bilingual children’s book “Cooking with Yiayia,” is that it is beautifully illustrated. The lines are simple and yet have a flow and dynamism all of their own. The palette is austere yet bright enough to capture the attention, and given the subject matter, stimulate the gastric juices of even the most internet addicted child. Rachel Darling’s illustrations are not only a delight for the eyes, they are also, remarkably plausible and have an authenticity all of their own. 


My copy arrived of the book arrived recently and I read it with my children. They were most interested to peruse it because it refers to one of the key enduring elements of the traditional relationship between Greek Australian grandmothers and their grandchildren, the topography of which is primarily centred around the kitchen and revolving around the supreme act of nurturing: cooking. 

Ostensibly, the book abounds in cultural stereotypes: Yiayia is in the kitchen. Pappou is in his pre-ordained domain, the garden, the dutiful granddaughter, wearing a dress and an apron, is taking her prescribed place by yiayia’s side. This I sub-consciously took for granted, and only noticed it because my youngest daughter asked me why she was not outside helping pappou to pick apples.  The brief story ends with a prayer before the family partakes of the meal, while an icon and a cross is prominently displayed on the well behind them. 


It is trite to mention that the majority of Greek-Australian grandparents of grandchildren currently under the age of ten, who now are in their sixties or early seventies and have grown up, or spent the majority of their lives in Australia, no longer confirm to the traditional gender roles and cultural assumptions implied by the characters depicted in the book. Nor should we assume that this generation’s culinary understanding is restricted solely to “Greek” food and we have the corrosive effects of two decades of reality television to thank for that. The absence of an iphone, or an ipad, within the narrative, the main babysitting tools of many a modern Greek-Australian grandparent, is also noteworthy. As for the pre-meal prayer, that is an almost obsolete cultural relic, generally confined today to only the most obscure and reactionary households, such as my own. Thus, even though the text is directed towards the emerging generations of today, the world it evokes is one of yesteryear. The experiences it negotiates are more those of the second migrant and current parental generation than that of the third generation. The nostalgia evidenced in the illustrations and the text, seems to refer to values, customs, cultural memories and an awareness of a specific type of ethnic identity rather than the actual synthesis or current practices of Greeks in Australia. This makes Stephanie Timotheou’s  portrayal of these values from a Greek-Australian perspective important and unique. It also provides a subtle jumping off point for a discussion with a child about the different forms and styles Greek grandparents come in, providing opportunity for the sharing of family and social memories. 


At a time when the language, customs and traditional lifestyles of the Greeks of Australia are evolving, it is significant that Stephanie Timotheou has pointed to a motif that has sustained Greek civilisation since times ancient as the quintessence of the Greek identity: that of the hearth, the epicentre around which the family, relatives, friends and the Greek community at large revolve, in ever increasing concentric circles. To us who have direct experience of the practices she so artfully describes, the book abounds in authenticity. To those of the latter generations who have not had this experience, it provides a much-needed window into a world that informs one or both of their parents’ worldviews, and forms part of the foundation of their own. Furthermore, it has an important function: It acts as a record and disseminator of those cultural memories that create an authentic Greek-Australia, an Australian-based Greek tradition all of our own. In this way, Stephanie Timotheou’s children’s book has vast historical significance for our community. It is possibly the first children’s book, written by a second generation Greek-Australian, for the purposes of enshrining a corpus of key elements of identity for preservation and transmission to the next generation. Whereas up until now, the first generation have been the sole arbiters of that identity, we are witnessing in this author’s contribution, an assumption of that task by the next generation, in literary form. It is a breathtaking moment. 

I originally cringed with the choice of Moussaka as the dish being cooked in the story, as constituting the apogee of clichés (although the dedication “and for all the yiayiathes (sic) around the world – we love you more than moussaka” is so endearing that it melts the heart of even the most curmudgeonly critic) but upon consideration, this choice is an inspired one because  as moussaka is not as popular or known among the third generation as it was to the previous ones, it allows one to discuss other Greek dishes children may be familiar with, it engenders a  comparison of Greek cuisine with other cuisines the child may be familiar with, and serves as a sound starting point for the introduction of vegetables that modern Greek-Australian children may not be so familiar with, enjoy, or consider to be Greek, such as the egg-plant. Significantly, the author is thus passing down a culinary legacy that is also in the process of being lost and an examination of how food is, or is made to comprise a key component of ethnic identity in multicultural Australia must invariably consider this valuable work. 

It is thus a shame that the author chose not to actually show to the reader, how the moussaka dish she is implying is under construction, is actually made. The provision of a list of ingredients, a description of how these combine, possibly with an exposition of which process the child in the story was able to assist her grandmother with, and the provision of a recipe, would have been excellent for discussion purposes, allowing older readers to share memories of their own cooking experiences, or suggesting variations, could have encouraged the children to try the recipe with their elders at home, thus facilitating the practice of the cultural norms the author is both revealing and preserving. Again, this was something pointed out to me by my eldest daughter, who especially wanted to know how the grandmother in the story was going to generate the béchamel sauce, having had some experience of this in cooking with her own yiayia. 


It is laudable, in this age of increasing Greek language loss, where Greek is no longer the mother tongue of most, but not all third generation Greek-Australians, that Stephanie Timotheou has deliberately chosen to provide both an English and a Greek text. Even if the child has no understanding of Greek, just the visual experience of sighting the unfamiliar alphabet on the page, is a precious one that grants insight into the literary world of their ancestry. The presence of the Greek text may also encourage parents rusty in the language to attempt to recover or to hone their linguistic skills, thus providing direct contact with the very medium in which Greek culture was developed and adapted in this country. The presence of the Greek, in a lighter font, below the darker English, is inobtrusive and thus does not feed the hysteria many Greek-Australians feel when confronted by the Greek language in written form. It is a wise and informed decision and one that reflects the albeit changing, bilingual nature of the modes of communication within our community. 


The Greek in the bilingual text, although generally sound, is sometimes awkward in rhythm and expression. Part of the reason for this, is that the author requires the Greek to conform to the same rhyming pattern as the English text, leading to convoluted and tortured phrases and vocabulary that occasionally fail to rhyme altogether. As this is the first of a projected series of books revolving around the concept of “Ikoyeneia,” the author may seek to address this point, possibly by considering more traditional forms of Greek rhyme, such as the 15 syllable metre, or by expanding a parallel narrative that broadly follows the themes of the English, with a few quirks of its own. Brilliantly, the current text already does do this in parts. Though the English has yiayia set a timer, in order to cook the moussaka, in the Greek, «ο χρόνος αρχίζει να τρέχει,» presumably, because as my daughter observed, “yiayiades don’t use timers.” The presence of this ingenious parallel narrative also constitutes one of the main arguments for the necessity of children to be exposed to both sets of texts. There are cultural gems encoded within each language that defy translation. 


“Cooking with Yiayia” is an important book. Children’s books that genuinely depict Greek-Australian life  are rare and have not been published in significant numbers since the joint South Australian and Victorian Education Departments’ initiative in the 80s. The Greek-Australian literary scene, both in Greek and English, with notable exceptions has largely ignored the younger generations. The fact that this book is authored by a second generation Greek-Australian, in order to create a literary corpus that will address the cultural and identity needs of her children and their generation is also of supreme consequence. It speaks volumes as to who we think we are, who we want to portray ourselves to future generations as being, and which "Greek" values we want our children to retain. And the idea of “Ikoyeneia”, which is the title of the series to which this opus belongs, should not be bypassed without consideration. Here, the author is expanding the often rigid and hidebound pespectives of what it means to belong to the broader Greek-Australian family. She is extending a warm familial embrace to those who may not necessarily understand all the nuances and references comprising our identity narrative. And in so doing, she is ensuring our continuity as a relevant cultural discourse. 

It is my firm belief that this heart-warming publication will surely become a literary classic for  all young Greek-Australian children. Hopefully, Stephanie Timotheou’s courageous and principled initiative will sound a clarion call for the production of further works of literature geared towards the children of our community. We look forward to the publication of the further books of the projected “Ikoyenia” series, with “Gardening with Pappou,” soon to hit our shelves . A well -thumbed copy of the first of the series, “Cooking with Yiayia,” must be an integral part of every Greek-Australian upbringing. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 August 2020