Pastitsio: A Time Capsule 

Jack Staffen

I was recently disputing with a friend over why I love the restaurant the Spotted Pig so much. The Spotted Pig is a British-esque pub style restaurant in the West Village owned by chef April Bloomfield. To me they have the best food in New York City. I can understand that the caloric heights the food reaches are probably too high to eat on a regular basis, but something about it is comforting. It’s a space and a taste that makes me comfortable, that feels like home, that reminds me of a past time. My friend and I were trying to find a place to have dinner, and of course, I immediately suggested Spotted Pig (I had dragged her about 4 times to the spot already in the past, and made her wait over 90 minutes for a table).  “It’s so heavy and makes you feel lethargic!” said my friend. “Why not go to get sushi or salad or something lighter? Why Spotted Pig?”. In lieu of this project and choosing my dish, it was in that moment and from that question my friend posed that I had sort of an epiphany. I realized that the flavor profile of the dish Pastitsio, which I had grown up eating is quite similar to the food flavors that you’d find at Spotted Pig: buttery, flour-y, oregano, cream, meat, fat. I recalled much of what we’ve discussed so far this semester, about the sentimental values people develop with foods, and why that may be. Furthermore, I realized that when my friend would tell me she did not necessarily love the spotted pig, or thought that she had had a better burger elsewhere, it kind of hurt. I would take it almost personally. I’d been wondering why I cared so deeply about the restaurant and its food now for awhile. Perhaps it is because of the deeply engrained emotional connection I have to Pastitsio.

Biting into a piece of Pastitsio transports me. In some ways it draws parallels to strumming the strings of a guitar. As a songwriter, coming home from a long day of school and getting to play my guitar definitely serves as a way to express myself, but its significance goes further than that. Guitar playing provides a space of comfort for me–it’s a home within my actual home. While it gives me the opportunity to confront issues, feelings, emotions, attitudes, it also provides a moment for me to escape into my own thoughts, something to which the outside world does not necessarily lend itself. The effect that strumming each string of a guitar has on me mirrors that of biting into the various layers and textures that make up Pastitsio.

The dish signifies home, comfortability, and escape. Biting into it brings me back to the Greek family gatherings at my parent’s apartment, at my Yiayia’s apartment in the Bronx, or in my Aunt and Uncle’s backyard in Westchester. At these parties, my gigantic family gets together and simply has fun—playing soccer, tending to the baby family members, catching up, celebrating birthdays, pregnancies, graduations, marriages, and of course, eating food. It would be an understatement to call my family food-centric. Food takes up a large majority of the conversation at our parties. “Where’s the tzatziki from?”, “Needs more lemon!”, “Medium rare or medium?”, “When’s dinner?”, “pass the spanikopitakia [spinach phyllo triangles]”, “Pastitsio tonight?!”, “Where’s the salt!”, sizzling meats on the grill, clinking utensils in the kitchen, wine glasses and beers flowing, all at large decibels and in a cacophony only organized by the periodic presentation of food items. Those sounds are all things that I guarantee one can hear at our gatherings. Like guitar, these family occasions serve as a place of escape from the outside world—it’s a sphere where I’m certainly comfortable confronting my issues but where I can relax and let my mind go free if I so desire. Perhaps quite selfishly, when I made the Pastitsio for the dinner party, I served it with Canada Dry Ginger Ale because that is what I would always drink with Pastitsio at my grandparent’s house. I think part of me not only wanted to unlock these memory time capsules of past gatherings, but also maybe I wanted everyone else to get as close as possible to experience what my family parties are like. My Papou would always make Pastitsio for me, so perhaps part of me wished to take up his role as the producer, and see if I could create a similar space of love, community, and joy that he seemed so capable of producing.

While I cannot say that there is a specific riff or melody that moves me, only one version of Pastitsio (out of the infinitely many) seems to provide that jouissance for which I strive: my grandfather’s Pastitsio. The recipe in Diane Kochlas’s book The Food and Wine of Greece incorporates cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, peppercorns, spaghetti, and grated kefalotyri or Parmesan cheese to be sprinkled on top—none of which appeared in my Papou’s version. In Garrison, Kotsoni, and Toolis’s The Periyali Cookbook, the Pastitsio calls for a can of Tomatoes whereas both Kochlas’s and my grandfather’s called for a minute amount of tomato paste. I’ve tried a couple other Pastitsio’s throughout this project—one from a Greek restaurant around Columbia University known as Symposium, and another from a Greek place called Kyclades (at its second location in the East Village) and neither seemed like the goldilocks Pastitsio for me—neither inundated me with the feelings of de ja vu or fully revived repositories of memories like taking the first bite out of my Papou’s Pastitsio did at the dinner party.

 

The general makeup of his recipe: a bottom layer—a crunchy, oily thin layer of breadcrumbs soaking up many of the flavors from the ingredients above. The next layer contains Ziti, a macaroni-like tubular Italian pasta that lends itself well to Pastitsio because the egg and feta can make their way into the holes of the pasta, leading to nice pops of flavor. The egg and feta not only provides a creaminess and saltiness to the dish, but they also serve as a glue that congeals the pasta together. The next layer is ground meat that has been browned in large amounts of butter, tomato paste, red wine, and sometimes dried oregano—the secret is not to let the liquids in the ground meat pot reduce completely so that all the fatty goodness sinks to the bottom, soaking the breadcrumb ground. Occasionally, Greek oregano is added to the ground meat as well to add a heightened flavor and aroma (Greek oregano is argued to be more mild than Mexican oregano). Then there’s another layer of the egg, feta, Ziti mixture. The top layer is a bechamel sauce consisting of milk, butter, and flour slowly reduced to a goopy-creamy sauce that is poured over the layers of Pastitsio containing moisture and warmth. This beautiful cream continues to reduce in the oven, leaving us with the creamiest sauce known to mankind and a caramelized surface that is unmatched in flavor and smell. Pastitsio is usually eaten warm or at room temperature, which ensures comfortable eating and allows for moisture to spread and dance throughout the layers underneath the béchamel blanket.

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*My mise en place for Pastitsio*

½  lb butter

1 onion

2 lbs chop meat

1 cup red wine

1 ½ tbs tomato paste

package of ziti

6 eggs

½ lb feta

6 cups of milk

flour (about 10 tbs ??)

salt and pepper

1 cup bread crumbs

In pot saute onion with ¼ lb butter. Then add chop meat till browned.  Add red wine. Cover pot till boiling about 2-3 minutes. Add the tomato paste after melting it in one cup of water. Add to pot and mix altogether. Add salt and pepper.  Let boil till water dissolves for about 15 minutes. In another pot boil ziti and strain. Mix eggs and feta in bowl. Melt remainder of butter and brush bottom of pan. Put remainder in bowl with eggs and feta. After straining pasta put back in pot and add bread crumbs. Add ingredients from bowl and mix. In buttered pan, add bread crumb and egg mix and spread evenly. Then add one layer of pasta. Then add all of chop meat mix. Then the remainder of pasta. Bring milk to boil. Then mix with flour while stirring slowly till it becomes slightly thick-not lumpy. Add this on top of pasta. Place in oven at 400 degrees for half hour.

 

This dish connected my Papou and I, and to some extent, the dish came to symbolize our relationship. He would make it for me only a few times a year on my birthday and also once or twice over the Summer for special occasions, but it became a way for my Papou and I to communicate. Not saying that we did not talk or share jokes, but the food was a special part of our relationship. When he made the Pastitsio at a family party for example, everyone would eat it together, but in the moments when it was served, we would always share a winking grin—something akin to camaraderie, that we were indulging in a guilty pleasure of eating the unhealthy but ever delicious Pastitsio together. I think there are some parallels between the relationship Jack and his mother shared over dumplings that I shared with my Papou. Pastitsio was part of his way of hugging me or expressing affection. Perhaps the dish is an extension of my grandfather and the times we have had in general, and that is what drew me towards it for this project.

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*Photo of baby me and my Papou*

I turned towards my Yiayia for questions about her past in helping to paint the best picture of the context in which the dish was conceived and ultimately made its way into my mouth for many years. Though, in questioning my Yiayia I realized that the past was much more difficult to revisit than I believed. In fact, there seems to be something akin to a void or erasure of memory among members of my family. Reliving Greece’s turbulent past was always difficult for my grandparents. Reminiscing on this time in Greece was rekindling a deep-seated trauma. During World War II, the axis powers invaded Greece. Their eventual retreat left a power vacuum in Greece, which lead to a Civil War between Communist and non-communist forces. It is precisely in this context that my grandparents desired to leave Greece in search of a better life elsewhere. My grandparents had met in a village called Hllomo on the border between Albania and Greece where they both grew up. They would also marry in this village. When the borders became tighter between the two countries and tensions began to rise domestically, my grandfather and his family moved further South into Ioannina. My grandmother, on the other hand, remained on the border, which was being strictly policed by Greek and Albanian forces. This era was certainly characterized by a deep trauma, which understandably my grandma has a difficult time revisiting. I know that my grandfather watched his brother get shot point-blanc by communist forces. I know that they had been separated by strictly guarded borders. I know that my grandma escaped through the mountains to eventually make her way to my grandfather. In 1950, they would both leave Greece  and move to Toronto (some of my distant relatives still live in Canada). Eventually, they went to New York, where my grandmother, my grandfather, my Great Aunt, her husband, and my great grandmother bought a house in Riverdale in the Bronx, where my family still resides. My grandfather opened up a restaurant in Manhattan and a diner in Tarrytown called Bellas Restaurant. My Great uncle became the manager of Jahn’s Diner in Queens. This memory void in my Grandparent’s life histories seems to be quite characteristic of a much larger phenomenon in Greek history according to Greek historian Richard Clogg: “the past weighs heavily on Greece. It is still, regrettably a commonplace to talk of ‘modern Greece’ and ‘modern Greek’ as though ‘Greece’ and ‘Greek’ must necessarily refer to the ancient world”—that Greek history is marked by a void between the imagined exceptional times of antiquity and the now seems to be character of Greek peoples and Greek history. It is somewhere within this blurred history that Pastitsio eventually was taken up by my grandfather. What is very clear, however, is that the genealogy of Pastitsio is fluid and illuminates narrative that  involves multiple chrono-topes throughout history.

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*Google Stock Image of Hllomo, Albania-The Village where my Yiayia and Papou were both born*

Pastitsio is like the Greek version of lasagna. The word Lasagna is believed to have possibly come from the Greek word Laganon, which was a flat-sheet of pasta, suggesting that the Italian version may have had its origins in Greece. Having said that, the Greek version does not use flat sheets, but incorporates dry tubular pastas, which are widely believed to have originated in Italy. Paradoxically, there’s evidence that lasagna-like spelt had been made by the Etruscans around 400BCE. Pastitsio may have gotten its name from the Italian Pasticcio (or vice versa), which means hotch-potch, or is sometimes used to mean the same thing as Lasagna al Forno in some parts of Italy. In Cyprus the dish is called Makaronia Tou Fornou and in Egypt, Macaroni Bechamel. Whereas versions from Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece incorporate ground meat, Bechamel sauce, cinnamon, and tubular pasta, Italy’s version is generally much heavier on Tomato sauce, may or may not incorporate meat, uses flat-sheets of pasta, and more commonly uses ricotta cheese instead of Béchamel. Thus, Pastitsio seems to have a closer genealogy with the Northern African baked pasta dishes than to the Western European versions. Looking into the origins of baked pasta itself only generates more convolution. The Chinese are believed to be among the first to make noodles that were made by baking in an oven, as oppose to being boiled. This technique also seems to have been taken up by the Etruscans and later the Romans. Dry pasta is believed to have come by way of the Arabs during the 8th century invasion of Sicily. We can only imagine that dry pasta, with more Italian designs such as bucatini, penne, or ziti entered Greece by way of Italy.

The process of cubing and tenderizing meat seems to have become a valued delicacy throughout Europe by the 15th century. The ground beef in Pastitsio calls for a lot of butter, so much so that it flows above the ground beef when cooking in the pot. According to anthropologist David E. Sutton, the use of lots of oil or fat was meant to preserve certain cooked meats for example—the thick oil layers would keep outside particles from getting in. Also, as Yiayia Nomiki making Pastitsio in Sutton’s ethnography explains before meat grinders became prevalent in Europe in the mid-19th century, meat would be tenderized for very long periods of time: “It doesn’t hurt to [leave the meat] overnight. That’s what the old one’s did, since they didn’t have refrigerators they cooked things in a pot for a long time.” Thus, the glistening ground meat in my grandfather’s Pastitsio derives from a long lineage of slow-cooking meats and preserving them in large amounts of fat or oil.

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*Ground meat cooking*

The Béchamel sauce is an interesting case. The white goopy cream that I take to be so crucial to Pastitsio only became so in the interwar years when the “textualization of the culinary realm” was becoming normalized throughout the Western world. With the birth of more scientific ways of measuring the nutritional value of foods came a sudden desire to record foods from across the world and conform them to an international standard “typically by enlarging the consumption of wheat” in the hopes that a proper distribution of calories would not lead “desperate populations [to] take up radical creeds,” as President Hoover warned in an address on hunger. Cookbooks began to look towards changing recipes rather than preserving local heirloom dishes. Such seems to have happened with Pastitsio. Cookbooks began to make more Europeanized versions of regional specialties. The Anatolian yogurt, oils, and spices in Greek Pastitsio were replaced with the floury Béchamel. The less-caloric sauces of the past were erased on the premise that “material abundance bred stability”.

Bechamel-making video

*Making Béchamel (sorry for creepy commentary I couldn’t control myself)*

Lastly, the breadcrumbs in my Papou’s Pastitsio present a mystery, seeing as I cannot find breadcrumbs in any other Pastitsio recipe. Perhaps this was an addition my grandfather made to the dish out of personal preference. After all, he was the owner and chef at a diner, so he had his own culinary chops.

While Pastitsio serves as an access point for past memories, it does not for me draw on any personal connections to Greece. As sad as it is to say, I believe that my relationship to Greece is tenuous. When I bite into Pastitsio I do not think that I am contributing to or embracing my motherland; instead, I am invoking areas of nostalgia for me, dwelling on my family experiences and memories, comforting myself. After our dinner party, I made Pastitsio for Greek Easter, which fell on May 1 of this year. This would be the first time my family had the dish since my grandfather’s passing. To some extent, my grandfather serves as a glue in my family—keeping everyone together, happy, and comfortable despite our differences. When family members began eating the Pastitsio, I noticed their faces light up, memories came flooding back and people began talking to their loved ones and in-laws—“did you ever get to try my Papou’s pastitsio?” “it tastes just like his”—a sense of dignity and familial unity and joy seemed to lift the whole occasion despite the 40 degree weather and the rain. It was a very beautiful moment.

*Papou’s Pastitsio: for Greek Easter*



Work Cited

1. Tchen, Jack, Class Lecture.

2. Clogg, Richard. A Concise History of Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. Print.

3. Merriam-Webster. Accessed April 10, 2016. http://www.merriam-webster.com/ dictionary/ziti.
4. “Pastitsio Lasagna: Which Came First the Chicken or the Egg? – Kopiaste..to Greek Hospitality.” Kopiaste..to Greek Hospitality. February 27, 2009. Accessed April 10, 2016. http://kopiaste.org/2009/02/pastitsio-lasagna-which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg/.

5. “History Of Pasta.” History Of Pasta. N.p., n.d. Web. May 2016. <http:// www.streetdirectory.com/food_editorials/meals/pasta/history_of_pasta.html>.

6. Sutton, David E. “Through the Kitchen Window.” University of California Press (2014): 152-81. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.

7. Cullather, Nick. “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie.” Oxford Journals 112.2 (2007): 337-64. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 358.