Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures at the Greek Table by Christopher Bakken
Christopher Bakken is a hungry man on a mission. His mission is to seek out the best local products and eating establishments Greece has to offer and to show off through his writings the beauties and complexities of Greek cuisine, which “for decades I’ve been calling the most underappreciated in Europe” (173). Bakken is a poet, translator, and professor whose peripatetic journeys take him mostly through island Greece in search of diverse cheese, olives, honey, wine, and other local products of Greek terroir, as he notes, “Fashionable concepts like ‘local’ and ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ have always been a priori facts of existence in much of Greece” (144). Bakken involves himself in the secrets of production as well as preparation, participating in the olive harvest and fishing for barbounia on Thasos, seeking out the secrets of Naxiot cheesemakers and tailing bee keepers on Kythira as they gather their sublime honey. No gelatinous moussaka crosses Bakken’s lips, and indeed he is particularly critical of the commercialization and standardization of Greek food, whether it’s Kalamata olives, which he sees as “little more than a delivery system for salt” (22), or the tourist restaurants that have increasingly replaced the mom and pop kitchens he favors. In such “dives,” Bakken notes, “one is sometimes served wedges of an insipid tomato grown in Germany or Denmark, right in the middle of tomato season in Greece. Such are the culinary blasphemies of the Eurozone” (144).
Bits of local history and poetic references are slipped in here and there, but they are not the main course. Rather it is the celebration of the diversity and care that goes into the foods that attract Bakken’s most elaborate prose. This is seen in his description of his first taste of Kythirian honey, which recalled for me Levi-Strauss’s famous meditations on the subject: [End Page 189]
My palate reacted to it strangely, as if confused, and within moments caught what I refer to as my “honey buzz”: a slow feeling of ascension, light sweat on my brow, some ringing in my ears, and just a tiny bit of tightness in my throat. I recognized this feeling, vaguely, and its origins were erogenous. Didn’t the same thing come over me when I kissed Christine Wharton in the first grade at Crestwood Elementary in Madison, Wisconsin in 1973? [. . .] Nothing I’d ever eaten had made me react like this, and the honey’s kaleidoscopic flavor stayed with me for hours, then days. A week later I could still conjure the exact flavor of that honey on my palate without the slightest effort of my gustatory imagination.(195)
Bakken provides wonderful descriptions of the artisanal aspects of local food production and the variations that make the cuisine of each locale recognizable but still unique. He depicts the skill of male gill net fishers on Thasos, and of female bread makers on Crete with their wild yeast breads prepared based on task-time and embodied knowledge: “When I asked Konstandina how long the dough will need to rise, she shrugs at me like I’ve said something inane. ‘We’ll know when it is risen,’ she remarks inscrutably, leaving me to understand that we’ll measure time here according to the mood of the dough, not the numbers of the clock” (40).
Bakken’s urge to participate sometimes launches him on dangerous ventures, as when he swims for barbounia in heavy current, escaping drowning but heavily scathed. Such exploits called to mind Michael Pollan’s call for foraging, or a more direct relationship to the sourcing of our food. This raises certain qualms for Bakken, who retreats to his room to avoid even the sound of animals being slaughtered. However, moral questions are set aside in appreciation of the “subtle, musky flavor of free-range goat—which tastes just slightly, I swear of the wild thyme and sage I can smell on the Pityos breeze” (133)—though it is interesting that the book’s final image is of a goat giving birth, suggestive of resilience and reproduction amidst pain and struggle.
This is not meant as a scholarly work, but rather as part of the genre of literate travel accounts that have a long history in Greece. I think, nevertheless, it is important to point out the book’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to the scholarship of Modern Greece. The real strength of the book is in its rich sensory descriptions of many of the themes that preoccupy scholars of Modern Greece, such as the standardization of the food supply, a question raised over twenty years ago by Seremetakis (1991) and analyzed by numerous other scholars. Bakken presents a clear case for the ongoing existence (if not the reinvention) of artisanal foods and does so in an engaging prose that should be a model for scholarly work caught up in theoretical abstraction. At the same time, the problem with Honey, Olives, Octopus from a scholarly point of view is Bakken’s failure to push his explorations and questions as far as they might go, thus leaving important aspects of the contemporary food landscape unexplored. For example, an interesting tension in Bakken’s book is that between sharing and hoarding knowledge. He claims, rather surprisingly to me, that Greek cooks do not keep their knowledge secret, and that the “traditional” nature of their recipes makes for limited creative variation (153). He then seems shocked and outraged a few pages later when the mother of a restaurateur on Serifos accuses him of being a cookbook writer out to steal her son’s recipes. This leads him to reflect on whether it was “presumptuous to think of his recipes as communal property” (158). But while Bakken captures his own [End Page 190] reactions to this incident, he doesn’t explore further the social dynamics that might lead to the seeming contradictions between the tremendous generosity as well as moments of suspicion he encounters, something a casual reading of Greek ethnography from du Boulay to Herzfeld would have apprised him of. Similarly, his meticulous curiosity about food production doesn’t extend to more than noting in passing the Albanian field hands harvesting the prized potatoes of Naxos. This is a shame, given that immigrant labor has been an increasingly tense site for economic, political, and cultural struggle in Greece since the early 1990s, as captured, for example, in Christopher Lawrence’s ethnography Blood and Oranges, written before the recent economic crisis. Since the crisis, events such as the shooting of over twenty migrant workers on a strawberry farm in the spring of 2013 during a pay dispute has made this issue part of everyday discourse in Greece.
The book refers at several points to the beginnings of the crisis and asks whether some of the culinary innovations—such as the growing local wine industry to which Bakken devotes a chapter—will survive the economic collapse. Parallel to this are hints of environmental disaster, in particular the colony collapse disorder threatening the bee population (to which Kythira was, so far, immune). The question of survival and resilience is all the more topical now, six years into a crisis without end. It is a question perhaps optimistically answered by Bakken in reflecting on the special deliciousness of Greek vegetables. As one Kythirian farmer explains: “ ‘The plants are challenged and some don’t make it, but those that do produce fruits of the greatest flavor and intensity. You can taste how hard they want to be,’ he says boldly, holding a gleaming wedge of potato up to the light” (217).