- 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...