Learning a family recipe.
The smell of butter heating in a miniature frying pan wafts through the house, drawing me to the kitchen. I come in at the end of the day-long process, observing my grandmother in the last stages of the intricate and time-consuming process of making Greek-style Spanakopita by hand. The whole procedure takes an entire day of preparation, and hours of slaving over the hot stove to complete properly.
The curve of her back over the thin layers of phyllo dough on the cutting board is so harsh, it seems a predatory bird slaves in the kitchen, not my elderly grandmother. But by now her back has grown accustomed to this unnatural position, so she is able to hold it for hours on end, her eyes never leaving the intricacy of her task. They don’t even look up when I slide onto the bar-stool on the other end of the small kitchen. Content, I rest my chin on my fists and settle in to watch my grandmother’s work, hoping that the process will enter my brain by osmosis.
Each layer of phyllo dough is thinner than a piece of paper, and infinitely more fragile. One wrong move, and the whole operation could literally fall apart in her hands. With the careful delicacy of a bomb technician, my Yiayia cuts the dough into strips being particularly careful not to tear the tender surface. Her specialty kitchen scissors slice easily through the dough, the finely sharpened device making no sound at all.
The bristles of the tiny basting brush smear the side of the frying pan to remove the excess melted butter before spanning the distance from the pan to the corner of the first slice of phyllo dough. The routine of the brushstrokes she makes on the thin bread is a mystery to me like the brushstrokes of a famous painter are a mystery to the aspiring apprentice. With butter as her medium, she decorates the dough with patterns radiating from the edges and swirling oddities adorning the center - a poetic dance mirroring her favorite ice skater. Passed through generations, the designs are her personal language, translating the recipes that reside in her head. They are etched to the inner wall of her skull, it seems, for she could make her famous Spanakopita with her eyes sealed shut.
She owns a recipe book, though it is never on the counter while she works. It is a thick-paged, aged book, tied together with twine and written in the hands of many women. Stained pages mark the remains of countless meals, reminders of the days when old dishes were learned, and new dishes were created. Corrections and additions have been made to the book in many pens and in many languages. The book has been to the green isles of Greece and back. Fragile as the book is now, my Yiayia keeps it sealed in a cloudy, zip-top plastic bag, which itself has seen many years in a cupboard. Opening that bag now, which she so rarely does, is like opening a sealed tomb from the ancient past. Lifetimes of precision are contained in those pages, and my Yiayia has them all permanently embedded in her memory.
Straining and mashing the frozen spinach for the Spanakopita filling is not a task for arthritis-stricken hands. Still, my Yiayia hovers over the sink with the arctic-cold spinach leaves, squishing and squeezing until every last drop of liquid is removed. Feeling guilty sitting idly by as my grandmother works her fingers into prunes, I approach the sink and gently take the freezing spinach from her hands.
“Let me help,” I tell her. It is a brave approach because my Yiayia has controlled the kitchen. She is proud to cook everything herself and make sure it is perfect. She might take offense to my intrusion, but I hold my ground and stomach my nerves. After a sideways glance and a flicker of a smile, she relinquishes the rest of the spinach to me. “The leaves must be dry,” she warns me, “so the phyllo can crisp properly in the oven.”
I work away at the remaining spinach, glad to have been given the chance to lay my hands on part of my favorite food. My Yiayia busies herself mixing the spinach leaves she has already dried with feta cheese. With sharply jointed fingers, my Yiayia massages the filling, tenderly rolling the spinach in with the feta. With a measuring spoon, she scoops little globs of the mixture out of the bowl, and plops them perfectly centered on the strips of dough. Then she geometrically folds the phyllo around the filling like how you might fold the American flag for storage. Angular folds turn the phyllo dough strip into a tightly wound triangle with the filling packed inside. And then the process begins again; a methodical, robotic process that seems to drag on longer than it should.
Laying the triangles of phyllo on the pan is like a puzzle and the exactness of the process is something only my Yiayia can accomplish with any accuracy. She knows the dimensions of every pan she owns, and knows the exact number of Spanakopitas that can fit on each pan without wasting usable area. The pitas fit together on the pan corner to corner, edge to edge, so perfectly, that they seem factory-made, yet each is a hand-crafted delicacy: unique, but all the same.
Sliding perfection into the oven seems as though it might defile the intricacy of the food. Placing the responsibility to complete the dish on an inanimate object is so against my grandmother’s need to have control over every step of the process that I find myself taking on that philosophy as well. We sit together on the bar stools, watching the pitas through the oven glass. The light is on inside the oven as if by keeping a watchful eye on the pitas, it is impossible for them to burn. By some instinctive sixth sense attuned to when the pitas are done, my Yiayia begins to stand to retrieve her morsels from the oven, but then sits back down and turns to me.
“Can you take those out for me?” she asks with a slight twinkle, clouded by tiredness, in her eye. My grin spreads to cover most of my face as I leap from my seat and snatch the hot-mitts off the counter. The feeling of being entrusted with my grandmother’s perfection consumes me, and all that comes to my lips is a simple, “Thank you."
Dedicated to my grandmother. That's her in 1963 in the cover image.