When I was an undergraduate, I took a class in European geography that was interesting in many ways, but frustrating because one of the students, a guy from Greece named Stavros, anointed himself the resident expert in all things European and assumed a kind of guest-lecturer position in the class. He was tolerable at first, but quickly grew tiresome for his overly loud, opinionated, and inconsiderate ways. Worse, he never missed an opportunity to remind the class that his family owned an island in Greece. “Do you understand that we own it ourselves?” he once asked, rhetorically. Day in, day out, this guy held forth. Why the professor, didn’t stop him, I’ll never know. It was excruciating.
But some good did come of this situation. Near the end of the semester, Stavros found himself in a tense discussion with a group of fed-up classmates over the issue of, of all things, baklava. The Greek all but claimed that his own grandmother had invented the pastry, so some clever person challenged Stavros to reproduce his Granny’s masterpiece for the class, which, surprisingly, he agreed to do. It seemed unlikely that he would follow through, but on the evening of the final exam, Stavros produced not one, but two, huge pans full of obviously homemade baklava.
I turned in my exam, took a piece of it, and walked out into the night. Without expecting too much, I bit into the baklava. And then, stunned, I came to a complete stop. I’ve been stalled in that spot ever since.
Oh, Stavros, exactly where is that island of yours?
His baklava was incredible, one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. Distinctive layers of filo dough filled with a combination of crushed and whole pistachio nuts, cinnamon,and orange flower water. It was buttery without being greasy. The sugar syrup was thick and deeply caramel-colored, somehow not as relentlessly sweet as you’d expect but totally luscious. I had only one piece of it, but twenty years later, I still lie awake at night, thinking of that miraculous baklava, the unexpected crunch of it, its buttery flavor, its deep, complex sweetness.
Exactly what made Stavros’s baklava so incredible? It seemed much more than just the sum of its parts. Was it the surprise that he rose to the challenge in the first place? That such a person could be so generous? That someone so utterly objectionable could cook something that so absolutely wasn’t? That he toasted the pistachios?
Eating is such an intimate act. Nothing that we do is so intimate, in some ways, not even sex. Bite; Chew; Swallow; Digest: one must be brave to eat. Few of our activities have such unreflected upon consequences. We ingest and we become what we ingest both literally and figuratively. The literal becoming is acknowledged in the old cliché: “You are what you eat,” but I can’t think of a phrase that captures that figurative becoming. Maybe because it’s more complicated to understand.
Stavros’s baklava is a part of me now, a mental measuring tool. In bakeries and restaurants, I figuratively take out this device and measure a piece of baklava against this gold standard. And Stavros, a person I wanted only to forget, has, through cooking, become part of the landscape of my mind. It suggests something about the power of those who cook. I’m aware of that as I cook for Mimi now. What flavors will become part of her own mental landscape? What foods will she reflect upon as standards of perfection? What other factors will season the meals of her memory?
I’ve been thinking about such questions lately because I’m still suffering from the aftereffects of a cold and cannot taste very well. Oh, how I miss flavor. I miss fully participating in the intimate act of eating. I miss the satisfaction, the pleasure.
But I did have a small breakthrough recently, when Jim’s mom brought me a piece of baklava made by her hair dresser. Somehow, the taste of this little pastry penetrated through my deadened senses. It brought back the memory of the uber-baklava and then promptly sent me to the cookbook archive that I was travelling with, in search of a recipe. And, yes, there was one that looked promising, in Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. I’ll try it in a few days, when I’ve finished unpacking and when my sense of taste returns. Until then, I’ll fantasize about warm Greek islands and Stavros’s baklava, if not Stavros himself.