I used to laugh at people who said that writing a book was like having a baby. Well, after having two babies, I can say that it really is. Sure, labor is painful—but so is sitting on my aching bum for five or six hours writing after a full day of work at the office, for months. Pregnancy involves sleep deprivation, angst, weird dreams, panicky moments, self-doubt, and some level of discomfort. So does a looming book deadline.
But, it’s also so very rewarding. Licking the Spoon caused me to rupture my shyness membranes to contact and bond with long-lost relatives—and to come out to them, with nary a negative response. It gave me a reason to get hooked on Ancestry.com. Seeing my Greek great-grandparents’ names on the S.S. Athinai passenger list, uncovering a photo of my grandfather’s pint-sized Brooklyn oceanfront diner, becoming fast friends with my second cousin Stacie — these are all gifts that keep on giving.
I loved the recipe-testing, too. My diner-owning grandfather’s recipes were among the best included in the book. His rice pudding recipe was not only a treasure, it also confounded me at first. How could this crazy ratio of milk to rice work? I called my mother, sure she had transmitted the recipe with at least one typo. “That does sound crazy,” she said, regarding the high milk-to-rice ratio. “But I have it in his handwriting, it’s exactly what he wrote!” Turns out that the ratio, although it seemed wildly out of kilter, surrendered the most dulcet rice pudding I’d tasted since — well, since my mother made rice pudding when I was a child.
My Irish aunt had lost her mother’s Chicken Fricassee recipe, and I was able to give it to her. My Greek third cousin thought the spanakopita recipe went to the grave with Aunt Christina, but my cousin Stacie had it.
Even if this book only sells five copies, I will know that my idea to trace my life story through recipes, cookbooks, culinary movements, and foodie gurus resulted in healing, connection, and infinitely restored family dinners.
Through a very universal theme, sustenance, I hope my story can reach past barriers of disenfranchisement, bigotry, awkwardness, and misunderstanding to knit us closer together with both those who loved us first, and those we choose as family.
This recipe from Chapter 1 was brought over from Crete by my great-grandmother Maria.
Yield: 12 servings
2 cups curly-leaf, a.k.a. savoy, spinach (not baby or flat-leaf spinach)
1 pound cream cheese
1⁄2 pound farmer cheese, or chèvre in a pinch
1⁄2 pound of large-curd pot cheese or cottage cheese
Salt and pepper
1∕8 cup of freshly chopped peppermint, or a tiny droplet of peppermint extract (“Don’t overdo it, or it tastes like mouthwash,” according to my cousin Stacie). I also sub in oregano if I don’t have peppermint. But the peppermint makes it a Cretan recipe.
1 pound of phyllo dough
3 tablespoons melted butter
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Wash the spinach, remove stems, dry the leaves, and then chop them. Add salt, pepper, and peppermint and toss.
Put the cheeses in a large mixing bowl and break them up with your hands. Mix them together.
Whisk eggs separately, then add to cheese and stir briskly to incorporate. Start adding the spinach mixture into the wet mixture. You need to squish the spinach with your hands. Keep adding spinach and squishing it until it’s all added into the main bowl and has an even consistency. I think my great-grandmother squished it until it was completely broken down, but I stop before that because I like the texture.
Make a phyllo base, in your rectangular oven-safe pan, by buttering and stacking a couple of layers. (When I’m working with a smaller pan, I take about 6 phyllo layers from the package and lay them flat in the pan. There’s a lot of extra length, so I pack the spinach mixture in and then wrap the phyllo ends over the filling, like flaps.)
Pack the spinach mixture on top of the phyllo. Top with more phyllo, then brush top with butter.
Before baking, cut rows through phyllo, because it’s way messier to cut it after it is cooked. Bake until phyllo is browned, for about 40 minutes.
Licking the Spoon Events:
Thursday, November 15, 6 p.m. SANTA FE, NM. Collected Works Bookstore, conversation and reading with Cheryl Alters Jamison.
Saturday, November 17, 3 p.m. ALBUQUERQUE, NM. Bookworks. Reading and conversation.