Best Cook: Greek Food
Home for Max and Maria Hatziiliades is a slate-roofed brick house on a corner lot in Belmont, Massachusetts — an all-American place, but step through the front door into the kitchen and you enter Greece. The couple bought their house 22 years ago and began to infuse it with the spirit of their homeland.
Marble floors and wrought-iron furniture grace the kitchen, as do the aromas of eggplant and garlic, mountain tea, and hot pastries. “Greek food is always fresh,” Maria says. “We use a lot of vegetables, lots of lemons, mint, dill, oregano, and olive oil.”
Maria grew up in Giannitsa, an agricultural center not far from the port city of Thessaloniki. Max lived two blocks away. Maria’s father asked Max to paint their house, and romance bloomed between the young couple. When Max left for theological school in America, he begged Maria to come along. “But I didn’t want to,” she explains. “He said, ‘One year — just one year — and then we’ll go home.'” And so she went and married Max. “One year passed, and then another. I was crying constantly,” she says. “And then I had my kids, and, I guess, I got used to it!”
That was 30 years ago. But in some ways, Maria has never left Greece. She flies home every year to see her parents. Her mother works daily in the garden, where tomatoes grow like magic and pomegranates, peaches, pears, figs, plums, and apricots thrive. “She’s in the garden all day, all year,” Maria says. “It’s like a paradise, her garden.”
Maria doesn’t garden, but she cooks, and the oregano, mint, and bay leaves that she brings home from Greece are essentials. While we talk, the batter for kourambiedes — cookies that Maria typically makes for Greek Easter — swirls in the mixer on Maria’s spotless countertop. For the holiday, she and her sister Vaia prepare lamb (marinated in lemon), grape leaves, cheese puffs with phyllo dough, and pita bread and hot peppers made on the grill. Family members feast together and speak Greek, the language of their hearts.
“For my kids,” Maria explains, “this is their home. They are Americans. For me it’s different. I love it here — it’s my home. But my family is there. And I’m here. It’s very hard.”
The circle went ’round again when Maria and Max’s daughter went to Greece one summer and didn’t come back when it was over. She now lives in Athens with her Greek husband and their two daughters. More joy. More heartache. More plane tickets. “You never know what life will bring,” Maria says. Like her food, Maria’s life is a mix of here and there, sweet and savory, but even she will say, “It’s all good.”