The Sea Takes It Away

Twelve years ago I wrote this chapter for my first book Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch. At its heart is spotlight on the fallacy of thinking that there is somewhere “away” that we can send anything, especially our so-called “trash.” I was trying to wrap my thinking and my lifestyle around a new paradigm then, and I am still trying to do better.

The Sea Takes It Away

from Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch by Leda Meredith

 

It had been 20 years since my mom and me traveled to Greece when I was 4 years old. We expected changes.

My great-aunt Zoitsa had an electric stove now, she wrote in a letter, and running water. She didn’t need to go out to the old pump anymore. The mailman came twice instead of once a week, and on a motorcycle rather than a donkey.

We knew there would be changes, but as the bus followed the curvy
road from Athens and we saw the rocky Greek countryside we got
excited for the things we remembered. Surely the water would still be
as clear as ever, so clear that the oval stones and dark sea urchins at
bottom would be visible even from the pier. Surely the culinary trinity of
olive oil, lemon, and garlic was eternal, as were the salty goat cheeses
and the heaped platters of psariki, the fried fish too small to sell. Electric
stove or no, Thea Zoitsa would still be taking round brown loaves of
bread out of her wood fire oven. The tub of kalamata olives,
made according to my grandfather’s recipe, would still sit below the
white cabinets displaying the John F. Kennedy ashtrays he’d brought back
to Greece after 40 years in the States.

Thea Zoitsa greeted us with a “special just for you” platter of what
looked like slices of Wonder Bread. She had taken the ferry to Agios to
buy this white, pre-sliced loaf, sure that it would please our American palates.
She was so proud of offering “what you are used to.” Oh no, we said,
you didn’t have to. We love your bread, the brown bread from the old
oven. Really.

No, no, we were told. That was poor people’s bread. Did
we think they were still peasants? She could afford white bread now.
She said she did still use the old wood fire oven for special party
dishes such as moussaka because they just didn’t taste right when made
in the electric. But for day-to-day living, what a relief not to have to
gather all that fuel and mind the fire and clean out all that ash.

We had been looking forward to the sourdough tang and chewy
density of her brown bread. She was grateful for the respite from the
relentless physical labor she’d known all her life. Everyone lost out, because even Thea Zoitsa couldn’t pretend that the pre-sliced, plastic-wrapped bread from the store was good to eat.

When I traveled, I kept encountering this clash between the deliciousness of the
old ways and the convenience of modern store-bought food. I listened to people
reminisce about what wonderful cooks their grandmothers had been, only to follow up by
saying thank god we don’t have to work that hard anymore and anyway who has the
time?

Once I rented a house in Southwest France with my dad and my partner. There
were wonderful old chestnut trees growing on the property. When I complimented them
to a local he told me that it was only in recent years anybody ate the nuts. How could that
be? I asked him. I loved chestnuts. In my family, there is a yemisee, a Greek rice stuffing,
that is turned into a special holiday food by adding boiled chestnuts. He explained that
during World War II chestnuts were what people turned to when wheat was scarce. Labor-intensive to prepare, and lacking the gluten that enables wheat dough to rise,
ground chestnuts came to be thought of as a famine flour rather than a flavorful treat.

On another trip, several people in Ireland assured me that the blackberries in the
hedgerows were inedible. This was a blatant lie—I enjoyed them as a trail snack when I
went for a walk every morning. Eventually one old-timer admitted that yes, you could eat
them. “My sister used to make a decent jam with them, but that was because there wasn’t
anything else during the war. Made tea from the leaves, too, when the regular ran out.
Got everything from the field in those years.”

My Greek aunt didn’t want to eat her magnificent brown bread because she
associated it with being poor and a peasant. My French and Irish friends turned their
backs on rich chestnuts and perfectly ripe blackberries because of a war that had ended 70
years ago. Still, they had options. They knew how to fire up the wood oven if they
wanted to, how to make that brown bread, how to leach the bitter tannins out of the
chestnuts and dry and grind them for flour, how to make that hedgerow blackberry jam. Most people I know don’t know how to do any of those things. They don’t have to because they are
surrounded by food for sale from all over the globe.

But the abundant variety offered by the shops and restaurants still limits our choices to what strangers provide. If there was an actual war on our home turf, if the trucks couldn’t get through and the stores ran out of food, how many of us would be able to live off the landscape the way my French and Irish friends did in World War II? It is not so much a question of whether or not they wanted to as that they could.

In just two generations most of us have lost that option.

Back in the village, my mom and I sat sipping our tiny cups of thick coffee,
skehto (black) for me, and metrio (medium-sweet) for her. We had lost the brown bread
battle with my great aunt, but were enjoying the summer afternoon and the sound of small waves lapping at the pier my grandfather had built.

Thea Zoitsa came out of the house looking like a postcard Greek yia-yia: thick stockings, black kerchief tied under her chin, slightly stooped, carrying a bundle of something towards the pier. When she got there, I was horrified to see her throw a plastic bag of trash into the clear sea.

“What are you doing?!” I exclaimed. She looked baffled by my outrage. “This is what we have always done,” she said. “Don’t worry. The sea takes it away.”

That night, writing in my journal, I wondered what it was like to have lived
in an era when people still believed that there was someplace “away” where the tide could take
your trash without consequence. She probably looked at me and wondered what it was
like to have lived a life that had never seen war firsthand, someplace where the electricity
always worked and the stores never ran out of bread.

We were both naive in terrible ways.



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