It was many years after I left my home in Athens, that I realized how important was the Sunday meal of my childhood for my soul. Sunday was the one and only day off school, and I always tried to complete my homework on Saturday afternoon, to enjoy the Sunday ritual.
The breakfast was just coffee (milk for us kids) and galettes with sweet butter and homemade marmelade. The ripe spring apricots boiled with sugar and trapped in small glass jars were there all year long. Grandpa was living with us. On Sundays, right after breakfast he loved telling me stories. Other families were going to church. We had conversations with grandpa. He was reading a lot, he had a great social circle and talking with him was always interesting. Grandpa, despite my adolescent years, was talking to me as if I was an adult. His stories would be about his home town in Smyrna, about a ballet performance he took me the other day, about people, about a novel, about politics. You may think a girl at twelve would not care about these things but this is wrong. An interesting conversation is interesting at and for any age, and it is the charisma of the story teller that makes it such.
Even the times that my dad was not traveling we still had the Sunday story telling with Grandpa, and after that he went on, reading of the Sunday paper.
The Sunday meal preparation was also part of the day’s ritual. Always in a big round pan and changing with the seasons. A roast chicken with potatoes however has no season, and it was definitely a favorite. Summertime, ground beef and rice stuffed ripe tomatoes and peppers were arranged in the pan and chunky potatoes were stuck in the gaps. Summertime, it was too hot to bake the meal at home. The neighborhood bakeries were open just for baking your food for a few drachmas. ” Tell him not to burn it!” , were always the last words from my mom as I was leaving to take the covered pan to the bakery.
Giouvetsi (roast beef chunks with orzo in tomato sauce) was a favorite Sunday meal as we entered fall. The beef and the sauce from the last seasonal tomatoes in a large clay pot, was taken to the bakery along with a small bag of orzo on the side to be added fifteen minutes before the meat was “done” . The baker knew! The meals baked in their wood burning oven were extraordinary.
As the weather was getting colder, the trips to the bakery were becoming sparse. Oil and lemon (with extra lemon) noix de boeuf was simmering in a covered pot until it became so tender that you could pull it apart. On the side mom was making fries in olive oil. That (lemonato dish) from all Sunday meals was on the top of my list, with a dark lemony brown sauce to dip your bread in.
A fish soup followed with the fish fillets dressed with lemon and olive oil and surrounded with boiled vegetables was on our table when the local fisherman had a good catch.
At one o’clock mom usually said. “Girls please set the table” . Mom had someone to help her, but setting the Sunday table in the dinning room, was our job. Remove the decorative tablecloth and use a white linen one. Large plates for the meal, smaller for the salad, silverware and napkins and don’t forget the salt and pepper shakers. Dad always wants extra salt. I can still hear mom saying: ” Well, try it first”
Prepare the salad. Tomato and cucumber in the summer, cabbage in the wither , romain lettuce with fresh onions in the spring, russian salad any time. On Sundays the bakeries did not make bread. Cut yesterdays bread and put it in a basket. If it looks too stale, toast the slices, or put the loaf in the oven for a few minutes.
Last but not least, the cheese and the condiments. The olives, the mustard, the fish roe salad (taramosalata), the tzatziki, whatever was seasonal goes on the Sunday table along with a platter with cheeses. Grandpa who was a “bon viveur” especially in the gastronomic sector, knew all the stores in Athens with the best foods, and the owners greeted him with his name.
In the coming and going from the kitchen to the dining room, everyone was involved. Even dad was preparing the tomato salad and he considered himself a specialist. His salad was rich and tasty! What can I say.
We all begun eating at the same time, after mom sat down at her place. This was respect to the person who cooked the meal.
There was always cold beer or wine depending on the season and the meal, and I was allowed to have a sip since my early years.
There was no TV during our Sunday meal but at 2:00 pm we all listened to a radio show called : “The theater on microphone” presented by a charismatic reporter with the name Achilleas Mamakis . He was talking about the latest theatrical events in the city and had interviews with actors and other artists.
The plates were removed by us girls at the end of the meal, and replaced by smaller ones for the fruit. At home we never had sweets right after the meal. These were served much later, after the siesta with coffee. At that time we the kids were not always present, as part of the Sunday ritual was to watch a movie with other classmates at the neighborhood theater.
There were times, when we gathered at someone else ‘s home, usually our aunts. Leaving our ritual and be part of others, was very exciting. They always made our favorite dishes which we thought were superior to our moms, and our cousins thought that our mom made the best chicken. Not to mention that they were preparing at times rabbit dishes or snails that our mom never made. They made our favorite desserts and best of all, the youngsters were sharing a separate table with whatever that implies, mainly laughter and loud conversations. While the grownups were engaged in endless conversations after the meals, we were playing board games.
At our home, at aunt Niki’s or aunt Rea’s the Sunday meal was the social highlight of a normal otherwise week.
Small gatherings that went beyond food and wine. Small gatherings high up in memory, bringing up smiles.