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Bakken brings out the flavor of classic Greece in his new book. (Photograph by Dag Johansen, My Shot)

#TripLit: Adventures at the Greek Table

While Greece may be in the headlines these days for its economic woes and social unrest, when I think of Greece, I picture crystalline sunlight on a landscape of rock, sea, sand, and tree; bone-white ruins of layered history; and bright-eyed, big-living people.

That’s the Greece I fell in love with when I lived there for a year in the 1970s. American professor and poet Christopher Bakken fell in love with this same Greece when he lived there in the early 1990s, and he brings its characteristics to life in his delightful new book. 

Bakken moved to Greece to teach in Thessaloniki, its second largest city, for two years. After that initial visit, he returned so frequently that after two decades, Greece has become his second home. His intent in this new book is to celebrate that home through its cuisine. As he writes, “Almost everything I have learned about Greece, I have learned at the table. The country’s history is written in the elements of its cuisine: olives, bread, fish, and cheese.”

The result is an exuberant exploration of Greece’s defining riches. On the island of Thasos, Bakken harvests olives and grapes and goes fishing for tasty barbounia; he learns the yeasty art of bread-making on Crete, savors the smelly secrets of cheese on Naxos, chases goats on Chios and chickpeas on Serifos, and exults in creamy honey on Kythira—and makes an assault on Mount Olympus for good measure.

Bakken’s culinary quest leads him deep into the heart of the countryside and of the country people. Along the way we meet an endearing cast of characters, including the irrepressibly energetic Tasos of Thasos, “restaurateur, farmer, shepherd, octopus fisherman, rabbit hunter, traditional dancer, and wedding singer.”

We also learn fascinating snippets, such as the fact that on Crete, “on one Saturday each spring all the bakers take their profane slurries of water and flour to church to be sprinkled with holy water and blessed by the priest.”

And at a singularly Greek party on Thasos, we are taught the true meaning of kefi, which, Bakken writes, “refers to that moment when the party turns ecstatic, when individual feelings are subsumed into the group’s euphoria. You know it’s kicked in when someone is spontaneously moved to dance a zeibekiko, an improvised solo that is as much flying as dancing.”

At moments in this memory-stoking account, my soul was doing its own zeibekiko.

Don George is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler magazine and has edited several travel-writing anthologies, including his latest, Better Than Fiction. Follow his story on Twitter @don_george.

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