My Big Fat Greek Experience (or the Real Mediterranean Diet)

At the tender age of 20, I was transferred overseas with my 20 year old husband to Greece. We were going to a small duty station about 30 miles south of Athens to a small town near Marathon. The entire American Community in this small town was about 300 people. The town itself was authentic Greek culture. They loved the Americans and had made changes to accommodate us. We had to live “on the economy” which meant we had to have homes in the Greek village, find our own ride to the base every day, and cook and live in the community, there was no base housing.

Anytime a person is stationed in a foreign country to live, the Navy gives a one week indoctrination and a family similar in age and experience to yours to help you navigate the local economy. They tell you how to pay for a taxi, what the money is worth and the only legal way to exchange dollars into local currency, cultural taboos (like never show the palm of your hand to a Greek, it is equivalent to flipping them off). All really useful information designed to keep you out of jail. It also makes you a firm believer that you are getting the very best information of what you have to do to avoid Greek prison and survive the culture without huge problems.  There were a lot stories of jailed sailors that didn’t listen and DID end up in jail!

They also discussed the local food and water supply. They told us that we should avoid local butchers and restaurants because they didn’t live up to US standards for cleanliness. That we should never drink or cook with the hot water that is run through a water heater and we should avoid tap water altogether if we could unless we were on base. They encouraged us to make one or two trips to a large US Air force base in Athens so we could buy American meat and food we recognized (like wonder bread) that was funneled in by the standing US Army in Germany, and to try to eat that as much as possible.

As a young inquisitive person, I had already seen some things happening in the local community that made me wonder why everyone around me wasn’t dead from the germs.  So, during the training, I asked the US Navy Doctor the question in class. “How come the Greeks are not all dying of deadly diseases and kidney failure from eating their own food and drinking their own water?” He told us the Greeks were raised with these poor conditions and had developed the antibiotics they needed from exposure to this poor hygiene. It all made sense to me!! I was determined my husband and I would eat as little as possible from the locals and I would plan our meals around a monthly bus ride to Athens (very few of us had cars) or eating in the “chow hall” on base (this is just like junior high cafeteria food….awful).

My impressions as I walked through the streets of the small town reinforced my fear. In Greece they still did much like I imagined the USA did things in the 1940’s. The town square was crowded with little stores. There were two butchers on the square, a couple of vegetable stands, a place that sold only cheeses and cow and goat milk (the owners own herd and cheese made by the owner and his family), bakeries making nothing but long loaves of crusty bread, a store that sold sweets and deserts. Everything people bought was being wrapped in white or brown butcher block paper and put in the huge bags all the Greek woman (and a few Americans) carried around with them.

The butcher shops had hooks out front on a pulley system. It was (I later found out, because it didn’t look like anything I had ever seen) sides of beef, whole halves of pork, whole sheep, whole goats and whole lambs. To be blunt, it all looked like skinned dogs of various sizes to me. This was all just hanging out in the open in temperatures of well over 100 degrees, all day long. The only thing not hanging up there was any type of poultry. There was no chicken, turkey, duck, etc. If you walked in and ordered a chicken….the butcher would smile…..walk somewhere into the back of the store…shortly you would hear the chicken squawk as it was being killed. If you don’t know that is what is going to happen it is really a shock when the butcher came back smiling and covered in blood!

Greece doesn’t have a ready supply of inexpensive power that we have in the USA so there is no refridgeration. Many families used old fashioned ice boxes with the ice man coming around in a truck twice a week selling huge bricks of ice to the families. Butchers had a “cold room”. It wasn’t a freezer, it was a room made of marble (marble is a very common thing in Greece), and a few blocks of ice sitting around. When the butcher closed shop, he would use the pulleys to wheel his huge hunks of meat into this cold room, shewing off as many flies as he could on the way and close the door. The next morning, he would wheel that same meat back out, cool but not cold or frozen. As the flies got warm, they would fly out of that room off and on all day long.

Also, Greece is an incredibly arid country. It was dry and grass did not grow there naturally. Piped water and irrigation techniques were good so water was plentiful and fairly inexpensive, so they could have had grass if they wanted. But, the Greeks thought that only the rich could afford grass, so every square inch of earth was the homeowner’s personal garden. They grew tomatoes and cucumbers, and peppers and every house had trees. Every family had their own lemon trees set to bloom at different times all year and enough of their own olive trees to make their own olive oil for a year of cooking with a single harvest. Our landlords lived upstairs so we watched as the whole family came together (mom, dad and three boys), to harvest their olives and press their own oil. These were the fat black Kalamata olives that were so rich and luscious that when you ate one right off the tree your teeth and lips would be black from the oil. If a family had a bad harvest or owned a restaurant that exceeded their needs, there was one store in town that sold olive oil by the barrel, but he was only open for 4 hours once a week. If a Greek family were doing well, they might even boast a fig tree! I remember vividly the day our landlord and his oldest son came to show us a single pecan. The pecan was on a plate like it was a brick of gold…..they were so proud they could bust. They weren’t giving it to us, in his broken English, the 13 year old boy explained that their very mature tree planted years ago had produced its first nut. That pecan and fig trees were a sign of Greek affluence to all his neighbors.

Also, every house had its own chickens. There was no roost or fences. Chickens seemed to wander from one house to another willy nilly. I didn’t know it, but chickens can fly. It looks awkward as heck and they have to hop up a tree and jump out to do it….but where Greeks had fences for privacy from the Americans in town the chickens escaped with flight. The chickens were constantly moving from house to house and I wondered why the Greeks didn’t care that they were flying away. I found out later that what the Greeks do is make an area conducive to nesting and they feed the chickens. Chickens will naturally roost…we don’t have to do it for them and they will naturally lay eggs that aren’t fertilized. You don’t have to “own” a rooster….if you have a flock of chickens, a rooster will come. You don’t have to kill them, they will kill each other. It is barbaric as all get out, but the Greeks let the chickens behave as naturally as possible and it is an effective system. A rooster can’t fertilize a whole flock of hens (who naturally group into flocks). So, everyone in Greece left straw and some overhead shelter to protect from the rain and started with a few chickens. They gathered the abandoned eggs every day to eat. If the egg was fertilized, they let the hen roost and have babies. If the family couldn’t feed all the chickens from the new fledglings, some of them would wander off to a neighbor who could. The current rooster in charge would kill off the male babies on his own, the Greeks didn’t do it for him. Sooner or later, a young rooster would show up, there would be a fight, and there would be a new king of the roost.

There were also restaurants, a lot of them. In Greece, a good restaurant has its daily meat offering hanging in the window front…..strange looking parts of raw animals once again exposed to 100 degree temperatures days in a row (No poultry though, that is the only thing they tried to gauge for American style supply and demand). There were rarely wasted chickens, but if you got to your favorite place late, they were usually sold out of their chicken dishes. Most restaurants didn’t even take their meat to a cold room at night, it hung in the window until it was used up or the owner replaced it after a week or more. The newer restaurants couldn’t afford refrigeration (even ice rooms), and quite frankly didn’t see that they needed it. Greeks going out to eat (and very rarely did they do that) would look for the quality of the cut (which I never did figure out the method of) hanging there to determine what restaurant they might eat at.

The cooking took place at either a window front in the store on a gas fired griddle with a section that also looked like a grill or in the middle of the restaurant over an open fire (in the winter). There were also deep fryers full of olive oil….all potatoes were deep fried. I would see a Greek restaurant cook heating up his grill for a meal just ordered (even gas for heating and wood were expensive there so if no one was waiting on food the heat was off). The cook would smile and wave at me and I would wave back and to my horror I would see him spit on the grill…..they all did this to make sure the grill was a right temperature for cooking! When the spit danced across the grill like a well thrown stone skipping across a lake they were pleased and the meal someone had just ordered was started.

Almost all restaurants had identical menus. All supplied from local growers and farmers. Every restaurant had a specialty, but for the most part they were all alike in their offerings. If you weren’t getting a meal and wanted a ‘sandwich’ (actually a Gyro because they didn’t have traditional bread) or just meat on a stick, like a kabob, you had to go to a local bar. Those sandwiches (Gyros) and kabobs that Americans love are actually bar food in Greece. If you were having a Greek dinner like Pork Chops or Lamb, it was sliced off the hanging meat and roasted, grilled, or fried all basted with olive oil and lemon EXCEPT for seafood and fish.

No butcher and no typical restaurant had seafood, which was odd as we were right on the Aegean Sea. It was within walking distance from our house. Seafood restaurants were owned by fisherman. Along with the normal potatoes and salad (which didn’t have a hint of lettuce in it), Seafood restaurants only sold fish and shrimp and had no menu. They had no seafood hooks hanging out front. Seafood restaurants were owned by fisherman. You would see the white sailboats set out against the beautiful rising sun. When the ships pulled into port about 5 or 6 PM, the wife and family were waiting. The menu for that night was whatever dad had caught on the open sea, prepared in a way that was too delicious to even describe here. If you went to a seafood restaurant, you would walk up to the counter and the fish might even be moving a little on a bed of chipped ice. You pointed to the one you wanted and they started cooking it over an open grill right on the beach front while you ate your salad and French fries. These was the only places I knew of where there were always more Greeks eating in the restaurant than Americans. Unfortunately, we didn’t discover this gem until the last year we were there, so I can’t tell you much about how it works. I do know that some fisherman didn’t have restaurants and they sold their catch to local Greeks who were hollering amounts in some kind of bid system and throwing fish just like the famous fish market in Seattle.

In the beginning, it all seemed so foreign and barbaric I became phobic about eating anything from the Greek economy. I struggled to keep us away from it except for restaurants deemed “clean” by the Americans every great once in a while. Many of the Americans there had full time house wives and never did learn to enjoy the local fare. I was a full time sailor and so was my husband, so I couldn’t devote my whole life to keeping us from eating on the economy. Plus, it was so cheap. Within 3 months of being there I was experimenting with the local food supply. Many of my fellow sailors had already started down this path and seemed OK. By the time I left, three years later, our eating habits were fully integrated and we lived almost exclusively on the Greek food supply, especially the meat. I made many trips to that butcher and it was always a surprise as my orders became more and more sophisticated.

You should keep in mind, in the American community, some thought we were exotic and blending well into the community, some had been doing it for years, but most thought I was a really lazy and bad wife for not making that trip to Athens twice a month. I personally felt guilty and was always a little scared I was going to kill us. If I had children then, I wouldn’t have ever even tried to live like a Greek.

We never once got sick from the food. I did worry about the long term impact of all the iron from the water, but we are now in our 50’s with no damage. And, we also ate everything we wanted and maintained a healthy weight. This was before the Navy decided it needed skinny sailors and all you had to do was try to run a mile and ½ twice a year. The Navy probably was the fattest branch in the late-80’s (behind only the Coast Guard) but in Greece, the percentage was much lower. In fairness to American diet and food, the average age on that base was 23, so thin wasn’t unusual for our age group. However, what we saw when we got back to the states on our next assignment shocked us. We were surprised to see how fat the Navy had gotten and thought the ever increasing physical requirements were probably a good thing.

We never fell in love with the Greek experience at the time. We longed for the local 7-11, the convenience of the single grocery store where we could just walk down aisle and grab whatever we wanted. This romance of the American feeding frenzy was reinforced as we told our new Greek friends about the availability of food and described TV dinners. Their eyes would be huge with wonder at how incredible it must be to be an American. We longed for a drive thrus, wonder bread and donuts, Oreo cookies and Twinkies. We had a way to get some of those things if we wanted at the Athens airbase on that hour long bus ride, but missed being able to get them on the way home. And quite frankly, if I was going to spend my day off doing something it wasn’t going to be taking the whole day for Oreos and Hershey’s chocolate, I never missed it that badly. Towards the end of our time there, the Navy built a small outlet food store supplied weekly from the Air Base in Athens. Twinkie day was huge!  Our small outlet store would get them once every month or two.  Word would spread throughout the base that a shipment of Twinkies had come in and the line in that little store would be out the door and around the building until every box was sold in the very first day. In fairness, I would often be in that very line. And no one used Twinkies to barter for liquor or for any other reason than to eat. It felt like home.

What we miss most about Greece now, as do most of our friends who ventured out, is the longing for that REALLY fresh meat, deep fried with freshly pressed olive oil and made tangy with lemons just picked off the tree, Tzatziki, a Greek yogurt and cucumber dip served with crusty bread. The huge wooden barrels of feta, not refrigerated, but soaking in brine from the cheese store, huge loaves of crusty bread, the ability to pick up a chicken on the way home that was slow roasted over a pit fire that had just been killed that morning. The Brazilian owned restaurant up in the mountains who had a fire roasted way of preparing meat that was really good, but it was worth the trip just in case he had made fresh sausages that day. I remember sitting there anxiously waiting with with ten other sailors until the waiter told us if there was sausage….if the answer was yes, there would be a little cheer from our table. I can’t begin to describe how good those things were.

As soon as my husband and I got back from the states and out of the Navy (where we had become somewhat obsessed with exercise) we started putting on weight and the battle of the bulge has been ongoing ever since. Then I picked up the Aitkens diet book and recognized the error of our new eating habits.  I started to get back to how the Greeks taught me to eat. I have never read a book on the Mediterranean diet, but understand that we are trying to get back to our Greek experience as it was the healthiest we have ever lived. We have come close, but backslide when we both have our weight where we want it. A bag of tortilla chips and a jar of salsa shows up, 1/2 a gallon of ice cream, and soon we are eating high fat and high carb, a true recipe for disaster. We reset and start all over again.

If our food was as good as it was in Greece and every restaurant were producing those healthy meals, I think we could truly return to that healthy eating. That is what makes reading the science in “One Small Change” so good for me. I am starting to understand why I can’t recreate that experience and I am slowly learning that it isn’t just eating meat, but the quality of the meat that I am eating really matters to the taste. That USDA certified doesn’t mean what it used to…..and so many other things, too numerous to mention here.

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4 Responses to My Big Fat Greek Experience (or the Real Mediterranean Diet)

  1. dcarmack says:

    I laughed out loud several times reading this. Of course the point of all of this would be to illuminate the fact that the “Mediterranean diet” as practiced in Greece, is far different than anything we could import to the US. I would love to spend a few months over there learning how they really live and eat. All I know is that there is nothing magical about olive oil, even the Greeks didn’t start eating it until recent history. Far more important is the meats and other fats that they eat, and don’t worry about eating.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jhill2310 says:

    I didn’t know that about olive oil, Dan. It was a BIG part of the Greek culture when we were there from 1986-1989. Greeks were really poor and clearly had an economic model that could not survive the European Union. I don’t know what it is like there now as Europe is moving in to ‘fix’ them.


  3. kscarmack says:

    Great story… I enjoyed reading your adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Through the Ceiling | One Small Change at a Time

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