Style Gourmet

The joy of really knowing what you're cooking about.

Culinary Reviews Home
Style Gourmet Home
Contact Elliot Essman

Culinary Reviews RSS News Feed

Greek Salad
by Miles Lambert-Gócs

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

A satisfying chunk of black volcanic rock never leaves my desk. I picked it up personally on the Greek island of Santorini, where steam still percolates from the ground some twenty-five hundred years after the island exploded, upending the Aegean world. You can believe my powerful paperweight is the match of even the most truculent culinary book. It has certainly helped me plumb the depths of Greek Salad, a “Dionysian Travelogue” by American wine writer Miles Lambert-Gócs. Lambert roams Greece—the Aegean islands, the mainland, the Ionian islands—in an attempt to transmit, even amplify, a taste of Greece into accessible English prose. The result—even if you can taste Greece only vicariously—is the stuff of persistent reverie.

Taken individually, Lambert’s 26 vignettes could only succeed in generating dramatic tension, unless, like me, you retain taste memory of a challenging retsina from Rhodes, or the best yogurt you have ever ingested. The whole of Greek Salad, though by rights it should be at least a coffee-table book (it is a tight small-format paperback), succeeds as it satisfies. I read just yesterday that recent surveys found Greeks, both male and female, to be on average even heavier than Americans. Evidently, Greeks do a lot of eating and drinking. The way Lambert tells it, the food, the wine, the soul of Greece do not spring fully-formed from a laminated restaurant menu; they are animated by earth, sea and sky. If you find yourself in Greece, you might as well eat, and wash it down with wine that originates just a stone’s throw from your table. You can work it all off in the gym on your return.

Lambert has the imagination and scope to extol both the obscure and the predictable. Nearly every American “Greek diner” I have ever turned to as refuge from the night has offered a credible mousaka, a hybrid dish Lambert examines lightheartedly in his chapter on Larissa, on the Greek mainland in Thessaly. “Mousaka,” Lambert writes, “certainly cannot lay with the en croute delicacies; but on the other hand it does not sink with the fluid casseroles either. Sometimes it seems to slide in between the terrines and pâtés…However, the rarer low-built mousaka, with its slim strata, cuts nicely on the bias and, if highly flavored with sweet spices, can for all the world seem a soft, non-stick baklava.” If detail is delicious, Lambert serves up a feast, even if we want to pardon the author’s French.

Or ferry-hop to the Aegean island of Syros, which Lambert visits for a second, longer look after having guiltily given the island short shrift in a previous incarnation. Here Lambert is hosted by shipping magnate John Vatis, who, after having acquired a taste for chardonnay in California, has fostered a wine-culture on the island. Vatis cultivates his vines “under Israeli conditions—no water and very bad land,” using elaborate drip irrigation systems combined with the best technology money can buy. At the outset, a California enologist had informed Vatis that the “official” temperatures on the island were far too hot for chardonnay. But that was before the enologist visited the island and “found himself needing a jacket on the veranda in the evening—and before John discovered that the temperature readings were taken in the daytime in a stuffy nook downtown.” At lunch, John’s wife Helen prepares that other food I find on Greek diner menus: “pastitsio of a quality above what even an inveterately hopeful fan of Greek dishes might imagine that pastitsio has in it” (and a far cry from my own pale experience in American eateries).

Greek Salad handily transcends the American notion of “Greek food and wine,” and yet I find a strong Greco-American thread throughout the book. Lambert sweeps through Greece not only as a journalist but also as a representative of the United States Department of Agriculture, a role that forces him on occasion to visit food processing plants, consume their output, and say nice things about it. We Americans love foreign references to our homeland, and Lambert provides them, from the Greek sailors who wax fondly over their visits to US ports, to Lambert’s own habitual pilgrimage from his home in Virginia to a Greek wine shop in Astoria, New York, where he crams his car trunk with viniferous products he simply cannot live without. Writers always have a choice of perspective, voice and personal character; Lambert’s is one of honest immediacy. The writing is unapologetically personal, vivid, experiential; therein lies the problem, since the only meal we really get to eat is composed of words rather than olive oil and lamb. Those of us who can’t quite swing a leisurely voyage to Greece had better hope PBS drafts Lambert to host a thirteen-part series soon. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

- Style Gourmet -

Culinary Reviews Home -- Style Gourmet Home
Contact Elliot Essman and Style Gourmet

Copyright © Elliot Essman 2005
This page is
Top of this page.