"Many years later, my father has his own definition of what constitutes the Mediterranean cuisine of his childhood."
Sometimes the most surprising aspects of encountering a new culture are the most ordinary ones—the elements that should seem familiar, but are not. For example, even people who never quite made it through the Odyssey in grade school swear they know what a Greek salad looks like. Spinach, hunks of onion, kalamata olives, haphazardly cut tomatoes, and of course, the ubiquitous chunks of feta.
Go to Greece, and you will receive something different when you order a salad in a restaurant: instead, a bowl will appear of finely diced cucumber, tomato, perhaps some onion, topped with a smattering of pungent oregano, and salt and pepper. A true Greek salad is almost like a relish. If there is feta, it's an afterthought and it's rarely chopped, a slice is merely placed upon the surface of the vegetables.
Even something as simple as a "salad" changes in its meaning upon emigrating to America. My Greek father came to the United States when he was fifteen. He often spoke of how strange the food seemed when he first arrived. He spent his first American years in Illinois. At that time and place "salad" was a code word for mayonnaise—globs of whiteness with more mayonnaise than egg or tuna on a single sheet of iceberg. My father also remembered the white bread tasting as sweet as cake and being frightened of the gravy-slathered Swiss steak his fellow students stabbed at with gusto in his university cafeteria.
However, many years later, my father has his own definition of what constitutes the Mediterranean cuisine of his childhood. Pasta is definitely Greek, preferably with lots of cheese and meat, like pastitio. Leaving leftovers on your plate is "not Greek."
Real Greeks don't eat the Japanese food I, his daughter, happen to love. The Olive Garden, purely because of the portion sizes, qualifies as authentically Greek. What and how he loves to eat is Greek (an entire half-moon of Provolone, eaten in front of a hockey game), what he does not love (vegetables, portion control) is not Greek.
My way of eating to him—my vegetarianism—is just as alien to him as the bread he ate when he first came to America. But his own sense of Greekness and Greek food has evolved and changed. Memory is flexible.
So here is a compromise. A Greek salad in honor of my father. Almost as good as the Olive Garden. And almost as fast—something I throw together when I want to eat something salty and and full of umami. A cucumber-based Japanese slaw marinated in white vinegar and soy sauce, inspired as much by Japan as Greece. And hummus—the ultimate culinary Rorschach test from Greece/Turkey/the Middle East that is blended with everything from guacamole to peanut butter in America.
About the author: Mary Pagones, who you may know better as HeartofGlass around here, eats food, mostly plants, but still worries far too much what she is eating in New Jersey.