Expat Feasts in Athens on the Eve of the Balkan WarsPosted: January 3, 2017
“Maybe I asked you before, but will you save all my letters, dear, for I may want to use some of the material in them” Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor (1886-1960) reminded her mother a month after her arrival in Greece (Oct. 20, 1910). And because Emma Pierce respected her daughter’s wish, a valuable collection of private correspondence describing the daily life of a young American bride in Athens in the early 20th century has been preserved in the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA).
This is the second time From the Archivist’s Notebook features an essay about Zillah Dinsmoor. In February 2014, guest author Jacquelyn Clemens published an account of Zillah’s Greek experience, mining information from her letters. “Students and scholars who study at the American School… have often been accompanied by their spouses, significant others, and children who live with them here in Athens. In the early 20th century, Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor was one of these women who traveled to Athens along with her husband, architect William Bell Dinsmoor” wrote Clemens in her introductory paragraph. (Read J. Clemens,”Letters from a New Home. Early 20th Century Athens Through the Eyes of Zillah Dinsmoor“) Barely 24 years old (and away from home for the first time), this fashionable young woman from Massachussets wrote long letters once a week to her mother about her new life in Athens.
Considered “as somehow inferior, less political, or less significant texts,” familial letters have been neglected by historians. In the past decade, however, there has been an upsurge of scholarly publications studying social issues, such as the rise and strengthening of the middle class in America and Britain, based on private correspondence. I mention in passing Sarah Pearsall’s Atlantic Families (2008), Eve Tavor Bannet’s, Empire of Letters (2005), and Konstantin Dierks, In my Power: Letter Writing and Communications (2011).
I recently revisited Zillah’s rich correspondence, especially the letters she wrote from 1910-1912, looking for information about daily interactions, social and professional, between American and German archaeologists working in Greece at the end of the 19th/early 20th century. Yet, what caught my eye were Zillah’s detailed descriptions of dinners she hosted or attended in Athens. Because she was particularly interested in cooking and entertaining, her letters trace the culinary profile and social aspirations of the city’s upper middle class, a mixture of foreign expatriates and a local westernized aristocracy.
The rise of professionalization at the end of the 19th century did not leave cooking unaffected. Although recipes still passed from mothers to daughters (sometimes as well-kept family secrets), the Boston Cooking School project –which was initiated in 1876 and the first to categorize different kinds of food, standardize quantities, and study the relationship between food and health– elevated cooking to a science. In the spirit of the time, an Italian cook Pellegrino Artusi also published La Scienza in Cucina e l’ Arte di Mangiar Bene (1891) which was soon translated into many languages including German. A few years later, in 1896, Fannie Farmer published the Boston Cooking School Cookbook. (See Alex Ketchum’s, “Fannie Farmer and the Boston Cooking School Cookbook : A History of Science, Gender, and Food”). Interestingly enough, Bert Hodge Hill, director of the ASCSA from 1906-1926, owned a copy of Farmer’s 1918 edition. Although it does not show any signs of wear (unlike my own cookbooks), except for occasional checks in pencil, it must have been consulted by the School’s hosts and hostesses before dinners.
Zillah’s time in Athens coincided with the rise of Nikos Tselementes (1878-1958), perhaps the most famous and influential Greek cook, who took it upon himself to “clean” Greek cuisine of oriental influences, thus banning olive oil from cooking and introducing butter and creamy sauces. Moussaka and pastitsio, signature dishes of modern Greek cuisine, were his creations. Originally from Siphnos, Tselementes learned to cook in his uncle’s hotel, the luxurious “Aktaion” in Phaleron. After spending time in Vienna, Tselementes returned to Athens to establish himself as the best cook in town, working for the Austrian Embassy (and other embassies later). Talented, ambitious, educated, and trendy, he soon distinguished himself from the other local cooks by publishing the first Greek cookbook in 1910 (Οδηγός Μαγειρικής και Ζαχαροπλαστικής).
“Fortunately I have not met the octopus yet”
After spending several days with her husband Bill (the architect William Bell Dinsmoor) and other members of the American School in Central Greece, Zillah described the local food as monotonous. “They soak everything that they possibly can in tomato sauce and while that is very good in itself it becomes a little tiresome when it flavors everything.” She continued with a description of the local products available for sale on the stores: “The front of all the stores are the same, one keg of pickled herring, a [?] of ripe olives, a big barrel of cheese, a big barrel of tomato sauce and a confection made of honey and sesame seeds called halva. Fortunately I have not met the octopus yet.” But she raved about the Greek honey, “[it] is the most delicious I have ever tasted. You almost think you are eating flowers.” (Oct. 20, 1910).
Zillah’s Chafing Dish
Zillah travelled to Greece with her own chafing dish, and she tried to use it to make fudge. Although it came out “beautifully creamy,” it tasted funny because she and Bill couldn’t make the shop keeper understand that they wanted unsweetened chocolate. “…We came home with some miserable Greek sweet chocolate.” While in Corinth at the excavation house, she cooked their breakfasts in the chafing dish, but her attempt to cook lamb proved unsuccessful: “the roast lamb was a fizzle. The oven was too hot at first and by waiting for it to cool enough to put the meat in, it was not hot enough to cook it through…” she complained to her mother (Nov. 15, 1910).
“I wish you could see my kitchen. Dirt floor, a long zinc table in the middle…, candles for light…, and about half of the room is piled up with excavation picks, shovels, baskets, etc. I have a box with a hinged cover to keep groceries in and I can’t leave a bit of milk or meat there for the two cats get in through the window the minute I leave the place… Even the hens walk in the kitchen when I am there and the goat has pushed his nose in inquisitively on several occasions.” Unlike other Americans who describe with disgust the goat’s milk, Zillah enjoyed the flavor, eggs, and local bread. “It is a pleasure to cook with it and the eggs also. Scrambled eggs puff up as light as a feather.” “I wonder how they make bread here. They only bake once a month but the bread seems fresh. It is very different from ours rather brown with a hard crust but I like it.”
“Evangelos is a Genius”
Zillah spared no words when it came to praising Evangelos, the School’s cook. Unfortunately, no picture of him survives; we don’t even know his last name. But Evangelos must have belonged to the new generation of Greek cooks like Nikos Tselementes, who were willing to experiment and learn from their foreign employers. I was surprised to read some of the seven-course menus he prepared more than a hundred years ago. (When was the last time more than a three-course dinner was served at a formal meal at the ASCSA?) For Thanksgiving in 1911, Evangelos served a fish soup, followed “by cold jellied pigeon with little individual salads with whipped cream, turkey with chestnut dressing, another kind of salad, potato ball, quince jelly, and the most remarkable ice in fancy shape, salted almonds…” (Nov. 27, 1910)
Two months later, in February 1911 when Zillah and Bill Dinsmoor hosted their first dinner at the American School, which was attended by Mr. and Mrs. Steele of the Lake Copais Company, Miss Nicholls (a teacher at the Palace), professor Alice Walton, Dr. Georg Karo of the German Archaeological Institute, and Dr. Chester Alan Johnson, “Evangelos cooked himself with glory.” “We had a thin consommé…, then tarts with mashed birds on them (purée of snipe), then fish made into pears covered with crumbs and fried a perfect golden brown, potatoes, carrots and peas all cut in small round balls (but the peas). After that came roast of turkey with salad of apples, lettuce and nuts and mayonnaise, then ice-cream chocolate made into big eggs with sugar browned and made into fine strings over the top to represent straw and the nest of cake. It was very pretty. Fruit came last and on the table were salted almonds, peppermints…” reported a happy Zillah to her mother a few days later (Feb. 7, 1911).
“Tour la Reine”
Fancy dinners but with a limited wine selection. White or “green” Rhenish was the wine of choice for all courses. On one occasion Samian wine was served at a dinner in the U.S. Legation (Mar. 24, 1912). For their first formal dinner Bill and Zillah went shopping for wine, cigarettes, and flowers. “Wine is very cheap here (the only thing) and we bought the kind Mr. Hill always serves, a very light wine called ‘Tour la Reine.”
The wine took its name from a royal estate in Attika (near Nea Liosia) built by Queen Amalia as her personal getaway. At some point in the late 19th century it was bought by the Serpieri family and transformed into a plantation producing many goods including wine. (Ο Πύργος της Βασιλίσσης has now been renovated and a visit there is a wonderful weekend excursion. Read here about Queen Amalia’s gardens in Greece.)
Six, Seven, and Eight-Course Dinners
The multi-course dinners described by Zillah started with a soup (beef consommé, chicken or fish soup). During lunches and informal dinners Zillah would also serve fish chowder which “Evangelos makes as well as I do now.” (Feb. 17, 1911). “I cook the fish first, then take it from the stove and remove skin and bones; put it back and add one onion and sliced potatoes. When these are cooked, I add milk and before taking them from stove put some butter… I think I must have gotten the recipe from you at some time” she wrote to her mother a few days earlier (Feb. 7, 1911).
For the second course Evangelos usually served game, either cold, jellied pigeon or tarts with mashed birds, which Zillah also described it as “purée of snipe.” There is a great recipe of “Purée of Snipe a la Creole” in David S. Shields’s Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine (2015, p. 88). One must use fresh snipes which “should always be kept four days at least, before cooking. Never pluck them until you are ready to cook them…”. For Cyrus Ashton Rollin Sanborn’s birthday (Sanborn, aka CARS, was the School’s Secretary until 1912), Evangelos served fish as a second and game as a third course: “a pretty dish with mashed partridges made in a jelly mould with daisies near the top of the jelly, the petals made of hard boiled white of egg…” (Mar. 20, 1912).
Game and fish alternated as a second and third course, or game was skipped when the courses were fewer than six. For fish, Mrs. Gale, the wife of the U.S. Consul, served sole fried in batter; Mrs. Steele (whose husband was the manager of the Lake Copais Company) offered fry red mullets (μπαρμπουνάκια), while the incoming director of the German Archaeological Institute, Georg Karo, spared no cost serving broiled live lobsters with mushrooms (Mar 24, 1912 and Apr 20, 1911). On another occasion, Evangelos served “a delicious fish dressed with cream sauce and garnished with mushrooms and potatoes.”
Meat came next, served in one or two courses. Turkey with chestnut dressing was served for the School’s Thanksgiving of 1910, “roast turkey with salad of apples, lettuce, nuts, and maynonnaise” for Zillah’s first dinner at the School as a hostess, and “a big fat bird from Lake Copais” for Mrs. Steele’s dinner. Since the director of the School, Bert Hodge Hill, was a bachelor, the wives of the Visiting Professors would frequently act as hostesses for the School’s parties, or when the director was absent, Zillah and Bill would also be allowed to host parties at the School. Roast beef, steaks or lamb was the other choice. In addition to mushrooms, artichokes were a favorite side-dish of the local cooks and their foreign mistresses. On two occasions, chicken was served after the beef: at Karo’s dinner it was served broiled with lettuce salad, while at Mrs. Gale’s in the U.S. Legation, the “roasted chicken came with wonderful salad and currant jelly, delicious French peas” providing “a course by themselves” according to Zillah’s description (Mar. 24, 1912). This, after they had already consumed fried sole and roast beef with mushrooms and artichokes.
To describe these dinners using modern dietary terms, I would say they were rich in protein and fiber and low in carbs, since starch was limited to potatoes. Rice was completely absent. In Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook, although there are a couple of recipes for Turkish pilaf, rice does not constitute an important ingredient in North American cuisine. Likewise, the new generation of Greek cooks such as Tselementes and the School’s Evangelos, wishing to modernize the Greek cuisine by removing any Turkish influence, would have been equally happy to ban recipes with rice from the menu.
Dishes with macaroni or spaghetti are also missing from Zillah’s accounts. Although there are a few recipes for macaroni in Fannie Farmer’s cookbook, pasta may have been considered too ethnic and thus inappropriate for these social settings. In Greece, egg pasta such as χυλοπίττες, was also considered peasant food which had no place at a formal dinner, especially one prepared for foreigners.
What’s for Dessert?
It wasn’t pudding or cake or pie (although Zillah herself made delicious mince pies), but ice cream. The Boston Cooking School Cookbook lists a host of recipes for making ice cream in many flavors. For Zillah’s first dinner at the ASCSA, Evangelos outdid himself by serving a chocolate ice cream “made into big eggs with sugar browned and made into fine strings over the top”. On another occasion, a dinner she hosted at the “Continental Hotel,” the dessert was orange ice cream, while Mrs. Gale’s guests at the U.S. Legation were offered “ice cream with preserved ginger and sauce” (Mar. 24, 1912). There is also mention of Evangelos serving “Spanish cream filled with candied fruits and nuts” (Feb. 12, 1912). Cakes were reserved for special occasions, such as birthdays.
Dessert was followed by fruit, candies, salted almonds (Zillah does not miss a chance to mention the latter), and port. At Mrs. Gale’s dinner “coffee was served in an odd way. Instead of bringing in the cup quite prepared on a tray” coffee, milk, and sugar were brought in separately so that the guests could fill their cups as they wished (Mar. 24, 1912).
Letters Do Count
I started writing this post just before Christmas while cooking and baking for the holidays, and finished it in Rome between Italian lunches and dinners. It never felt like the work was spoiling the vacation.
Although Virginia Woolf, an avid diarist herself, remarked that women’s letters did not count in history writing, the letters of the School’s women, students or companions, do count. They are troves of microhistory which can be expanded into larger social history once enough information and context have been gathered (see Susan Whyman’s review of Sarah Pearsall’s Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century). Nellie Reed, Ida Thallon, Zillah Dinsmoor, and Dorothy Burr were keen observers of local life and customs, whether travelling in the country or living in a Balkan capital. “The people and modern things [as opposed to the ancient things that interested her husband Bill] interest me so much through the customs and habits” wrote Zillah to her mother during her first month in Greece (Oct. 20, 1910).
The transcription of Zillah Dinsmoor’s letters is an ongoing project which so far has depended on volunteer efforts. Her letters continue well into the 1920s, so there is much still to transcribe. This challenging work will, however, make valuable information available to scholars addressing gender and mobility studies, and the early history of the American School.
Καλή Χρονιά (και καλή όρεξη)! – Happy New Year (and bon appétit)!