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A father's recipe that crossed three continents

Constantine Tsioulcas, holding his daughter Anastasia as a baby.
Courtesy of Anastasia Tsioulcas
Constantine Tsioulcas, holding his daughter Anastasia as a baby.

My father gave me strict instructions: Your single-minded goal must be to coddle the paper-thin, nearly transparent phyllo dough. You need an ample supply of melted butter and some clean, damp kitchen towels stashed right next to you, to use as blankets for the temperamental phyllo. Have your filling already prepared and make sure that you've wrung all the water out of the spinach with yet another towel, or two, or three. (There will be more water than you might think vegetally possible. You will use up many kitchen towels.) Work as quickly as you can, but have no fear.

That's how my father, Constantine Tsioulcas, taught me to make spanakopita, the spinach pie that he grew up eating in Alexandria, Egypt, the city in which he was born and raised.

Our family recipe, carried over generations from Greece to Egypt and back again, calls for individually wrapped triangles that show off multitudinous layers of crisp, flaky pastry; no bricks of greenish sludge for us. The filling, by contrast, is very simple: spinach, some good sharp feta cheese, a touch of freshly grated nutmeg, some lightly sauteed garlic, a little salt and some healthy grinds of pepper, plus those fragile leaves of dough and that unholy amount of butter. That's it. (Technically, this dish should be called spanakotiropita — spinach and cheese pie — but that's a lot of syllables for Americans, as even my father would grudgingly admit.)

Papa guided me in laying out one large, rectangular sheet of phyllo, brushing it with butter, and then swiftly laying another sheet on top. "Hurry up, cover the rest of the phyllo with the towel," he would say, reminding me that the dough would dry out and crack nearly instantaneously if it wasn't covered up again.

We would cut the sheet into three long strips, and brush each ribbon of phyllo dough with melted butter before depositing a bit of filling in one lower corner of the dough. Then we would fold the pie up and over itself again and again in tightly wound triangles, like how soldiers ceremonially fold a flag.

Whenever Papa mixed up a batch of spanakopita filling, he would always say to me, "No eggs! It's not a quiche." But I could hear how he savored the word quiche even as he derided its eggy, earthbound heft. French was his third language; English, his fourth. He loved French; he called himself my papa, following the French way, not baba as we would in either Greek or Arabic.

My mother, an American, had met him by chance in Athens. She was a tourist in her thirties. He was barely past his teens, an aspiring painter who was working as a waiter to help his struggling family; they, like many minority communities in Egypt, had been forced out and had recently settled in Greece's capital, a place that was both theirs and not theirs.

My father's facility with languages became his destiny: On the day he met my mother, Papa was the only waiter on duty who spoke English and so he was assigned to her table. He was instantly smitten, and informed her, "You may think I am merely a waiter, but I am an artist." Somehow – truly, inexplicably – that pickup line worked. She agreed to a quick coffee date before she left the city. Afterward, they corresponded by postcards and letters. Not all that long later, my mother flew again to Athens, this time to marry him.

Right after their wedding, they parted ways for months; she returned to the U.S. without him. During their courtship by postal mail, a military dictatorship had seized power in Greece, and he couldn't leave the country without permission — again finding himself at the mercy of larger political currents in a country he thought he could safely claim as his own. He eventually managed to follow her back to icy, brittle Boston, where the cold, gray Atlantic was nothing like the brilliant seashores he had now left twice over.

Their original notion was to live in the U.S. just a little while, to wait out the junta that had descended upon Greece only a few months before their wedding, and then to move back to Athens. That didn't happen. I was born as their only child a few months before the colonels' rule collapsed, and they decided to stay in this country for the time being. It was a temporary decision that wound up lasting for the rest of his life.

Papa never cottoned on to most Greek-Americans, the community with which he theoretically had much in common. They just weren't Egyptiotes like him: cosmopolitan, fluent and well-read in several languages, regal and more than a little snobbish. ("These are the people of goats and villages," he would say dismissively.) He was an expatriate who ached to go back to a home that no longer existed. He tried to hide his loneliness. While he waited for the paint on his canvases to dry, he went for long walks by himself along the rocky, monochromatic coastline, so different from the Mediterranean blues of Alexandria's Corniche.

"Then peirazei," he said. "It doesn't matter."

Papa died of a heart attack in his sleep right after I turned 14. He was just 41. My mother, who had always struggled with her mental health, came apart altogether after his death and largely retreated into her own world.

After Papa's death, I had very little to remember him by, but I had some of his recipes in my memory and in my fingers. Years later, when I got married, I gave our spanakopita recipe to the caterers so it could be served as part of our wedding meal. It was one of several reminders of my father that I stitched into the day, in an almost secret language of familial love.

I omitted the garlic when I gave them our recipe, thinking that wedding guests would probably prefer not to sweat out any stickiness or stink on what was forecast to be a hot and muggy June night. The caterers told me they were a little worried about working with phyllo, an ingredient that they hadn't yet mastered; this was before phyllo became such a hors d'oeuvres cliche.

No problem, I told them; you just needed a bit of confidence, a couple of tricks and some extra butter on hand, just in case. I taught them how to baby the dough. I carefully wrote out detailed instructions on how to fold each little spinach-and-cheese packet into a precise triangle, ideally sized for passing around — individual pitas that, when baked, would turn flaky, bronzed and shatteringly crisp, thanks to those generous lashings of melted butter. On our wedding day, the spanakopita turned out beautifully, though I missed the garlic. I overheard guests praising the dish to the caterers.

Several months later, I saw what seemed to be our spanakopita recipe published in Gourmet magazine. Every element was there, in the proportions I'd passed along: phyllo, butter, spinach, feta, a hit of nutmeg, salt, pepper. No garlic. Really, much too much butter, but you'd have plenty extra just in case you encountered a phyllo emergency. And there were my exact instructions on how to fold up the spanakopita into a beautiful little parcel, wrapped up neatly just like a flag. Papa's recipe was now out in the world but ruptured from its roots, just like I was, just as my father had been.

You can still find that spanakopita recipe online, accompanied by a gorgeously shot and completely tantalizing photo of those bronzed, flaky triangles, one cut open to reveal the savory spinach-and-cheese filling cached within.

Who knows what happened. Maybe someone gave or sold it to the magazine, or maybe someone on the caterers' team also worked there. Maybe someone made it for a friend or for a party, and the recipe wound its way to someone else, in the way that beloved recipes do. I'll never know.

Online, the recipe has earned dozens of rave reviews, though many cooks have written that they have added eggs or lemon juice or dill or parsley or onions or nearly any number of other ingredients that are delicious and culturally appropriate, but cloud the purity and lightness of this particular, elemental spanakopita that is, most emphatically, not a quiche.

Others mention that they have added all sorts of heresies like, Panagia mou, cheddar cheese or raisins. Raisins! Papa would often sputter, back when Americans were just discovering Mediterranean foods, "What is it with these foreigners and putting raisins into every dish to make it exotic?"

He liked to mix multiple languages within a single sentence, fully expecting me to follow along like a proper Alexandrian. When he proffered opinions about such "foreigners" to me, his American-born daughter, sometimes he would use Greek: franki. Sometimes instead he would say ifrang -- Arabic, and almost the same word: literally, "Franks," whose innate Westernness rendered them a complete mystery. In either language, he could have used a far more prosaic and general word for "foreigner," but he adored the medieval overtones and high drama of his word choice, re-pitching an ancient East-West battle in our squat little kitchen. And for him, Greek and Arabic were fraternal twin tongues, though one was a playmate he'd had to leave behind at the abrupt end of his own childhood.

Then peirazi. His Alexandria vanished decades ago, and my dad has been gone for a long time now too, much longer than I knew him alive. The recipe that I received as a rare and precious inheritance is just one more among millions online. Anyone who chances across it can't hear Papa complaining about the Franks and their raisins. Nor would such a cook necessarily care. People will do whatever they want.

My one wish is that people who try the recipe enjoy the process of brushing the butter onto the dough, of folding the phyllo up and over itself again and again. I hope when they bite into a piece, they savor those shatteringly crisp layers of phyllo and the simple interplay of spinach and feta. Papa's spanakopita will never mean the same thing to them as it does to me, but it will still be delicious.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.