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Cookery as a metaphor for a deliciously lived life

04 March 2010 / 14:03:00  GRReporter
5435 reads

Zdravka Michailova

Exclusive for GRReporter

A lot of cooks have appeared on the wide screen in Athens recently. After the humane look of the German-Turkish director Fatih Akın at the second generation of Greek immigrant-restaurant- owners in Germany in his movie Soul Kitchen, the last Golden-Globe-winning role of Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia and the animated Cloudy, With a Chance of Meatballs. the modest Greek contribution to the genre is the movie Dangerous Cookery (the filmed version of the novel by Andreas Staïkos, published in Greek as Epikindynes Mageirikes by Ekdoseis Agra, 1998). The novel is also available to Bulgarian readers (Balkani Publishing House, 2006, translation by Zdravka Michailova).

By the standards of the Greek literary scene the book – translated into thirty languages – qualifies as a “bestseller”. Some years ago a press report stated that the production company “Miramax” had purchased the rights for shooting a film based on “Dangerous Cookery”, starring John Malkovich, though ultimately it was shot by a Greek movie crew. In Athens, Paris and Rio de Janeiro theatrical versions of the novel have been staged. It is no surprise that the theatrical “reading” of “Dangerous Cookery” by La Comedie Française had great success some twenty years ago. The story looks promising also for a screen version: from the light and champagne-fizzy plot a lovely movie might have emerged; unfortunately in the cinematographic dish served up following a clichéd recipe, some very unconvincing characters dominate – victims of contemporary life and the aesthetics of advertising. Along with the characters played by Georgios Horafas, Katia Zigouli and Konstantinos Markoulakis, deliciously cooked food plays a leading role. Through the universe of perceptions we get involved in the erotic intrigues, libertinism and finesse of Staïkos’ beloved 18th century; the author has been involved with translating works by 18th and 19th century French authors like Marivaux, Musset, Molière, and especially Les Liaisons Dangereuses  by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

“Dangerous Cookery” was written almost by chance when French publishers Actes Sud commissioned the author to write a recipe book from the classic Greek cuisine, in literary guise. The story presents the kitchen as the most erotic room – from the steaming cooking pots, and out crystal glasses emerges the love-isnpiring art of culinary. The novel offers no psychological analysis: the main characters, two men, lovers of the same woman, have no past and no future.

In an interview Andreas Staïkos confesses that for him the art of cuisine is a form of theatrical expression, something he realized early in childhood during the traditional Sunday lunches. He associates an abundantly laid table with a theatrical stage – the clink of the glasses, the ring of the forks when they touch the porcelain, the conversations between diners at the table, the expectation, the duration: a complete Sunday lunch lasts as long as a performance does. Kitchens remind him of the space behind the stage. Later, especially during the period when he lived in France, the realm of gastronomy, at least in western culture, he acquires a refined culinary taste further added to the miracles of Oriental-derived Greek cuisine.

That’s where he started cooking. Along with this arose the desire to charm with cookery in the same way that he impresses with his speech. “I have always believed that the art of cookery for an aesthetic artistic product is addressed not just to a random audience, but the audience which the author loves”, admits Staïkos. “According to me this is the way one writes theatrical plays. Not for an anonymous audience, but for the people who are around me or those I wish to charm. The one treated to my plays, or a meal, for which I have spent hours of my time, is the woman of my life; if she does not exist, I rediscover her every time while cooking. The queen of the evening will always exist even though she might not be queen the next day.”

The genre of gastronomic writing has very deep roots in Greece and the most distinctive model is Deipnosophistes by Athinaeus, a compendium of delicious conversations between people sitting around the same table. Heraclitus and other Syracusan “healers of the body”, meaning cooks, have left many fair examples of this genre from the 5th and 4th century BC. These oeuvres have inspired quite a number of contemporary authors. Enough to mention “Dipnosofistes” by Christos Zouraris, which, just like the feasting Alexandrians whose name he borrows, not only reveals to the people around the table the secrets of delight in food with seriousness, elegance and rare skills, but also teaches them a better sense of humor. In other words the preparation of the food is “the greatest achievement of the civilization” and as such it reveals the qualities of the person.

By way of the novel’s seventeen lunches, a contemporary Athenian story emerges – light, familiar, theatrically structured, funny and inventive. In its premise lies the playful rivalry between two men proving themselves by competing which one will cook a more delicious meal for their beloved woman. The whims which the main character Nana uses to twist her two lovers Dimitris and Damoklis around her little finger invite the reader and the viewer to regard the cuisine not only as art at the table, but also as the anticipation of other sensual delights.

Lamb with peas, pickled eggplant, pastourmas, and memorial dishes for the dead – all are included in Staïkos’ menu, dedicated to the goddess Nana who left two lovers for another man.

Tags: Dangerous cookery Literature cinema
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