ate at the restaurants. My father was there to shop for ingredients he would use to prepare his favorite Greek recipes.
The apartment over Gus’s Greek Grocery in The Greeks of Beaubien Street belonged to my grandfather’s friend. The walnut dining room furniture with the picture of the Evzone in the ornate frame hanging over the buffet, and the tiny kitchen with the window overlooking the alley was a real place.
While other Greek families worshiped together, our family ate. My Aunt Zoola made the most phenomenal lamb roasts. Peeled potatoes were baked right in the juices and fat of the lamb giving it a leathery exterior with a fluffy interior. We still talk about how wonderful they tasted. My father cooked Greek food on the weekends and the times I went with him to the Eastern Market for supplies are precious memories. There was nothing more delicious than my dad’s Greek salad with fresh baked bread from Greektown.
As a young girl the desire to belong was strong. I didn’t fit in with the white kids in our suburban neighborhood, and I longed to find my place there in Greektown. But my mother was English – a strike against me even in my father’s family where I didn’t feel totally accepted. My character, Detroit homicide detective Jill Zannos also doesn’t feel like she belongs in spite of being Greek and living in Greektown. She grows up in the apartment above the grocery store. My dad’s father ran a bar in a small, provincial town outside of Detroit, and the children felt the stigma of being Greek, and being bar owners.
The Greek community was insular in my memory. In the Greektown Stories, I expose issues that many modern Greeks find offensive, that they choose to ignore. There is a movement among some modern Greeks in America to only look at the positive. In my opinion, it’s the way tragedy is swept under the rug. Some Greeks don’t like the issues I depict, saying Greeks
don’t act that way. But that’s not my experience. I love it when a reader validates the stories, able to identify with the situations
In the preface of his beautiful book, My Detroit, Growing up Greek and American in Motor City (Pella Publishing Company, NY, NY, 2006) author Dan Georgakas writes, “…the Greeks who emigrated to America thought their citizenship would change, but not their basic culture. Somehow they would remain Greek, and their children’s children….” As a young girl, I was enthralled with anything that was remotely Greek. I longed to go to the Greek Church, but my family wasn’t religious. My grandmother said she’d give me $100 if I would learn the Greek alphabet, but there was no one to teach me. I’m smiling while writing this. The perspective of a child is so absolute. As an adult, I’m not religious and I still don’t know the Greek alphabet.
My family was Americanized. My grandmother, who I called Bunny instead of the Greek word, Yiayia, that my cousins used, was seven years old when she came to the United States. I found out later she studied at Wayne State University in Detroit. She married my grandfather who came to Greece as an adult, and they lived in Detroit until 1941, moving to the suburbs because even that long ago, she was frightened to raise her family in the city.
The only opportunity my grandmother had to speak Greek was to her father, my Papou (Greek for grandfather), or to her sisters. When my mother and the other non-Greek aunts were present, the aunts ignored them and spoke Greek. My mother said they’d add just enough English so the non-Greeks would know they were being talked about. I play with that dynamic a little bit in the Greektown books.
Bunny worked at keeping the family together. In 1957, she bought a large, ancient farmhouse in Saugatuck, Michigan and spent the next year getting it ready for the extended family to enjoy. We’d drive in from Dearborn on Friday night and relatives from all over Michigan and from the Chicago area would converge. We’d spend the day at the beach, coming home tired and sunburned. The men stayed up all night playing poker, their laughter filling the old place. I can still smell the oregano from my grandmother’s kitchen.
After Bunny died, most of our relatives moved to California leaving us behind. After that, my dad tried to continue the traditions that made our family Greek. It became even more important for him to hang on to some of the Greek ways, and for our family, since we didn’t go to the Orthodox Church, that meant Greek food and Greektown. Rarely, Greek friends would come to the house but when they did, the food was phenomenal.
The Greeks of Beaubien Street is a work of fiction. I wanted the family to be more Greek than ours was, so I had to embellish what I knew from growing up in our mixed, Greek American family. The situations in the book are the complete opposite of my family’s. Yiayia Eleni in the story is critical and stern. My grandmother was loving and kind, at least to me. Although she was known to chase an errant child around the neighborhood with a switch she cut from a pussy willow tree, she never struck me. One of the last things my mother said to me before she died was that I reminded her of Bunny, something I will treasure forever.
Like Jill, I have a special needs sibling. In our youth, we referred to her as mentally retarded, a term which is no longer widely used. Now, when I hear the word retard used to describe a person, I cringe. My parents were pioneers during that time; they brought my sister home from the hospital instead of placing her in an institution, and she was mainstreamed into our community. Now in her mid-sixties, people from the old neighborhood still remember her and ask how she is. My Greek relatives loved her and showered her with affection. The shame and secretiveness of my character’s responses to their Down Syndrome child is foreign to us, thankfully.
I have not been to Dearborn or Detroit in over thirty years. The Detroit in the story is a conglomeration of the Detroit of my childhood, (when our mothers felt it was safe for twelve year-olds to take the bus in for shopping), and post-riot Detroit. Although I mention the riots and some of the desecration of the city, I do so only to keep things realistic. I relied on aunts and uncles to fill me in on some of the trivia, like the story of the parrot who spoke Greek. My aunt remembers the parrot vividly from visits to Greektown with her father in the late 1940’s. Dan Georgakas also mentions the parrot. For a real view of Greektown, I highly recommend his book. Everything else is a product of my imagination.
The memories of that time are powerfully influential. My husband and I moved from New Jersey to live in Saugatuck after our children were grown, and I felt close to my Papou, also an author, as I wrote The Greeks of Beaubien Street in my office overlooking the woods of west Michigan.
My detective stories set in Greektown Detroit, Michigan, are full of references to food. The family congregates around an old, walnut dining room table, eating the same food my family ate when I was growing up.
Readers asked me to compile a recipe book. I thought, why not? How hard can it be? Well, it was so far over my head, I quickly put the brakes on it and instead offered titles to the plethora of fabulous Greek cookbooks available.
One recipe however, is mine when I’m too lazy to make real Baklava, which I’d never attempt anyway. This is a pretty cake, a big hit at potlucks, and takes very little effort.
Yellow cake mix
Walnuts to cover top of cake
Frozen Filo dough
Prepare the cake mix according to directions, divide into two pans.
While the cake is baking, toss walnuts with a Tsp. of oil and a pinch of salt, spread on a cookie sheet and roast, being careful they don’t get too dark. Chop coarse when cooled.
After removing the nuts from the oven, put several layers of semi-thawed filo dough prepared according to the directions on the box, into the oven to bake. It doesn’t take long. You’ll want the sheets to be light brown.
After the cake has cooled, assemble it, white frosting in between the layers with a drizzle of honey, but not too much, and a sprinkle of nuts. When the layers are stacked, cover with the white frosting.
Cover the frosted top with more chopped walnuts. Crush the filo dough into quarter-sized pieces. It’s easy to turn it into dust, so use caution here. Take the crushed baked filo and press it into the sides of the frosted cake. Drizzle with honey!
The crisp filo and salted walnuts are really nice with the super sweet frosting and honey. I use a light hand drizzling with the honey. Diners can always add more if they’d like.
Many fabulous Greek cookbooks are available. I love Around a Greek Table: Recipes & Stories Arranged According to the Liturgical Seasons of the Eastern Church
My favorite Greek Food Blogs
For more about my Greektown Stories, go here.