I’ve written previously that my mother’s parents were Greek Jews.* They immigrated to the US during The Great Wave of Migration in the early decades of the 20th century from Ioannina, in northwestern Greece. This and several other Jewish communities from formerly Ottoman Greece have a distinct history; they long pre-date the large influx of exiled Sephardic Jews from 15th century Iberia into the region. One difference is that my ancestors spoke Greek, not Ladino, Judeo-Spanish brought by the more numerous Sephardim.
*Note, my father’s family was from Eastern Europe. My brothers and I, however, were raised with a greater infusion of our Greek heritage.
As a youth, I proudly told others that I was a Greek Jew. A frequent response was, “Was your mother Jewish and your father Greek?” Thus, an often misunderstood dissertation on Greek Jewry followed. In the many intervening years, the knowledge of the history and culture of non-Eastern European Jews, non-Ashkenazim, has slowly percolated into the general Jewish-American population. Those of us who do not speak Yiddish, nor eat gefilte fish are gradually being recognized as bone fide Jews.
Both of my parents were dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers but we were raised far from their homeland and also far from our extended families. Infrequent summer vacations allowed us to get to know our grandparents, aunts, and uncles to a limited, but loving degree. One memory that I have is of my papou – Joseph Bacola – shuffling around the kitchen making tiganites. My middle brother loved these slightly sweet whole wheat pancakes. I since learned that this dish was something that the Jews of Ioannina ate during Hanukah. One goal this year’s Hanikah in isolation was to introduce tiganites to my family.
Tiganites. Mix 2 cups of whole wheat flour with 1 1/2 tsp of baking soda and a pinch of salt. In another bowl, mix 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp honey, and 1 1/4 cup of water* (add water if necessary to thin the batter). Stir in 1 small glass of ouzo or raki. Let rest for an hour. Heat 4 tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan. When hot, pour in batter the size of the pancake you want. Brown on one side, turn and brown on the other (they will rise nicely because of the soda). Eat with cinnamon sugar or honey.
*Note: I used the recipe for tiganites from the Cookbook of the Jews of Greece by Nikos Stavoulakis in which he specifices 1/4 cup of water. I think it should be 1 1/4 cup. Global Ties Miami, the organization through which Constant Companion and I have frequently hosted overseas guests, published a number of holiday recipes. I was honored to be asked to contribute – https://mcusercontent.com/b89c98e38bb3811ca26cafddf/files/9208672c-ae23-4c36-962a-92c733589452/Annette_Fromm_s_recipes_2.pdf.
With the rapid expansion of zoom presentations and greater reliance on making connections via internet, I’ve been exposed to more history about the community from which my maternal grandparents came and the New York where they met, married, and raised their family. We Ioanniotes are spread all around the world. I’ve met people from all over the US, France, Venezuela. We are descendants of a minority in a minority of a minority and proudly identify with our Greek Jewish heritage and, curiously, proudly hold onto this heritage in one way or another.
Most recently, I’ve been in more frequent contact with a cousin (the son of the son of my mother’s cousin) who is steadfastly researching and constructing our own Bacola family tree. I met him first when he was a babe in arms one summer in Athens!
Another contact I’ve made is Alison Negrin, a chef based in California. Scroll through her recipe blog (https://www.chefalisonnegrin.com/). Her father’s parents came to NYC from Ioannina, like my maternal grandparents; her mother, like my father, was Ashkenazi. People like us say we are the products of mixed marriages! Even better, we might be distant cousins. My mother always spoke of some relationship with Negrins, but never remembered how.
Alison reminded me of a slow cooked eggplant dish, kapama. characteristic of the Jews of Ioannina. I had the opportunity to make it recently since we’re still in the midst of the eggplant harvest. This is Chef Alison’s recipe for kapama:
You need 1 globe eggplant, 3 large, ripe tomatoes, olive oil,* paprika, dried oregano, and kosher salt. Preheat the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Slice the eggplant lengthwise into about 16 pieces. Steam for about 12 minutes until very soft.
Peel and see the tomatoes, then chop coarsely. Spray a pyrex baking dish with olive oil and place the eggplant slices along the bottom. Cover with diced tomatoes. Cover with olive oil and sprinkle with herbs and spices.
Bake for about 2 hours til the oil bubbles and the eggplant is caramelized. Eat hot or cold.
Holidays are wonderful the enjoy food rooted in your family history. You can also start new family traditions.