Friday, 17 February 2012

I got those Greek Vegetarian Blues

Do you remember the scene from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” where Nia Vardalos’ character gives her Aunt Toula a heads-up ahead of a family gathering that her WASP fiancé is a vegetarian, and her response (after a shocked “What? He don’t eat no meat?!”) was “No problem, I make lamb”

Well, that – and several other scenes form the movie - could have been lifted straight from the pages of my life.

Although Greece’s wonderful fresh fruit and veg, and much of its celebrated cuisine, should make it a paradise for those who have sworn off meat (even rather lax semi-veggies like me who still eat fish and seafood), they are generally regarded as incomprehensible oddities.

Upon learning of my dietary 'eccentricity', most Greeks take a less than discreet appraising look at my solid Anglo-Saxon frame and sturdy thunder thighs, before telling me that a vegetarian lifestyle is less likely to help me lose weight than a daily diet of grilled meat and salad (yes, I know I'm fat but that's not why I don't eat meat). Others blanch at the thought and issue dire warnings of anaemia due to lack of animal protein (I've given up assuring them that I have never needed to take iron supplements - even when pregnant).

Many a Greek hostess has rolled her eyes and groaned “Ach! What am I going feed you?” despite my assurances that the average dinner table here usually groans under the weight of enough side dishes and salads to keep an entire army of vegetarians (or even li’l ole me) going for a week. They turn a deaf ear to my pleas not to worry and proudly present me with a specially-prepared dish. Trouble is, more often than not, it contains ham or chicken which doesn't really qualify as ‘meat’ in the Greek mindset. Cue clumsy attempts by Yours Truly to hide the fleshy bits under a stray lettuce leaf or discarded slice of bread, for fear of upsetting the chef’s good intentions (and believe me, they DO mean well).

Yesterday was one of the loneliest days of the Greek calendar for your average veggy.

‘Tsiknopemti’ (roughly translated as “Barbecue Thursday”) is Greece’s fuller-blooded answer to the UK’s Pancake Day or Shrove Tuesday. It comes ten days before the start of the Lenten Fast when observant Greeks escew not only meat, but also fish, eggs and dairy produce (but oddly enough, not shellfish or taramosalata made from fish roe). Ahead of 40 days of abstinence, the entire country fires up its grills and the evening air is filled with the scent of grilling steaks, pork or lamb chops and – for wimps and weight-watchers – the odd chicken breast or kebab. 

It’s definitely not a day for nut roasts or chickpea cutlets.

Even this year, in the midst of some of the toughest times many in the country have ever experienced, the ‘Tsiknopemti’ tradition was honoured. Traders at Athens’ central meat market gave away kilos of free grilled morsels of their wares, and housewives scoured the shops for the best cuts to slap on the grill to feed their protein-hungry families without crippling their budget.

Salads and side-dishes take a back seat on 'Tsiknopemti'. The most the lonely veggy can expect is a portion of chips to nibble on while their companions gnaw away at their steaks and suck the last tasty remnants of meaty goodness from their lamb chop bones.

So, here comes the confession.

I fell off the fruit and veg wagon.

Egged on by my carnivorous Ovver Arf and ManChild, I succumbed and had a chicken kebab to mark the day.

I wish I could say that every fibre of my being screamed in protest at the betrayal. That my teeth wouldn't chew the slightly charred flesh and my gullet refused entry to my stomach. But it didn’t. I ate it and it was OK. Just OK.

What it did was remind me that I really don’t miss meat that much.

So, if the Aunt Toulas of the world don’t mind, I think I’d rather stick to their luscious rice-filled dolmades, crispy fried courgette slices, bean stews and chickpea fritters with a serving of fresh wild greens drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil. 

Believe me, it’s no sacrifice.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I have just discovered your blog through Honest Mum and I write a blog about Greek & English life in London, called Grenglish. I married into a big fat greek family and this post just takes me back to so many family bbqs. I do eat meat but my sister does not, so my mother-in-law got herself all in a tizz one easter and eventually settled on giving her sausages! Hilarious. Love this post, will go and check out a few more now.