(by Vasilika “Vanya” Marinkovic)
My mother, a full-blooded Greek born in Athens, inadvertently instilled in my siblings and me a taste for healthy, wholesome meals and cooking.
That is not to say that I never eat poorly or make unwise food choices. But my mother taught us many tricks that are good and true, in the kitchen and in life.
Rarely did we get anything processed until we were teens. The craze for fast food, and seeing well-off friends taking part in this privilege, drew us in later.
Imagine that—looking at fast food as a privilege.
My mother had immigrated to New York in the late 1960s, leaving a turbulent childhood that included physical abuse from her father. She met my father, who’d immigrated from Serbia. When my sister and I were toddlers, the family moved to Alaska for my father’s work as an electrician (helping to get electricity to remote Alaskan villages) My brother was born there, and my mother primarily raised us by herself, since our father’s work kept him on the road much of the time, and he left for good, going to California, when we were young.
My attitude toward food (erring on the side of pampering myself) may have been my father’s doing. When he was around, he loved spending money on shopping sprees and the occasional beyond-our-means restaurant; I remember especially a revolving restaurant on top of a downtown Anchorage hotel, that we considered “the top of the world.” I had my first taste of escargots at one of those meals, and developed some future expensive tastes. But these extravagances worried my mother, who knew that we should have been funneling some savings, perhaps anticipating the time my father would not be around since his visits were fleeting. I can see that now, of course.
Our mom was able to sign up for welfare services. It was not in her nature to chase our father down for child support, and it’s doubtful that he would have contributed any meaningful amount of money. But Mama was tough and huge-hearted, with an amazing sense of humor. She may have been long-suffering, but she never showed us that side. She made things work, and we never went hungry—except at the babysitter’s while Mama was working. (The sitter was stuck on making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for us, and we grew extremely tired of them.)
Besides having a special instinct for cooking, Mama was quite resourceful. She knew how to bargain hunt—good staples that would last, affordable seasonings, even filo dough for the special occasions that we would watch her prepare baklava. There were times that a do-good neighbor would bring groceries, and times when we would go to local food banks.
My mother wowed us with stuffed peppers, moussaka, grape leaves, and the lemony chicken soup called avgolemono. One of our “cheap meals” was baked potato wedges covered in tomato sauce, and her tomato sauce had whole leaves of basil. She would often complain about the taste of fruit compared to how fresh and delicious it was in her day. Freshness was critical, especially herbs. Later I started to learn of the medicinal properties contained therein. Cooking from scratch was important, using meat only when we could afford it. “Spaghetti night” was one of our favorites (drawing some of my brother’s friends to come running to join in the pot—literally).
Mama could speak seven languages and placed a huge importance on education, going to college herself later in life, but unfortunately was only able to find menial jobs. She worked in a fish cannery (whew, that smell, and hard labor) and at a newspaper plant (work that took a toll on her hands, in pain and color). Briefly she worked as a crossing guard and actually made the front page of the local paper—a proud moment.
When I was a teenager, my mother first showed signs of being in the clutches of Alzheimer’s disease. She became more emotional, with outbursts of crying or anger. There were times when she would tell off friends who were visiting. It was heart-wrenching. She also began to revert more and more to her first language: Greek. Unfortunately, the school system of my early childhood had badgered her to stop teaching Greek to my siblings and me—terrible idea—so as she spoke it more, we did not understand it. Sometimes I pleaded for her to speak in English, or just ignored her and was upset.
I moved to Los Angeles as a young adult, my mother rooting for me as I pursued my dreams of acting and singing. It had also been her dream when she came to America. She had a lovely voice, and sometimes sang light opera when she was cooking or working around the house. I inherited this gift, and developed it with a vocal coach. I still think of singing as miraculous, and I have my mother to thank for it.
After a long bout with Alzheimer’s, my mother passed away 20 years ago. She was a massive spirit, and in my belief system (something I inherited from her), I do not consider her gone. The important people in our lives always live on somehow.
Although the past year has been challenging for so many, there was an upside for me: After almost two years together, my boyfriend and I got married via Zoom. One of my constant running jokes with him is that there will be a riot in the kitchen if it is lacking any of these essentials: basil, olive oil, garlic, and oregano.
See? My mother really is not far away.
3 – 4 T. olive oil, divided
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 oz. tomato sauce
1 lb, ground beef
1 large tomato, diced
1 c. cooked rice
1 t. dried oregano
1 1/2 t. dried basil or 1 T. fresh, chopped
1 1/2 t. red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 1/2 t. dried parsley, or 1 T. fresh, chopped
1/2 t. salt
1 t. freshly ground black pepper
6 bell peppers, tops cut off and cores removed
1 1/2 c. shredded cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 400 F.
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat 2 T. olive oil, and sauté onion until it starts to brown.
Add garlic, and sauté until it turns golden brown.
Add half the tomato sauce.
Stir in ground beef, breaking up the pieces as it browns.
Strain mixture of any excess fat.
Return mixture to skillet.
Add cooked rice, fresh tomato, and seasonings.
Simmer together for 15 minutes.
Spread remaining tomato sauce on bottom of a baking pan.
Place peppers in pan and drizzle with remaining olive oil.
Fill peppers with beef mixture, and sprinkle with cheese.
Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake for 40 minutes.
8 oz. rice
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 - 3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 - 1 lb. ground beef
3 – 4 qt. stock, either beef or chicken
juice of 2 or 3 lemons
1 T. cornstarch or flour (2 T. if you want a thicker soup)
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Cook rice, drain and set aside.
Sauté onion until slightly brown.
Add garlic, and cook until slightly aromatic.
Add ground beef, and cook until browned.
Heat stock in a large pot.
Beat eggs for 3 - 5 minutes.
Set aside half of the beaten eggs.
Stir lemon juice into egg mixture, continuing to beat.
Slowly add 1 c. hot stock to egg mixture, mixing constantly.
Pour egg mixture into remaining stock in pot.
Combine cooked beef mixture with cooked rice and eggs that were set aside.
Shape mixture into small meatballs, and bake for 30 minutes on a foil-lined sheet.
Drop cooked meatballs into soup.