Sam Stamatis, co-author (with his son, Peter) of Dandelions for Dinner joins us for our November interview.
GIB: When did you first fall in love with Greece?
SS: I was born in Gargaliani, Greece, in 1933, the grandson of the famous town priest, Papa Sarantis, and the son of a raisin farmer. My family left Greece for the United States in 1946, just after the end of World War II.
I recognized Greece’s beauty when I was just a boy, but as I was born during the Great Depression and lived there through World War II, I only came to truly appreciate my homeland when I returned sixteen years later – on my honeymoon in 1962.
GIB: How did you start writing?
SS: I retired after a long career as an electrical engineer in 2001. Not long thereafter, my children began to ask me to write about the events of my youth in Greece, which was something about which I had never spoken. I began to record some of those events on a yellow legal pad and sent them to my son Peter, who is a trial lawyer in Chicago. It was Peter who convinced me to begin writing in earnest, and that my story had to be told…that it was not only my story, but the story of a family, a town, a country, and a war. Together, we wrote Dandelions for Dinner.
GIB: Have you written any other books?
SS: Though Peter is a “Law and Politics” writer for a Chicago newspaper, Dandelions for Dinner is our first book. We are currently working on the sequel.
GIB: How do you feel about Greece’s current plight? What do you think the outcome will be?
SS: What we have heard from readers in Greece is that Dandelions for Dinner provides them with real insight into Greece’s current plight. Indeed, readers realize that many of Greece’s current problems have roots in World War II and the power struggle that took place in Greece after the war, particularly the struggle between right and left.
What will the outcome be? Unless Greece reestablishes its financial independence along with free markets and extends notions of filoxenia to commerce, it will in our view remain in the morass that has engulfed it. Moreover, the slavery of certain Greeks to their bad habits of corner-cutting and self-interest over filotimo will only perpetuate the country’s slavery to debt.
GIB: What’s the funniest experience you ever had in Greece?
SS: There have been so many! Here is one as we recount in Dandelions for Dinner:
Father worked the following day as a hired farm hand for a man he called Kyrio Taso. Generally unaccustomed to being treated generously and above all, humanely, Father couldn’t stop praising Kyrio Taso and his wife when he returned home that evening.
“Kyrio Taso’s wife cooked and fed everyone who worked for them today. Can you believe that? She made us a beef stew with potatoes and also gave us as much bread as we could eat. What nice people.”
Father opened a container and showed it to Mother.
“Look at what he gave me to bring home. Kyrio Taso let all of his workers bring home the leftovers. Thank God that there are still people like this.”
Mother took the food and split it between me and Stathi.
“And on top of all that, he butchered a goat and gave to each of his workers some meat to take home! Look! And this is in addition to what he paid us!”
Father handed Mother the meat, wrapped in newspaper. She smiled, thanked God, took it and began preparing it for dinner. Because we hadn’t eaten meat in months, Stathi and I watched intently as Mother removed the flesh from its paper wrapping, placed it on the kitchen counter, seasoned it with salt, pepper, oregano, olive oil, and garlic, and then as she placed it on the counter while she cooked vegetables that sizzled in her sauté pan.
When I looked down, I noticed that Stathi and I were not the only ones watching Mother. The smell of raw meat and its blood had attracted the cat, who like us, had locked in on Mother. Slowly, the meat put Benito into a frenzy, causing his wild side to take over. The animal began to stalk back and forth as it stared at Mother. He held his tail and head high in the air and followed Mother wherever she moved in the kitchen. Father noticed Benito’s arousal and immediately reimposed his zero-tolerance policy.
“Get out of here you damned cursed beast,” he said as he kicked Benito into the other room.
But Benito was unfazed and immediately returned, making Father even more upset.
“You come back here, you screwed beast?”
Father grabbed Benito and threw him out of the kitchen window. Within seconds, the determined animal jumped back inside just as Mother added the meat to the sizzling pan that sat near the stove’s intense flame.
No one expected what happened next. In a flash, Benito defied whatever instincts kept him from fire and searing heat and reached his head into the crackling pan, grabbed the largest piece of meat and darted away. Mother screamed in horror. Father sprang up, closed the window and began to chase Benito, whose mouth had clamped down firmly on the meat, around the kitchen. I heard the “slap” of Father pulling his belt free through the loops of his pants and watched as he whipped it back and forth at Benito, who darted around the kitchen, under the sink, into the fireplace, and back under the kitchen table, all the while maintaining his vice-like grip on his prize. Father eventually cornered Benito under the kitchen sink, grabbed a hold of the meat and dragged him out.
“Let the meat go, you cursed beast! Let go!”
When Benito refused, Father lifted the cat off the ground by the meat and tried to shake him loose. When that didn’t work, he began to swing Benito back and forth. When Benito still didn’t let go, Father swung the cat faster and faster in a circular motion. Father spun Benito until he finally tried to readjust his bite on the meat, flew loose and slammed into the kitchen door. Father opened the door and Benito darted away.
“Don’t ever come back here, you damned and cursed beast! Go screw yourself, you dirty cat!”
Father handed the meat to Mother, and she placed it back in the pan and continued cooking.
GIB: What are the best and worst meals you’ve ever had there?
SS: The worst? One might think that it was surviving year after year on, well, as the title says, dandelions for dinner. But that wasn’t so bad, especially if you had a piece of bread to go along with it.
The worst, however, has to be the occasion that, having nothing else to cook, my mother prepared boiled onions with raisins. As hungry as I was, I just couldn’t eat it. It was really horrible. My mother must have realized it because she didn’t make me eat it; I don’t think she ate it either!
My best meal? Perhaps it was when my mother and I travelled to a nearby town to try to trade some of our family belongings for some food. After we survived nearly drowning to death in a sudden rain storm, we were rescued by a kind soul. Here’s that passage from the book:
She directed us to a large room on the second floor of the family’s home where a warm fire blazed in a huge stone fireplace. We took off our clothes and hung them. The hot and penetrating fire quickly dried them.
“I’m hungry,” I whispered in Mother’s ear.
“Don’t worry, there’s food on the way,” she whispered back.
Several moments later, Kyria Koropoulos appeared, carrying a large tray with our supper. Before my eyes was something I can only describe as a phenomenon: lamb in an egg-lemon stew with potatoes and an unlimited supply of bread and cheese.
“Bon appétit!” said Kyria Koropoulos as she left us alone to eat.
It was a meal truly fit for a king. As I silently consumed every bit of food in front of me, I thought about the people of Mouzaki. Why didn’t we live here? These people are truly blessed. If I could eat like this twice a week, I would be in paradise, I thought. When Kyria Koropoulos returned to take the dishes, she found them spotless as I had eaten every bit and then wiped every drop of the egg-lemon sauce completely from each plate with my bread. And though I was totally content, my stomach full, I could have eaten still more.
GIB: What’s your single most cherished memory of Greece?
SS: I was born in Greece during the Great Depression and war. I suspect that it is not unusual for a child to overlook the beauty around him in those circumstances.
On my honeymoon in the early 1960’s, I returned to Greece with my wife, Litsa. What a beautiful country lay in front of me! In subsequent years, I have travelled to Greece every couple of years or so and have always marveled not only at its physical beauty, but at the grace and the character of its people.
In 1999, my son Peter was married on the island of Tinos. It was a glorious September day, with the Aegean breeze blowing through the Cycladic island. What a difference between that Greece and the one from which we had fled in 1946, the one about which my thirteen-year-old brain had screamed “good riddance!”