The holidays for most of us equal family time — and this year was no exception. Now that I live near my parents I’m able to see them more often, and I love that the trip home has now been whittled down to about an hour, rather than the cross-country journey it once was. And even when my globe-trotting brother is off on yet another far-away adventure, the Internet keeps us virtually close. But this year I was twice blessed because he was in town and we were able to be together this holiday season.
The holidays are also a time when I reflect on the family I never met — ancestors like my Greek grandfather, who left his small Mediterranean island for the United States when he was a teenager and never looked back. I have his name, and his olive skin tone, and perhaps even his penchant for cooking — he worked in a New Jersey diner for much of his life here — though he died before I was born. Regrettably, I don’t speak his language, nor do I know much about the customs he grew up with; when I was young, this was a great tragedy for me. So I faithfully read my copy of the D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths and dreamed of the day when I could finally visit Greece myself.
I’ve always wanted to learn more about this part of my heritage. I took Greek lessons in high school for a time and it’s a not-so-secret desire of mine to take a class here in San Francisco and learn the language properly. And each year, I especially long for a large family to gather together and share the vasilopita on Jan. 1 in celebration of St. Basil’s Day.
The smell of my dad’s dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice) always means Christmas to me, even though they’re not necessarily a traditional Greek holiday dish, and he’s not necessarily a cook. And if my Anglo mom didn’t make spanikopita (spinach and filo pastry layered with feta cheese), I’d feel as though something was missing from the celebration. Even though we aren’t part of a wider Greek community, we try to relate to that part of our identity in our own small ways.
I’ve visited Greece three times in the past seven years, during the very hottest days of the summer — it’s strange to imagine that dry, dusty landscape quenched by winter rains, or as a backdrop to the holiday season. But Kurt, who just returned from a long sojourn on the small island of Spetses in the Saronic Gulf, told me Christmas had definitely arrived by early December. On his way back to California, he passed through Athens and saw Santa dolls that waved and sang, and heard Frank Sinatra Christmas carols in the stores (more so, even, than Greek carols). On Spetses, many people had put up and decorated their Christmas trees.
His friend George, who runs the Liotrivi restaurant on Spetses, makes a Christmas feast of turkey or lamb cooked in the oven, which differs from the other major holidays –- these include Easter, May day and August 15th, the day of the virgin ‘Saint’ Virgin Mary – where lamb is cooked, but over the coals. (He made a point to say there is no roasting on Christmas.)
For Greeks, Christmas lasts for much longer than just one day — in fact, it lasts for a good month, culminating in a Jan. 1 celebration of St. Basil, complete with a special cake. The season begins on Dec. 6, with the Feast of St. Nicholas, and lasts through Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.
Traditionally, the women of the family bake the round, sweet, cake-y loaf with a coin baked inside. It’s cut by the head of the household — first a piece for Christ, then one for St. Basil, and then one for each member of the household. Whoever receives the coin is considered blessed, and will receive good luck in the coming year. Simon, whose family also runs a business, said they do two pitas a year: one for the house, and one for the business, to bring luck and prosperity.
(He should know — two years ago he received the coin from the pita, and met Lena a month later.)
In my small apartment in San Francisco, I don’t usually decorate too much beyond acquiring a little rosemary tree that, come to think of it, seems quite Greek-appropriate, and a few poinsettia plants. This year, to reconnect a bit, I decided to bake trigona (honeyed pastry and nut triangles) and finikia (spice bars) — and, of course, a vasilopita, as a pre-St. Basil’s Day test run.
As I creamed the butter and sugar to make the cake, making sure to tuck in the coin for luck, I thought about my grandfather and wondered if he ever baked vasilopita himself. My dad said he made rizogalo, or rice pudding, around the holidays in Jersey City, but doesn’t remember a special cake. I wondered if his large family on Aegina made sure to cut the pieces small enough so everyone could have a bite, and if I’ll ever meet that part of my family.
It’s funny how we can feel connected to ancestors we didn’t know and how they provide us with a personal history of traditions we ourselves want to perpetuate. As another year comes to an end and we slow down a bit to reflect, it’s soothing to think that there is a direct link – and an unbroken line — between distant generations.
I take comfort in believing no matter how we grand-and great-grandchildren adapt to the times and create our own rites, we are better for the tributes of our fathers and mothers — those gifts from them we treasure that they don’t even know they bequeathed to us.
And if those gifts happen to include a vasilopita, well, I’m all the luckier for it.
I wrote a story for the Chronicle about this reconnection (paraphrased a bit here), though I must admit I didn’t celebrate the coin-in-cake tradition yesterday (instead, it was spent at Keyhoe Beach in wind and sun). I did, however, make the vasilopita that’s shown in the article’s photos, and I think I’ll incorporate it into my New Year’s Day celebrations from here on out.
A bit of luck is always a good thing, after all.
Vasilopita, adapted from allrecipes.com
1 cup butter
2 cups white sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup warm milk
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup blanched slivered almonds
2 tablespoons white sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Generously grease a 10-inch round cake pan.
2. In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Stir in the flour and mix until the mixture is slightly mealy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Combine the baking powder and milk, add to the egg mixture and mix well. Combine the lemon juice and baking soda and stir into the batter. Pour into the prepared cake pan.
3. Sprinkle the nuts and sugar over the cake, and bake for about 45-50 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool. Gently cut a small hole in the cake and place a foil-wrapped quarter in the hole.