A Girl & Her Greek Heroine.
Posted on October 9th, 2012
The Corinthia Café is where it all started. I’ve spent the last fifteen or so years of my life popping in and out of the “industry;” that’s restaurant speak for the restaurant and bar business. I’ve done everything from cooking, cleaning, chopping, counting money, managing, planning parties, slinging drinks, and serving food. Sure, I take little hiatuses, to chase other dreams, but I seem to always be drawn back to the four walls of a restaurant.
The four walls of the Corinthia Café are no longer standing today, but when they were, I could walk there from the house I grew up in. The summer I was sixteen, the combination of boredom and my sweet tooth found me there devouring baklava. Sitting there, with my nose in a book, letting myself be enveloped by the exotic smells coming from the kitchen and occasionally gazing at the photos of the Greek cost line that grace the walls.
“Girl! You daydream too much!” shouts the little Greek woman who owns the café.
By now, I know that this woman always shouts. It’s not that she is angry, or even hard of hearing, she just seems to be one of those people born with their volume turned way up. None the less, I had been daydreaming so I was a bit startled.
“Huh? What?” I ask, jumping a little in my seat.
“I said you dream too much! You need to do more and dream less!”
“Oh.” I said, staring down at the phyllo dough in front of me.
“Why don’t you come work with me?” She asks. “I need waitress. You need to do something.”
“Oh, I don’t know, I’ve never been a waitress before . . .”
“And I give you all the baklava and lamb you can eat.”
“Hmm, well I do love your lamb with mint jelly.”
“How such a tiny thing eat so much?” She asks, shaking her head and walking away.
“You start tomorrow!” She turns to shout before disappearing into the kitchen.
Corinthia Café is owned and operated by Odette Papadopoulos. Odette is an eighty-two year old force of nature. She rises at the crack of dawn to whip up moussaka and roast giant legs of lamb. I stumble into the kitchen my first morning feeling like something someone scrapped off their shoe. What am I doing up this early? And why have I been in trusted with sharp objects and food? I stare dumbly as Odette dances around her kitchen, she resembles an aged Hollywood star, clad in a timeless A line dress, long jet black hair swept up on her top of her head, she sings a tune quietly under her breath and while she works her wrist full of gold bracelets chime together. Her effect is mesmerizing; I stand there fidgeting awkwardly with the strings of my apron and wondering: How can anyone seem so alive?
“Come, girl come!” Odette shouts. She tucks me under her wing and shows me spices like cardamom and sumac, which she sprinkles with such care she seems as if she is casting a spell. I learn to roll out pita dough with religious fervor.
And for two summers, and weekends during the school year my days are spent with Odette in her kitchen. After a morning of cooking and an afternoon of serving guests, Odette and I sit down to a heaping plate of roasted meat, potatoes, and yogurt. Odette keeps an old record player in the café and our meal time is always spent with Frank Sinatra. Odette sighs happily, sinks into her chair, and lets the musical notes fall all around her.
Odette shows me pictures of her and her husband when they emigrated to America. I’m blown away by the beauty and bravery of the woman in the picture: a new bride in a new country. She tells me of all the family they left in Greece and the war that was landing on the shores of her homeland. She tells me of the baby boy that she lost and of her first restaurant that burned to the ground. She speaks to me about her passionate love for her late husband and the joy they found in traveling. She asks me about the things I want in life, she listens, and then she serves me more rice pudding.
“Eat, girl! You are too tiny, Mou!”
When the time comes for me to leave the sleepy beach town for the big city, Odette shoves an Evil Eye charm into my hand.
“Keep this with you, Kopela Mou!” She shouts.
She pulls me in for one of her crushing hugs and I am surprised to find that her cheeks are moist.
“Be good, Mou. Marry only for love, life is too long to marry for anything else. And don’t spend all you time up here!” She says rapping me on the skull. “It’ll make you crazy, living in your head like you do!”
I nod sheepishly, she knows me so well.
“Make sure you do something with these!” Her shouts growing louder, as she pulls my hands towards to her. “They will keep you young.”
And off I went, for my own little slice of life. Years later, I yearn to go back in time and spend just one more day in the kitchen with Odette. Now, when I’m in my kitchen, relentlessly chopping vegetables, or when I stand in the restaurant and I feel the energy buzzing around me, I look down at my out stretched hands. I know that it’s just food. But, it’s really much more than that. It makes me feel so alive.