In Other Words

Austerity Lentils

What a country cooks when it's collapsing.

Photograph by Renée Comet
Photograph by Renée Comet

Constantinos Polychronopoulos makes lentils. It’s not a job per se, but it’s as good as it gets in these troubled times. Laid off from his marketing company three years ago, he hasn’t found steady work since, so he started a mobile soup kitchen that rotates around Athens, feeding the poor and hungry. He collects donated lentils — phakes (fah-kess) in Greek — which he simmers with tomatoes, onions, and bay leaves in a big pot, cooking them down into a brown, filling, garlicky stew. "It’s not a handout," he says, ladling it out in a Styrofoam cup. "It’s like a communal supper among friends. We’re all in the same boat, and we all eat together."

The postcard image of modern Greek pride is a rich, full table of grilled lamb, sharp cheeses, eggplant casseroles, olive oil-drenched tomato salads, and honeyed desserts — of happy families toasting each other. It’s not people fighting over free cabbage, staring into bare refrigerators, or gathering throwaway oranges at open-air produce markets. It’s not free lentil stew. The future, all of a sudden, has started to look a lot like the past.

Greece has been in recession since 2008, but the real problems began in 2009, after the government revealed that the country was drowning in public debt. Then came a battery of harsh austerity measures in exchange for billions of euros in bailout loans. In the last three years, the economy has virtually collapsed: The official unemployment rate has nearly tripled to 27 percent. More than 60 percent of those jobless Greeks have been out of work for at least a year.

Those who still have their jobs, even if they’ve seen their incomes plunge by a third or more, consider themselves lucky. But they no longer stock up on pork chops and imported Gouda cheese, as they did in better times. They eat out less too. On TV, there has been an explosion of "cook-on-the-cheap" shows, including one in which a portly, smiling chef teaches you how to make five elaborate three-course meals for just 50 euros a week. There’s also a bestselling cookbook, Starvation Recipes, based on tips from Greeks who survived the famine of World War II. (Sample: Save bread crumbs from the table in a jar to eat later.)

A recent Kapa Research poll found that 71 percent of Greeks find it difficult to get by on their current income. In supermarkets, shoppers talk about the prices — spending on groceries dropped 8 percent just in the first six months of last year, compared with the same period in 2011 — and about how little money is left over to pay property taxes and electricity bills. So everyone buys lentils.

And why shouldn’t they? A steal at a little more than $1.50 a pound today, lentils were born in Greece. Evidence of cultivation has been found in caves dating as far back as 11,000 B.C. They are ours, and they fueled an empire. In ancient times, a basic lentil soup was a common working-class meal; the wealthy refused to serve it. But it wasn’t just the poor who ate this humble legume — ancient texts are filled with recipes and praise for the lentil. In The Deipnosophists, the ancient rhetorician and foodie Athenaeus of Naucratis noted that many philosophers considered it a virtuous food. The Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who advocated a simple life to avoid sucking up to a corrupt society, subsisted on lentils. The Stoic philosopher Zeno of Citium apparently made a mean stew with leeks, carrots, vinegar, honey, and coriander. Aristotle is said to have liked his lentils with saffron. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, saw other virtues: He prescribed lentils to treat ulcers and hemorrhoids. And the comic playwright Aristophanes called phakes "the sweetest of delicacies."

My mother, Georgia, agrees. Lentils are one of her favorite foods. She associates them with her childhood in rural Crete, where she grew up with six siblings in a one-room stone house. Her mother, Efrosini, made phakes twice a week — hers were kind of like Zeno’s, though plainer, without the honey, coriander, and leeks. My mom and her six siblings would sit in a boisterous circle at lunch, dunking their bread into the soup.

Eating lentils will make you grow tall, my grandmother told her children. And although my mother only grew to be 4 feet, 10 inches, she tried the line on me when I was in junior high and still had ambitions of playing basketball. I was the shortest girl shooting hoops in Williston, North Dakota, where we had moved as my father worked his way up the hotel management business. My father, orphaned at 3, burned with the ambition of the underestimated: As an impoverished child from a vanished village in the Peloponnese, he was told he would never amount to anything. He went on to graduate with a university degree in economics and business management at a time when the elite dominated Greece’s college entrance exams.

My father made a decent salary in America, but my mother still cooked lentils at least twice a week. During the subzero Dakota snowstorms, she stewed tomatoes, carrots, and onions into a big pot of lentils. She made lentil-and-rice pilaf, a recipe from the frugal matriarch of a Lebanese immigrant family we knew. Heartbroken after my father died of a heart attack in 1989, just a few days shy of his 53rd birthday, she moved to Minnesota and started a new life on her own. She worked for 18 years in the tailor shop of a department store in a suburb of St. Paul. At potluck lunches there, she brought a lentil-and-parsley salad tossed with cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and wine vinegar. She retired to Athens a few years ago and still makes lentils every week: in soup for the winter, sometimes with a salty kick of smoked herring; braised with leeks in the fall; and tossed with currants and roasted pumpkin seeds in the spring and summer.

My Aunt Zacharoula, a retired tailor herself, lives next door to me and makes phakes at least twice a week, enough for her husband, Thanassis, and her daughter’s family of five. Aunt Zacharoula actually hates the taste of lentils. After years of cooking phakes, she says they still taste like boiled rocks. She is also deeply grateful for them. When she goes to church twice a week, she sees the beggars outside. Three years ago, they were mostly destitute immigrants, like the Bangladeshi man who would give her flowers. Now they include Greeks: young mothers, drug addicts, and women like her in their 70s. They get phakes from the church soup kitchen.

"This soup has iron that will give you strength to work and live an extra five years," my aunt says as she sets down a bowl in front of me. I’ve stopped by for a quick hello this evening, but am not allowed to leave before dinner. My aunt’s cousin, Vasso, a diminutive olive farmer in her 70s, is visiting from their village in the Peloponnese.

"I will never understand picky eaters," says Uncle Thanassis, reaching for a piece of bread. He lived in a succession of
rural orphanages during World War II, when Nazi forces plundered Athens, seizing food and fuel en masse. At least 300,000 people died of starvation — a period that older Greeks call the Great Famine. "They had nothing in the city. There were emaciated bodies lying on the street," he says.

"When I was a little girl living through the Nazi occupation," Vasso adds, "we ate wild greens with nothing — no oil, no salt. Often with no bread."

When the conversation turns to politics, they bristle at the notion of another chancellor in Berlin telling Greece what to do, imposing austerity measures in exchange for bailout loans. A recent poll showed that 80 percent of Greeks think Germany still owes them billions of euros in reparations for the suffering of the war.

"But it is not the same," points out Aunt Zacharoula. "We still have power."

Perhaps. But we are all eating more lentils.

At least once a week, my Athenian neighbor Kyria Fani makes a pot of her peppery phakes, which I smell wafting through the halls of our building. Like my aunt, she cooks for seven people, including her son and his family, who live next door. Kyria Fani and her husband are resilient Pontic Greeks in their 70s. They have worked since they were children and saved all their lives to buy their apartment. A few weeks ago, her husband was beaten and robbed in broad daylight outside our building. He had just withdrawn money from the bank to help his son, whose employer at the shipyard hasn’t paid him in nearly a year.

On the first floor, a young father recently lost his job. I hear him talking with his wife about how they can’t save money, can’t plan for the future. "We can at least still plan for dinner," his wife says. I run into the father and the baby one spring afternoon, when I’ve just returned from the grocery store. I’ve stocked up on lentils and have big plans to make a week’s worth of dal.

"Ah, lentils!" he says, noticing the bags. "We make them too. Delicious, and they keep your strength up." His eyes are sad, but his voice sounds alive, determined. The day is sunny, the sky that particular shade of Mediterranean blue. We walk together for a few yards before heading in separate directions. "Tha gineis leventi, agori mou, agapi mou," I hear him singing to his son in the stroller. "My boy, my love, you will grow up to be so strong."

<p> Joanna Kakissis reports for NPR and Time magazine from Athens. </p>