- I have spent many holidays apart from my family, much like my parents did after immigrating to the US from Greece more than 30 years ago.
- While our celebrations were small, with no other relatives in the country, my parents brought their Greek traditions to the table through food.
- Instead of the likes of ham and cranberry sauce, we feasted on my dad’s baklava (a flaky dessert made with filo pastry, ground nuts, and honey) and my mother’s spanakopita (spinach pie).
- I learned how to make their dishes when I moved away from California and spent Thanksgiving and Christmas abroad in England and Australia.
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I must have been around 5 years old when I walked through the holiday films section at my local Blockbuster and saw “To Grandmother’s House We Go.”
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, my idols at the time (this was the mid ’90s, after all), were on the VHS cover. I saw the big floppy Santa hats on their heads, the festive scarves wrapped around their necks, and wondered: Who spends Christmas with their grandma?
The answer, I quickly learned, was pretty much everyone. I would hear tales from my friends of long car trips to Lake Tahoe or flights to the East Coast to visit various relatives. They’d tell stories of family holiday dinners so big they had to sit at a special table just for kids. I pictured rooms filled to the brim with laughter, music, and ginormous turkeys.
Thanksgiving and Christmas at my house were very different. Unlike most of my friends at the time, I was a first-generation American. Both of my parents immigrated to the US from Greece, settling down in Silicon Valley. If we didn’t spend the holidays with fellow Greek families they had befriended in the Bay Area, we had our own small celebrations at home.
More than 6,000 miles away from their own relatives back in Thessaloniki, my parents found a way to each bring their family traditions to our dining table in California
Every year, my dad would make the baklava (a flaky dessert made with filo pastry, ground nuts, and honey) and kataifi (another sweet pastry made with vermicelli-like strands of filo, ground nuts, and cinnamon syrup) that his own father – a professional filo maker – had taught him how to bake. He spent his teen years helping in my grandfather’s shop in Thessaloniki during the busy Christmas and Easter seasons, learning how to stack the filo just right and make the ultimate “secret” syrup that goes on top of the baklava.
While baklava and kataifi are traditional Greek desserts during the Christmas season, my dad told me that he always makes the dishes as an homage to his parents. Both of my father’s parents passed away before I was 5, but my grandfather’s baklava lived on in our home. One of my favourite memories of past Christmases is sitting at the kitchen table, watching my dad carefully apply each layer of filo.
Baklava and kataifi have become my father’s signature dishes, while spanakopita (spinach pie) and tiropitakia (cheese pie) have become my mother’s. And just as my grandfather passed down his secrets of Greek desserts to my dad, my mother learned how to make her famous pies from my yiayia.
The pies were always there during our own holiday dinners in California, their golden-brown crusts almost glowing under the light as they took their places between classic American dishes like turkey and mashed potatoes.
While their parents passed down their cooking abilities, my parents passed down the travel bug to me
I left California behind after graduating college, moving to five places around the world – Washington, DC; London, England; Cardiff, Wales; New York City; and Sydney, Australia – over the course of six years. I missed six Thanksgivings and one Christmas, spending the holidays at work, American-themed bars and, once, an Enrique Iglesias concert.
As the years went by, I couldn’t help but miss the small intimate Thanksgivings and Christmases I spent with my family, the same ones I used to think were too quiet as a kid.
I yearned for the smell of my dad’s baklava filling up the kitchen, the taste of my mum’s pies alongside her famous Greek salad (it’s not authentic if there’s lettuce in it!), and the traditional kourabiedes my younger sister had learned how to bake, the cookies’ powdery sugar staining our fingertips as we decorated the Christmas tree.
But, without even realising it, I found a connection to home through food
While living in Sydney, I asked my mum for her spanikopita and tiropitakia recipes and did my best to recreate them as a fellow expat friend made Yorkshire puddings beside me. I rang in that Christmas, the first I had ever missed with my family, with a group of Brits and Americans and all of our families’ favourite holiday dishes.
I’ve continued to bring my family to the holidays, even when we’re apart. My mum’s Greek salad has become a favourite among my friends, so I’ve often made it for potlucks and barbecues. And I recreated my mum’s spinach pie yet again for my first Greek Easter party this year, although it may have taken a few (ok, four) panicked phone calls before I could get it right.
When I first left the US, I thought I’d feel less homesick on the holidays if I ate some classic American food, like a burrito in a Birmingham train station or some tater tots in a Sydney pub. But looking back, I now realise I should have gone searching for Greek restaurants instead – where my family’s presence would have been felt in the flaky tiropitakias, the thick pastitsio (a baked pasta dish with layers of macaroni and ground meat topped with béchamel sauce), and the syrupy desserts.
I went home for Thanksgiving this November for the first time in six years. Surrounding a table decked with Greek salad, spinach pies, and baklava, there were the four of us: my mum, dad, sister, and me. And it was perfect.
- Read more:
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- A family of 4 that travels year-round shares how they make staying home for the holidays feel like a vacation
- ‘Chopped’ champion Rachel Reuben shares what makes her signature potato pancakes a staple at her Hanukkah table
- A prankster covered her boss’ entire office in holiday wrapping paper, including his pens and spare change
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