America's Greek salad borrows from original but lacks old-world taste
In the mountains of the southern Greek prefecture of Lakonia, lies the small farming village of Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicholas), my mother's ancestral village. There, as a teenage American expatriate, I used to visit in the summers.
At the village, I also ate the most delicious salads I've ever known, before or since. The ingredients had been picked daily from my great aunt Nike's farm: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions.
The olives were harvested from Nike's groves. The oil pressed and cured in her courtyard, from those same olives. The oregano from her herb garden. The feta cheese made by milk from her goats.
That same salad, known in Greece as "horiatiki," (hor-YA-tee-kee) or "village salad," is a daily staple.
Imagine my surprise some years later, when I returned to the States for college. The first time I had a chance to order a Greek salad, what the server brought to my table prompted me to ask, "Uh, what is THAT?!"
My mother Catherine, now 91, a Brooklyn-raised daughter of Greek immigrants, still laughs at me when I tell the story.
"My parents ran into the same thing when they came to this country," Mom recalled. "Americans love lettuce, and so we took the 'horiatiki,' added lettuce, broke up the feta cheese and sprinkled it, added vinegar, and from there added whatever else you might have around the kitchen."
Alexandra "Alex" Papaioannou, who grew up in Bennington, Vt., but now lives in Greece and comes back in the summers, agrees with my mom.
Her mother, Melpomeni "Melpo" Papaioannou, owns the Bennington Pizza House Main Street in Bennington. They have Greek salad on the menu, but not the venerated "horiatiki."
"The 'horiatiki' salad crossed the Atlantic and came to the New World," Alex told me recently when she was helping out Melpo at the restaurant. "It was transformed to unite products specific to this new 'village,' America."
The Greek salad served at Bennington Pizza House Main Street has the ingredients of the "horiatiki" plus crisp iceberg lettuce and a few others items.
Another American-influenced difference is the feta is broken up and sprinkled, instead of one large hunk on top, as back in Greece. The dressing is olive oil and balsamic vinegar with the oregano of the original.
Alex also noted that tomatoes in Greece just taste different that their U.S. brethren. This concurred with something my mom had told me a few days earlier.
"You have to remember that the overwhelming majority of Greeks get their veggies at farmers markets," my mom said. "It's a really small country and that tradition has never left, even with super markets everywhere."
In Greece, prices at farmers markets are modest at best. With just 11 million people, more than half the population lives in the two large urban centers, Athens and Thessaloniki. But farms are everywhere else and farmers have to sell their goods not just in the surrounding smaller rural towns, but in the big city, too.
The result is every major urban neighborhood has some kind of farmers market once if not twice a week. So along with super fresh veggies, even the oregano, olive oil and cheese comes literally from farm to table throughout the entire country.
Oh, and speaking of the cheese: The reason there's one slab of feta, incidentally, is because Greeks eat freshly baked loaves of bread with their salad, and tend to break off chunks of feta to suit each person sharing the salad, with bread in hand.
"Then you've got to wipe your plate clean with the bread, or it's not a genuine Greek experience," Alex said with a laugh.
Courtesy Telly's mom Catherine, and friends
Onion (optional in some villages)
Cubanelle peppers (optional in some villages/replaced with green peppers in others)
Salt to taste
A thick slice of Greek feta (placed on top)
Courtesy Bennington Pizza House Main Street, and friends
All of the above ingredients, plus/or any/all of the below:
Lettuce, iceberg or romaine
Can also add:
Beets (Detroit version)
Potato Salad (Tampa version)
Lobster (Down East version)
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.