In Greek Families, Food Takes Center Stage

Article excerpt

Byline: HOME COOKING By Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

Think of the movie, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," says Victoria Pavlatos, and you can understand the role of food in her life.

"That says it all - life is all about food, family and hospitality," says Pavlatos, who grew up in one Greek-American family and married into another. "Everybody's always eating, and always together. I think it's one reason many Greek families are so strong."

She met her husband, Timothy Pavlatos, the priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Eugene, at a church camp in Maine when she was 19 and he a decade older. At the time, he had no calling to the ministry, which was fine with her; her own father had been an orthodox priest, always subject to the sudden needs of parishioners and frequent relocations of the family to new churches.

"I always said I'd never marry a priest," Pavlatos says. "I guess God had a hand in that."

They married when she was 21, and quickly began a family that now includes six children - Tatiana, Isaiah, Andreas, Gabriella, Giordana and Anysia - who range in age from 9 to 1.

"I think we'll have one more," Pavlatos says. "I always wanted to have a large family."

That, of course, means a lot of cooking.

Specialty: Traditional Greek foods, but with a twist, because Pavlatos' husband doesn't eat meat. She and the couple's six children do, however, so she makes "a vegetarian meal for him and a different meal for the rest of us."

The secret to good Greek cooking lies in the flavorings - "lots of olive oil," Pavlatos says, along with lemon, basil, oregano and garlic - combined with simple ingredients such as chicken, fish and potatoes.

Cooking experience: Her husband says when they married 10 years ago, "She couldn't even cook a hot dog," and Pavlatos doesn't dispute his recollection.

"I didn't know anything about cooking," she recalls. `The joke back then was, `What are we going to order out tonight?' But once we started having children - and that was soon, because I became pregnant about two weeks after we got married - I really had to learn. And I wanted to know how to cook traditional Greek foods.'

Her happy spouse clearly appreciates what she's learned since then, but he'd better watch his compliments.

"She's far surpassed my mother," he says.

Biggest cooking success: Probably mastering the art of making pastitsio - Italians call it "pasticcio," meaning "hodgepodge" - which Pavlatos describes as "Greek lasagna."

"It's the hardest to put together of all my recipes," she says. `The first time I made it, I said, `Yes, I'm an official cook - I made pastitsio.' '

Because her husband doesn't eat meat, she most often makes the layered dish vegetarian, using a soy-based meat substitute, but it's not the same as the real thing, Pavlatos says.

"If we're having company, I definitely make it with a meat sauce."

Biggest cooking failure: A tuna casserole early in her marriage.

"It was when I was pregnant with my first child; it must have been a craving, because it tasted fine to me," she recalls. `I used a box macaroni and cheese and crumbled ranch-flavored potato chips instead of bread crumbs. It was the only time my husband said, `What is that?' '

Favorite cookbooks: None, really. Most of her recipes have come "from friends and family," Pavlatos says. "I learned a lot from the women at church, mostly godparents - with six children, we have a lot of godparents - and I watched, paid attention and took notes on what they were doing."

Why these recipes: They're family favorites. Her children call salmon "pink fish," Pavlatos says, and the roasted whole chicken she prepares ends up so tender that it's known in Greek circles as "melted chicken."

The vegan chocolate cake suits everyone in the family, vegetarian or not. "It's heavy, hearty and good - our favorite dessert," she says. …