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I am so excited to share this week’s blog post with you all! Instead of our usual chef/foodie interview, we have a chat with Greek-American fiction author, Natalie Bakopoulos. Her second novel, Scorpionfish, has just been released and tells the story of a young woman who goes back to Greece and strikes up an unlikely friendship with her retired ship captain neighbor. Including it in their Best Summer Read list, The Daily Beast said, “Bakopoulos weaves together the personal stories of the two, both recently returned to Greece, and their community of artists and politicians, refugees and immigrants, as they try to come to terms with their own changing senses of self and home over one hot summer.” Well, that was enough to tempt me! If you’re tempted, too, to read Scorpionsfish, enter our free giveaway next week - follow us on Facebook or Instagram and stay tuned for the details next week!
Maria: How do you see life as a Greek-American? What does it mean to you to be a Greek in the US and an American in Greece, does this “duality” affect your writing, and life in general, if at all?
Natalie: This is a great question, and I think this duality is something I’m always aware of. Identity is inextricable from the way we experience the world, after all. But I think what shapes my life particularly is spending time in both the States and in Greece. I’m always aware of my Greek self and my American self—my father is Greek and he came to the States in 1966, where he met my mother, who is Ukrainian, which makes the notion of identity even more complicated. Despite this hybridity, I think all my selves meet in the identity of the writer. And Scorpionfish is, among other things, definitely about this sort of duality.
M: What was it like to live in Athens during the recession? What prompted you to go there at a time of turmoil?
N: Athens is my favorite city in the world. It’s beautiful and noisy and peaceful and complicated—a city like any other city yet like no other city I know. Athens is Athens! I’ve been going to Greece every summer since 2005, and several times before then too, but I cannot say I experienced the recession. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time in Athens, even though I’m Greek, I’m still also an American, with an American job, American passport. If I experienced the city differently, it’s more to do with day-to-day life and interaction there, and through the conversations with friends, family, people I meet in the neighborhood, and so on.
I guess I wouldn’t have stayed away from Athens because of the crisis, just as I would not go there because of it. I wrote a novel set in the contemporary moment, and to ignore certain realities would be disingenuous, but I also didn’t want to focus the narrative around the idea of “crisis,” or reduce the Greek experience to it.
Though I have friends and family in Athens, I also spend a lot of time there on my own, working, writing—a solitude I really crave sometimes, and enjoy. When I’m not writing or teaching, I love spending hours walking the city. In some ways, though it’s a work of the imagination, Scorpionfish is my own love letter to Athens—a city I’m missing all the more now that it’s more difficult, or impossible, to return.
M: Our philosophy at Zelos revolves around love through food - what does this bring to mind? What’s your fondest memory of food?
N: This is a wonderful philosophy. In the summers, I teach creative writing in a small private American program called Writing Workshops in Greece on the Greek island of Thasos. The students study prose and poetry, as well as Modern Greek, and students interested in travel/food writing class visit local producers to learn how to make honey, yogurt, and sourdough bread from wild yeast. (A side note: Christopher Bakken, one of my friends and director of the program, is the author of the book Honey, Olives, Octopus, whose subtitle is “Adventures at the Greek Table”). At Archondissa, the pension on the southeast corner of the island where the students stay, there is also a taverna: home cooking, a wood-burning oven, olive oil made by the groves that reach from the restaurant down to the sea. The “patriarch” of Archondissa is a fisherman/former sailor, and some early mornings or evenings he invites the students out on his boat, to show them how he pulls in the fishing nets.
All this to say, I definitely associate “love through food” with Greece. My favorite memories are around the Greek table. Particularly on the island of Thasos—long leisurely dinners, cold white wine, the sea. Tsipouro! Marinated sardines and good bread. I have so many good memories that involve food, and of course they also involve dear friends around the table too. My favorite is a late-night dinner, with barbounia, freshly caught, hot and fried, served with lemon and a side of horta, say, or a xoriatiki salad. Or revithia (chickpeas), which I love, particularly when baked in a wood-fired oven—they become so rich and almost chocolately. I could eat like this every night. I’m not a vegetarian, but I find it much easier to eat vegetarian, or at least pescetarian, in Greece. Then again, what is better than a fresh souvlaki with pita, piled high with French fries, and a cold beer? Nothing!
M: How do you see cooking, as a fun pastime or a necessary evil?! Do you have a favorite recipe?
N: This question made me laugh out loud, as I just said to my husband, “Do we have to make dinner again? We just made dinner yesterday!” No, seriously, I really do enjoy cooking, but after months of consecutive dinners at home, the idea of a restaurant sounds downright decadent. Even basic things: I miss sitting at the bar, or an outdoor cafe! I miss breezy tavernas and neighborhood pubs. I miss Greek “toast” (a grilled ham & cheese sandwich) on the beach! Ice cream I did not scoop myself. For me, cooking is also a type of procrastination: I have a deadline so I’ll made a cake, or an elaborate dinner, or a loaf of bread. But I really enjoy eating good food, of course, which is really why I learned to cook!
Though I love all types of food, from all cultures and regions and countries, at home I tend to cook pretty simply, and almost always Greek or Mediterranean-inspired. Next on my list is the tangerine chicken on your blog, and I just ordered some sea fennel (kritamo), which I’m excited to use. I love chicken baked with chick peas and fresh figs—when I can get them---and onions. Or a classic Greek lemon chicken with potatoes. Moroccan-inspired stews. Revithia. Spanakopita, tiropita. A good Greek salad with fresh summer tomatoes. Every so often in the winter I’ll make a beef stifatho or a hearty, cinnamony bolognese. My favorite Greek dessert is karidopita, which I love to make too, and I love spoon sweets, particularly over yogurt.
M: Scorpionfish is a venomous fish but makes one of the most tasty traditional Greek fish soups, why did you choose that name for your book?
N: It is so good, isn’t it—the fish, that is! My editor at Tin House, Masie Cochran, suggested this title, and I loved it. It was the title I’d been searching for all along. The narrator’s mother is stung by what they think is a scorpionfish when swimming, and one of the narrator’s friends is an artist whose work incorporates the motif of scorpions. The Aegean Sea also figures strongly in the book—as beloved place, as emotional touchstone, as landscape of both calm and danger.
M: COVID changed a lot of our travel plans. What do you love most about going to Greece? What will you miss most this summer?
N: Not one day has gone by this summer when I have not imagined what I would have been doing in Greece. When I teach on Thasos, I always swim before my morning class. It’s this early morning immersion in the sea, before anyone is on the beach, that I love most. I miss this morning ritual, along with the nightly ritual of eating with friends, listening to music, singing and dancing.
M: What’s the future of food and reading in our rapidly evolving and increasingly digital global world?
N: Everything feels so uncertain and precarious right now, doesn’t it? I’m glad to hear people seem to be reading more than ever, and I think because we spend so much time online—working, Zoom meetings, etc.—that even people who generally prefer e-books are finding a renewed pleasure in the physical object of the book. As for food, I miss restaurants and I know many of our favorites are struggling: I wish there were ways to more safely support them and their staff. We're being asked to sacrifice the health of our bodies for the health of the economy, which seems deeply short sighted, and could lead to far more despair in the long run. As for the future of food, I don’t know, but it will have to involve an ethical sustainability: eating in ways that are more gentle to the planet, and finding ways to make that kind of eating—simple, healthy, ethically sourced food—accessible to everyone. I like Michael Pollan’s mantra: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
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