In Other Words

Austerity Lentils

What a country cooks when it's collapsing.

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."

Photograph by Renée Comet

Styling by Jenn Crovato

In Other Words

Market Revolution

How Poland learned to love its own cuisine.

In the winter of 1988, when I first moved to Poland, Warsaw had two types of restaurants. The first type was formal, empty, state-owned, and dusty, lit by flickering, hissing fluorescent bulbs. They had long menus from which one could select dishes -- mostly roast pork, in various guises, or watery soups -- which might or might not actually appear. The waiters were bored, or just plain rude: "They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work," went the mantra. They might take an order, amble into the kitchen, amble back again, and announce that whatever you wanted was gone, and probably most other things were too. If you protested, they shrugged.

The second sort of restaurant was private -- sometimes very private. A few tables and a dozen chairs or so were set up in apartments or the back rooms of houses. They weren't exactly illegal, but they weren't necessarily licensed either. Unlike their state-owned counterparts, these restaurants were full of good cheer and slightly more expensive, which was a good thing: It meant that the menu reflected the prices of the private market in food, and not the controlled prices of the dysfunctional state economy, in which dingy state-run shops sold little more than vinegar, canned meat, and dry crackers. Every once in a while a queue would form for a shipment of sausage.

Even then, food was a sign of the eating revolution to come. The markets that supplied the private restaurants were seasonal, which meant piles and piles of sweet, delicious strawberries in early summer, ripe plums and yellow beans in late summer, and crisp apples, pumpkin, squash, and earthy potatoes in autumn. The vegetables were excellent -- and naturally organic, because the farmers couldn't afford pesticides. Alongside the local farmers, Russian traders came to the markets too, selling tins of beluga caviar for the equivalent of a few dollars. One of my friends knew a "veal lady" who delivered black-market meat as if it were contraband. And there were good free-range eggs to be found, if you knew whom to ask. Here was the foundation of a new capitalism -- even before the Berlin Wall crumbled.

It was no accident that when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher arrived in Warsaw in the autumn of 1988 -- dressed in a full-length fur coat and fur hat -- she went grocery shopping. One of her former advisors recently told me that Thatcher said she wanted to visit a place where "the free market" was working, and the British ambassador to Poland pointed her to the Hala Mirowska, a dilapidated but still elegant 19th-century covered market. At that time, it was filled with country farmers selling their wares at "free prices." As startled shoppers stopped and stared, she swept through the fruit stalls, a crowd of television cameras behind her. The British ambassador scurried behind too, paying for her purchases and jars of pickles broken in the commotion.

Less than a year later, communism collapsed, and in its wake, Polish food began to change rapidly. In fact, the food culture probably changed even faster than the politics because the transformation was already happening: The economic collapse of the 1980s had produced a generation of food entrepreneurs who, by 1990, were delighted to come out of the shadows.

Just as in politics, the first phase of the transformation was chaotic. Bad cardboard pizza became available very quickly, as did lousy (and overpriced) "French" restaurants, most of which served overcooked meat in heavy sauces. McDonald's appeared in 1992 and initially caused a sensation -- people went just for the novelty. But as the economy grew, restaurants multiplied, the charm of the Golden Arches waned, and alternatives of all kinds began to appear. Home cooks had more options: Amateur makers of Polish jams, preserves, and relishes became professionals, acquiring marketing finesse and better packaging. Small farms and factories producing organic pork or game sausages began to flourish as well. At summer festivals and farmers' markets, I wandered the stalls, filling my bag with thin dried sausages, wildflower honey, and beets preserved with horseradish.

With political stability came national self-confidence, and with that came a revival of Polish cooking on a national scale. Today, the most fashionable Warsaw and Krakow restaurants no longer serve bland foreign food with fancy names. Instead, there are robust pork and duck dishes, red cabbage, and wild mushrooms. They serve smalec, an old-fashioned peasant spread made of pork fat and eaten with rustic black bread. Trout, venison, and wild boar, all historically part of Polish cuisine, have reappeared on menus too. Pierogarnia -- dumpling restaurants -- make pierogi in every conceivable flavor, from spinach and feta to the traditional cheese and potatoes. And a new generation of creative chefs is busy reinventing other traditional Polish dishes, introducing such novelties as herring tartare and tiny, elegant cabbage rolls.

The opening of borders and the arrival of international trade have accelerated this process. Once-exotic ingredients -- balsamic vinegar, truffle oil -- are now used to spice up traditional dishes. Nonnative fruits and vegetables, from kiwis to cantaloupes, are now available everywhere. It turns out that arugula, unknown in Poland until the 1990s, grows beautifully in July and August; now it's a ubiquitous ingredient on summer menus.

Critics of the Polish transformation like to speak of winners and losers, of social groups that have done better or worse, relative to one another, since 1990. But in the case of food, there's only better. In fact, the biggest changes are often found at the lower end of the price scale. When one of my children was younger, his favorite meal was "gas station soup" -- chicken broth served plain with noodles -- that we used to get at a roadside cafe beside a petrol pump. Even now, one of my family's favorite restaurants in Poland is a roadside karczma, or inn, that serves only a handful of dishes. One of them is zurek, a soup based on a stock made from sour bread, filled with white sausage and vegetables, and served in a hollowed-out loaf. Another is grilled pork filets with onions, on a skewer like a kebab, but eaten with pickles and grated beet salad.

Everything is simple and fresh, just what roadside food usually isn't. No wonder truckers and tourists cram the parking lot all summer -- and no wonder the state-owned restaurants have disappeared altogether.

FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images