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.