Yiayia Olymbia: Cooking Memories With My Greek Grandmother

A woman who steals the hearts of everyone she meets

Maria Koliopoulos, Graphics Editor

My childhood was sitting on the floor with her by my side. She’d peel grapes, I’d pop them in my mouth like a little bird. I’d smell the flowers in the fabrics of her floral print homemade dresses, thinking the scent of her perfume was the scent of the silken petals on her clothing.

I’m taking you into a house. Brick and mortar, tile and Greek statuettes intact. I’m taking you into a home; the best I’ve ever been a part of or could ever wish to be.

It’s Saturday morning. The sun shines through the windows of the kitchen, her silhouetted hair shining in a silver outline. It’s curly, and she jokes that she’s uncombed.

I do believe her voice is one of the most beautiful songs in the world. Her broken English twinkles with charm and her Greek rings of care.

“I sit and listen to the radio, they’re telling me of the things Omaha is building. Growing here, development there, I wonder about my property, too.”

She cooks, but over sixty years supporting herself and a family means the ingredients are far more accurately measured by feeling than by numbers.

One relatively large onion (“[oh, but the half of the one was ruin, so I found ‘nother]”).
Olive oil, not measured.
Ground beef, two or three pounds, for many people.
About a teaspoon of salt, you’ve gotta taste it to know.

The community at Saint John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church has deemed her one of their best cooks, and people even fight for her galaktoburiko at auctions sometimes. We find it comedic.

“In Greece, I did not know how to cook. When I arrived in America, little by little I began to learn. I would ask women here and there, and I also had a nice Greek cookbook, the best book. It’s all measured in grams, though, not teaspoons and such.”This beef is lean, but it’s best if it isn’t.

“[you see, red pepper. just a littel bet.]”

Cinnamon. How much? “[a little teaspoon]”

She cooks, I try to help, she continues to cook. We get to talking; words flow easily here. She tells me of her village, her life now.

“[Lazaraki. Lazarus. He is, you know who he is? Yes. He raise from the dead.] My Lazaraki was a very small goat. He wouldn’t drink his mother’s milk, so we took him to our neighbor. He knew goats well, but when he saw the goat’s sores and said it would die, I got very angry. We took that goat home, I found an [alumino measuring cup] and filled it with the mother’s milk. I’d dunk his head in, he’d spit it out. After a few days, [he start to drink], the sores started leaving from around his mouth. Before you know it, they were completely gone. Anywhere I was, the goat was, too. We even slept together on the floor. It took a very long time for our neighbor and everyone else to believe their eyes.”

Tomato paste.

“I have lemon trees, I have fig trees, they blossom and bear fruit. They didn’t allow me to bring fig trees back from Greece, so I bought some in Memphis [Tennessee]. It’s about time I repot them, but they are getting a little too heavy for me to do so on my own.” 

Walking across the kitchen to the sink, she arcs her path around a small, energetic dog, softly joking to her about watching her tail as she goes.

She hands me a spoon of her sauce. Does it have enough salt? I think yes, she thinks no.

She’ll add a chicken bouillon, she says.

Yiayia is fluent in English because of the the tailor shop she owned and ran with my Papou for multiple decades. Her ability is there, but it is clear Greek is still far easier. I ask her about speaking English, and she laughs.

“English? I still don’t know how to speak English! How many years am I here? 62 years? 62 years, then. The store brought in all of the world. Sometimes I’ll be going somewhere, and all sorts of people will know me. My daughters like to kid with me about the ‘bigshots’ recognizing me. Really, it all comes down to everyone being nice to one another. It is not so hard.”

Try it now, ah, you see, much better. She is, once again, right.

Boiled pasta noodles.

“My mother would tell me many things that sometimes seemed funny to me. Now I find myself saying the same things, and I think to myself, she had a point.”

Grated cheese.

“I like red. Why? I do not know. I like the bright colors. When your Papou died, I did not like wearing the black clothes. I used to joke with him; we would say I would wear floral prints to his burial. In the end, I wore the black, but soon enough I’ll be wearing flowers again.”

Summer is nearing. She’s beginning to wear flowers again, and the earth is too. Here’s to hoping you find your own flowers this summer; her arms will always be wide open.

Maria Koliopoulos

Maria became a member of The Flightline in January of 2016. She is a senior this year involved in show choir at Skutt Catholic and is probably climbing a tree or drawing outside of school. You can email her at [email protected]