Following your hunger: An Interview with Christopher Bakken

I have a special fondness for books about Greece that prove themselves up to the task of loving it properly.  Christopher Bakken‘s recent Honey, Olives, Octopus is one of these, and I am delighted to interview him for The Vale of Soul-Making.

Author Christopher Bakken (photo copyright Kelly Gorney).

bakken book cover



Honey, Olives, Octopus, your intricate tapestry of travelogue and memoir and manifesto for good, local food, is also clearly a love letter to Greece. As readers of this blog know, the sentiments you express are ones I share:  “I go back to Greece as often as I can, but that’s never often enough, since my love affair with the country hasn’t dulled one bit”; “while I’m not Greek by birth, I feel more at home there than almost anywhere else on the planet” (xvii). You’ve traveled quite a bit, from what I can tell. Why, precisely, is it Greece you feel at home in? Why, for you, is Greece the country you’ve fallen in love with?

This is a question I ask myself a lot, and others have asked me too, but I still don’t know the answer.  As it turns out, love isn’t so easy to explain, even the love of place.

Part of the answer probably has to do with timing: I already loved the IDEA of Greece before I moved there at age twenty-four, but actually being there at that moment, just I was expanding the contours of myself, made me pretty easy to woo.  And the place just knocked me out.  First, with its raw physical beauty.   Later, with much more subtle charms.  As I explored the country by motorcycle, leaving a trail of drachmas and empty plates in my wake, I found myself being stripped bare—I was alone a lot my first years in Greece and suffered a glorious education of the senses there, pitching my little red tent in archeological sites and on hidden spits of sand.

Bakken's red tent, perched at Portokali Beach on Halkidiki (ca. 1992).
Bakken’s red tent, perched at Portokali Beach on Halkidiki (ca. 1992).

I’d traveled a lot before that, but no place had quite so altered me.  By the time I returned to the U.S. to finish graduate school, I had a Greek self, I might say, and knew I’d never be the same.

Then there is the food: still fresh from the sea, austere, and brimming with sunlight.  Like the landscape itself.

Can I ask you to go back to that original IDEA of Greece and describe it for us? From what was it born? (I’m perhaps overly curious because I lack such a tale of conception myself and seem to have landed at the old Gazi airport in May 2000—as a last-minute companion for my father on one of those university alumni tours—with no longing, no romanticized notions, no concrete expectations. Of course I had read Aeschylus and looked forward to the ancient theatre at Epidauros but my dreams of myself lay in Britain. Yet within two days , my journal attests,I was taken with something in the landscape and people and myself in that place, as if it were the unnameable thing that had been missing in my life.)

Before I actually went there, the idea of Greece was primarily a literary one.  Every image I had of the place was shaped by a slew of art history courses and some blood-spattered images out of Homer and Company—Greece was a whitewashed, attractively ruined Arcadia, a conglomerate of my pastoral imagination.  It didn’t occur to me that it was a modern place at all.

But I felt that it was a kind of elsewhere too, perched on the periphery of Europe, and looking to the East more than the West, and I suspected that it held secrets I wanted to know.   My first intellectual mentor told me that the only way to properly “finish my education” was to wander around Greece, preferably sooner than later.  So I guess I already believed the place would teach me something.

And I had Greece in mind long ago when I jotted this sentence from one of Joseph Brodsky’s essays into my journal: “There are places where history is inescapable, like a highway accident—places where geography provokes history.”   I suspected Greece was exactly that kind of place.  And of course I was right.

Bakken at the age of 24, with completely unreliable motorcycle.
Bakken at the age of 24, with completely unreliable motorcycle.

One of the things I’ve noticed in my reading of many travelogues and memoirs about Greece is this same pattern, this same narrative arc: traveler romanticizes Greece, then visits / moves to / sets up house in the country, becomes disillusioned, primarily by Greek people (almost never by the landscape), but eventually grows to love this “real” Greece, warts and all. I’m guilty of a bit of this myself, or at least I capitalize on it in my study abroad course, “In Byron’s Shadow: Romanticizing and Realizing Greece,” which explores this arc through writer-travelers’ experiences alongside students’ own. You, however, manage to avoid a lot of this: from the get-go, though you write of longing for Greece, your romanticizing is tempered, and you refreshingly never present the Greeks you encounter as caricatures. Was this something you were conscious of as you were writing and revising the book?

I was very conscious of this for several reasons.   What you are really asking, I think, is how you write about Greece without falling prey to the clichés we associate with the place?  Well, you try hard to present things as they are…..warts and all, as you say.

The book’s integrity depended upon that sort of honesty.  First, tourism is the arch-enemy of the cultural and culinary traditions I’m celebrating in this book.  To romanticize the place would require adopting the tourist’s shallow perspective: in that lie, every ruin is bathed in cerulean, every beach is pollution-free, every Greek person is a kind of noble European rustic, and every meal is a wine-sodden symposium complete with dancing and the breaking of plates.  Given the current economic crisis, which is very real, I felt like it was crucial to show how desperate things currently are on real Greek soil.  Also, food is a great leveler: you can’t really lie to the tongue.  Anyone who has eaten the artificial Greek food they serve in tourist restaurants knows that.  Following the trail of authentic culinary traditions led me way off the beaten path, and it required an understanding of recent Greek history.  When you do that, those romantic ideas become unstable pretty quickly, in spite of the undeniable beauty of the place.

Second, the Greeks I interact with in my book are real people, many of them friends.  Again: warts and all.  This presented an even bigger problem, since several of the characters you meet in my chapters are, in fact, completely larger-than-life.  There’s the inimitable Tasos of Thasos, who is a kind of superhero of energetic Greekness, and there’s George Kaltsas, my philosophizing hotel-managing mountain-climbing compadre.   The challenge, in certain ways, was to let them speak for themselves, which meant letting their actions and dialogue speak.  I needed to let them be who they are. Lucky for me, their reality is again more interesting than caricature.

When one of my friends met Tasos of Thasos in the flesh for the first time, she looked at me and said: “I thought you were exaggerating his character, but I now see that you were actually exercising enormous restraint.  This guy’s charisma is unbelievable.”

Fasolada: tasty, humble, warming bean soup.
Fasolada: tasty, humble, warming bean soup.

Thank you for celebrating the chickpea along with the other more expected, more stereotypically Greek foods. I too seek out fasolada in the winters and love roasted chickpeas and greens. Were there other foods you considered including in the book?

So many things, yes!  Limiting myself to only eight spectacular dishes, each representing one “element” of the Greek table, also required a lot of restraint.  I sneak in references to a lot of other dishes in the narrative recipes between each chapter, which allow me to talk about the many things a Greek pita can contain (it’s nothing like our idea of pita), or about the different salates available on the Platonic Greek menu of my imagination.  I think I could have written a book on the hundreds of vegetable dishes alone.  At the base of Greek cuisine is a foundation of beans and local produce and, thanks to poverty and necessity, generations of Greek cooks have performed wizardry with just those ingredients.

But, just off the top of my head, I could have written other chapters on: the myriad delicious weeds of Crete; the salted pastes of Lesbos; the saffron of Kozani; the grilled sardines of Kavala; the noodles of Arahova above Parnassus;  the sea succulents of Thasos; the smoked cheeses of Metsovo; the tsoureki of Easter in Patras; the kokoretsi (guts wrapped in guts) of Livadia; the chestnuts of Pelion; the late-night bougatsa joints of red-light Thessaloniki; the candied eggplants of Corfu; the bottarga of Messalonghi; the halvah of Macedonia; the stuffed cuttlefish of Ourzeri Aristotelous; the imam bayildi of Alexandroupoli; the capers of the Chora of Naxos; the asparagus of Keramoti; the snails and cherry tomatoes of Santorini; the trigona of Panorama; the fried gavros of Halkidiki; the melamakarona of Athenian Christmas; and the thousand funky, delicious fishes extracted from nets on every harbor front of every island.  Sigh.  The place makes me hungry.

I love that you chose to highlight less-touristed places in Greece and I found your book an eloquent argument for ecotourism as well as a celebration of traditional agriculture. Is that what you intended? Do you foresee—and wish for—a future ecotourism boom in Greece? Would it be beneficial, or even possible, in a place such as Kythira? Your chapter on the honey there was particularly moving.

Well, as I crankily admitted above, I’m fundamentally against tourism, period.  When I lead students abroad I always ask them to consider the difference between the tourist and the traveler, which ultimately comes down to a desire for transformation. Tourists remain closed while they are in motion, and are happy if the visited place serves as a picturesque backdrop against which they look good in photographs.  The traveler is porous and wants to learn and be changed by the movement across the threshold of a foreign border.  Needless to say, tourism as it is currently promoted in Greece is neither interesting, nor sustainable: it turns both land and sea into a garbage dump.

That said, I am completely in favor of travel to Greece and it pleases me a lot that people are already following the meandering goat path of my book to places like Kythira.  Greece offers the possibility of transformation like no other place I’ve visited, especially if you stray from the well-worn highways.

Done right, agritourism and ecotourism can serve as economically viable alternatives to the cruise ship and group herd mentality.   It puts money into the hands of farmers, bakers, fishermen, winemakers, and small-business owners, instead of conglomerate tour operators and trinket shops.  For that reason, I am in favor of it.

But more than anything, I’m in favor of landing in a new place, setting out without a fixed itinerary, and following one’s hunger.  That’s exactly what I did in my book and I can’t think of a better way to travel. 

One of the loveliest lines in the book is a quotation from your friend George: “We live in a sphere, not on a line, and we must find a way to fill it.” Will you reflect on that, and on him? 

Perhaps my comment above, about setting out without a fixed itinerary, is a smaller way of stating what George said.

For too many people, that fixed itinerary is a line that goes something like this: birth, school, job, retirement, death.   You live by gaining things while emptying yourself out.

Anyone who has been stricken by a sudden, potentially fatal illness, as my friend George has, pretty quickly sees the narrowness of that approach to being.  George decided a long time ago that he couldn’t live, or die, like that.  I’ve never met a person more determined to fill himself out with experience and ideas and new places.  Like me, he goes forever in search of the single best place to swim on the planet (Greece is, of course, the best place to embark on such a quest).  If, after that, he can drink a good glass of wine while still dripping salt water, even better.  He is like a shark: if he stops moving too long, he’ll suffocate.  That kind of desire for being.  That kind of desire to know.   I’m something of a shark myself. 

You’re also program director for writing workshops in Thessaloniki and Thasos. Please say more: what’s involved? What kinds of writers do you tend to get? What are the workshops like? 

Since you have read my book, you’ll understand the significance of what I’m about to say: our workshops allow people to read and write for a month on a cliff overlooking three archeological sites, not to mention three astonishing beaches, while being served exquisite food by Tasos of Thasos.  That’s right, that very Tasos is our waiter.

We have four workshops, with eight participants each: Carolyn Forché leads the poets; Jayne Anne Phillips the fiction writers; Natalie Bakopoulos the essayists and nonfiction writers; and I run a food and travel writing course.  Mine is the least traditional of the three, since it is part cooking class, part action-adventure experience (we go octopus hunting, for example), and part literary workshop.  Basically, imagine a month of food pornography and island adventure.  We read some excellent books too.

Most of the writers in our cohort already have experience on the page; many are already working on a book manuscript.  We spend our mornings writing and discussing the words we produce, then spend the afternoon swimming and reading.  In the evening, my friend Joanna offers Greek language instruction.  That’s usually followed by a poetry or prose reading in the olive grove, or down in the temple.  Then dinner and dancing until we collapse.  The next day we do it again.

People get a lot of serious work done there and it’s inspiring to have so many artists brought together on one peninsula on the very edge of Greek earth.  I confess that it is an unreasonably beautiful place to do such work.

View from the balcony on Thasos, where the workshops are held.
View from the balcony on Thasos, where the workshops are held.

And, there are still a few spots left in each of our workshops.  We’ll be reading applications till all workshops fill.  Check us out.

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