Who Made It First? Laying Claim To Traditional Foods

Throughout human history people have been crisscrossing the Mediterranean and leaving their influence all over the place. The longer you live here, the more the lines of distinction begin to blur. Never mind the empire builders, I’m talking about the most fundamental things that take hold and endure: language, food, genes. Pizza. Pitta. Pita. Round, flat, Mediterranean bread. As old as the hills. If you’re from Italy you put things on top of it and if you’re from Greece you put things inside it. But it’s basically the same thing. So, which came first? Surprise! Here’s a quote from Wikipedia about pita:

Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary attributes it to the Hebrew פת (pat), for “loaf” or “morsel”. The word pita (as פיתא) exists in the Aramaic of the Babylonian Talmud, referring to bread in general.”

Aha! So, traditional handmade matza (matza, pizza), too, is round, not square. That’s news if you’ve only ever gotten your matza from the supermarket. Move over, Maneschewitz. There’s a fabulous book on Italian Jewish cooking and culture called The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin – well researched, authoritative and lovingly written – with photos of round, albeit oblong, Mediterranean matza the way they made it in Pitigliano for eons. But the Greeks get the credit for giving pita to the world and, in its modern, puffy, stuffable form (I get superb pita here), they probably did. Let’s face it – while the Jews were wandering around in circles trying to figure out how the heck to get out of the desert, the ancient Greeks were sailing back and forth all over the Med. Does it matter? If you’re Greek it does. And why shouldn’t it? It’s important. It’s bread.

Before my Greek products importer would work with me he wanted to make sure I was the real deal. Two Catalan sales reps (a father and son whose faces, by the way, were Greeker than Greek) came up to my restaurant and brought a bunch of samples for me to try, including a jar of rose petal jam. “Oh, wow,” I said, “my great-grandmother used to make this.” Their eyes popped in amazement, as if I had just broken their secret code. Later that day, when I got on the phone with the boss, he grilled me about what I’d be serving at the restaurant. When I mentioned dolmades, he took on this fiercely suspicious tone just to ask me “…with meat or rice?” I felt like I was on Dragnet. “Meat?”  I said, “That’s yaprak. That’s Turkish. Dolmades are Greek. They only have rice.” He was satisfied.

I thought he was kind of a jerk (which he is), but I understood his protectiveness. It’s his culture, he’s proud of it, and he doesn’t like to see it treated with casual disregard. Nor do I mine.


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