Everything but the Opaa | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Everything but the Opaa 

Cooks' Books

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When restaurateur Paul Boundas was asked by his mother's women's church group to submit a recipe, he thought he was contributing to a ring-bound community cookbook. Then a photographer showed up at his house. Boundas's recipe for macaronada, a pasta dish with nutmeg-laced red sauce and baked shrimp, is just one of the offerings in the new coffee-table cookbook Greektown Chicago: Its History, Its Recipes by local author Alexa Ganakos. Ganakos says she was able to cull family recipes from a "good sampling of people"--old and young, women and men--just by putting out feelers in the Greek Orthodox diocese. Even the Very Reverend Archimandrite Demetri Kantzavelos contributed his avgolemono, egg lemon soup.

The rest of the 40-plus recipes come from chefs at five Greektown mainstays: the Parthenon, Greek Islands, Pegasus, Artopolis, and Costa's. Some, like the eggplant dip melitzanosalata, look quite feasible to re-create at home. Others, like Costa's stuffed grilled calamari, wouldn't likely be much of a success made in a standard kitchen. Even Ganakos agrees that this one is probably better left to the experts.

Ganakos grew up in Addison, the eldest daughter of second- and third-generation Greek Chicagoans. In 2001 she founded Greek Circle, a quarterly magazine that "picks up where the Greek Star leaves off," she says, covering Greek culture and individuals in the business and arts communities. She joined the Greektown Chicago project when the Saint Louis-based publisher G. Bradley approached the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center of Chicago in search of an author for another book in a series it's doing on immigrant communities in the midwest. (Future volumes are planned on the Polish and German communities in Chicago and Milwaukee.) The Hellenic Museum suggested Ganakos.

"I was sitting on this wealth of knowledge," she says. "I had five years' worth of magazine issues. To put all this together into a keepsake kind of book with more of a permanent presence in the hearts and minds of Greek people--that was always a dream of mine."

Greektown Chicago devotes equal time to food, history, and culture. Flipping through it, you're as likely to land on a discussion of athletes or the role of the church as on a recipe. In the introduction, novelist Harry Mark Petrakis mistily recounts his childhood as the son of a parish priest in the Greektown of the 1930s and '40s, a place that, he writes, "might have been villages transplanted from Greece into America." Jane Addams's Hull House at Polk and Halsted anchored the roughly triangular area known as the Delta, bordered by Halsted, Harrison, and Blue Island in the 19th Ward. In the early 60s the Dan Ryan cut into the area and the Delta's residents were displaced to make way for the new UIC campus. What remained of Greek commerce got nudged several blocks north, and in the 70s and 80s modern Greektown slowly came into its own. Ganakos remembers visiting the restaurants there regularly in her childhood. "The 70s were still pretty rough, but you knew you were safe coming here," she says.

She wanted the book to include the voices of Greek Chicagoans who knew the community's history firsthand, so she spent hours reading transcripts of oral histories collected by the Hellenic Museum. Snippets from those are sprinkled throughout the book alongside archival photographs of fruit peddlers, young men at Hull House, and soda fountain counters. There are also family photos loaned by the cooks whose recipes the book features--black-and-white or sepia shots of weddings, baptisms, beach outings, lamb roasts. "People were willing to take them off the walls," Ganakos says. "I'm still returning photos to this day." A few of Ganakos's own made it into the book: a section on weddings includes a shot of her sister on a traditional donkey ride during her marriage ceremony in an island village.

There's one omission readers might find surprising: saganaki, the flaming cheese dish responsible for thousands of cries of Opaa! A founding partner of the Parthenon--at 37, Greektown's oldest restaurant--claims credit for creating the appetizer. But while saganaki is ubiquitous on Halsted Street, there's no recipe for it in the book. The Parthenon declined to provide it--it's a secret recipe, and they didn't want the blame if a home cook started a conflagration.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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