Chef and Author
My mom from the Greek island of Ikaria lived to 95. My Ikarian aunt on my dad’s side to 95 and my husband’s paternal Ikarian grandmother to 98. It never occurred to me that as a family we were beating the odds. Until, that is, I stumbled on to Dan Beuttner’s book The Blue Zones, about why some people in the world live extraordinarily long and healthy lives.
I was at a friend’s in San Francisco. It was Election Eve 2008 and the air was electric. Before falling to sleep I skimmed the book, then, quite by chance the next day got an email from one of Dan’s assistants, who wanted some information on Ikaria. What I had always taken for granted—my roots on this small, remote island, the simple delicious foods I’d always tasted there during the summers of my childhood, the agrarian routines that seemed so exotic to my New York sensibilities—was suddenly important in the eyes of the “outside” world.
Growing up in an Ikarian home in Queens, New York, was like being in a village setting of sorts. We always had a stream of guests dropping in and our kitchen table was always ready to accommodate them. The foods were usually simple: a salad, boiled greens (picked in the New York of the 1960s during countless Sunday outings to Long Island), some cheese, bread, olives, some bean dish or other that was my father’s specialty. Maybe a savory pie filled with more greens, usually spinach. Olive oil was part of every dish, even many of the sweets we ate, even then, before the Mediterranean Diet was discovered. But most of all, it was the conviviality of it all I remember, the open hospitality, the de rigueur offering of food and wine to anyone who came through our door.
Then, decades later, long after the Mediterranean Diet was lauded as the world’s healthiest, our Ikarian ways became a hotspot on the Blue Zone radar screen. Dan asked me what I thought the reasons were that people seemed to live longer here. There’s never one single thing, of course, but the social and human aspects of how Ikarians live are, to my mind at least, as important as what they eat.
I came to the island for the first time as a 12-year-old New York kid, not speaking a word of Greek, and yet sensing that this place had something that spoke to me. My mom sent me here every summer as a teenager, to keep my off the streets of New York. If only she had known then the freedom I enjoyed here, feeling safe, knowing everyone, staying up til dawn and growing into adulthood with images of sunrises and the sounds and smells of bees collecting nectar just as the day begins.
And then the road of no return for my budding cook’s sensibilities: tasting foods that actually had flavor because they were so fresh, so local, so seasonal. I could never replicate those things in New York: tomatoes with intense sweet and acidic juices, which grew in my aunt’s garden, homemade goat’s cheese, slightly acidic olive oil, vinegar that really tasted of wine, fennel and oregano and savory in almost everything, cherries off the tree in a friend’s garden, apricots that were so sweet they tasted like jam. Wild mountain goat, the food of feasts on this island. I realized early on, thanks to my Ikarian immersion, that vegetables played a much different role on the plate and on the table.
There is a keen lesson for every American cook in that: We Ikarians, and Greeks in general, eat vegetables as main courses, or marry them with small portions of meat. Fish, of course, is central to this Greek island cuisine. But the meat thing—moving it out of the center of the plate and pushing the vegetables, beans, and legumes to center stage, with the starches and red meats more like satellites around something plant-based—this, in retrospect, was a revelation. For as long as I can remember, I’ve eaten that way. Not exactly a vegetarian, but no maniacal carnivore, either.
Ikaria shaped my cook’s sensibilities but also my social self. The slowness of this place, our unique relationship to time (point of fact: when I got married here I was two hours late for the wedding; the priest, however, had not arrived yet!). Ikarians don’t stress out about much. I like to think that this is in our gene pool, since most of the Ikarians I know even in the States are pretty calm, mellow folks. Time slows here. The sweet honey of indolence drips down on every visitor to this island—that’s what a good friend who has visited us here once observed. Ikaria isn’t a consumer society. Shopkeepers won’t try to convince you to buy, waiters won’t hurry over to your table for an order, nor will they hurry to collect your plates, deeming this rude, as though nudging you to leave.
No one will ever be able to say with certainty that one thing or another leads to a longer life. Diet surely plays a role, and here on Ikaria it’s always been very simple, very poor. But the foods from this island are elegant in their simplicity, easy to reproduce in any city in America. And they are conducive to that most Ikarian of good habits: sitting around the table, wine in hand, olive oil poured at the ready, with friends and family of every age (age, like time, is irrelevant here, too), enjoying one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Below, I serve forth a plate of longevity beans. For more healthful Ikarian and Greek recipes, log on to my youtube channel. There you’ll see step by step recipes for the Greek and Ikarian classics, for vegetable-based dishes and more. And, if you’re the fun-loving, hospitality-loving, adventurous sort, then come to visit us here on the island, for a week of cooking together and learning the ways of this remote, unique, beautiful place. We even take you to the hot springs! Our school is called the Glorious Greek Kitchen. You can find it on my you tube site and also at www.dianekochilas.com
“Longevity” Black Eyed Pea Stew from Ikaria
Serves 2 as a main course and 4 – 6 as a meze
½ pound black eyed peas
½ cup extra virgin Greek olive oil
1 large red onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 large, firm ripe tomato, grated or finely chopped
2 teaspoons tomato paste, diluted in ¼ cup water
2 bay leaves
Salt to taste
1 bunch wild fennel or 1 fennel bulb, finely chopped and 1 bunch dill, finely chopped
1. Rinse the black eyed peas in a colander.
2. Heat half the olive oil in a medium pot over medium heat and cook the onion and garlic, stirring, until soft, about 12 minutes. Add the black eyed peas and toss to coat in the oil.
3. Add the tomato, tomato paste and enough water to cover the beans by about an inch. Add the bay leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until the black eyed peas are about half way cooked. Season with salt. Add the wild fennel. (Note: if wild fennel is unavailable, cook the chopped fennel bulb with the onion and garlic and add the dill in place of the wild fennel.) Continue cooking until the black eyed peas are tender. Remove, pour in remaining raw olive oil and serve.