Saturday, December 13, 2008

Gyros makes the world go 'round

I love Gyros. I love sultry, salty, succulent meat turning on a spit. Shave it and wrap it in fluffy, delicious pita. I love it with tzatziki or spicy feta spread.  I love it with tomatoes, french fries, and onions.  But what I don't love is the fake unpalatable wrapped trash passed onto unwitting American consumers. This is not to say that sometimes it can't be tasty - I've definitely filled up on the American version at the Gyros House in St. Louis. Papa Cristo's in LA has also done it's job from time to time. But generally it needs to be noted that what Greek-American restaurateurs serve would never pass in Greece.

Before I launch into any tirades concerning fast food of the Eastern Mediterranean, it must be made clear that I will focus exclusively on the Greek version of gyros.  Many permutations exist throughout the Mediterranean world, primarily as Döner and as Schawarma.  The modern inculcation first appeared in the 19th century, in the Turkish city of Bursa and quickly spread to other parts of Turkey.  Greeks expelled from Turkey in the 1960's began opening up döner shops in their new country, and quickly popularized döner, which was rebranded as gyros (Greek for "turning").  With fast-food culture taking over the Western world, Greek expatriates living in the United States returned and established a fast-food tailored to Mediterranean tastes.

The American gyros can be looked at as a metaphor for Greek diaspora culture - or it can be further extrapolated as a prime example for any diaspora. Clearly Greek entrepreneurs meant well when they popularized gyros but they had to tailor it to not only American tastes but also to American preconceptions and stereotypes with regards to Greek culture. Certainly in the 1960s the stereotypes of a pastoral Greece, whose landscape was dominated by shepherds and their flocks of sheep and goats, wasn't too far-fetched. What stuck in the imaginations of Americans were images of Greece, which were filtered through the lens of the few prominent films which caught the attention of the general public - Never on a Sunday and Zorba the Greek, serve as two prime examples. I will not discuss these films in depth but they both establish and corroborate the stereotype of the macho mustachioed Greek man, drunk, poor, dancing, and happy.

In all of this developed this fascination with Lamb. According to the average American, Greeks eat lamb for every meal. While I love lamb, until relatively recently, the cuisine of Greece was purely seasonal. You could not buy strawberries in November. You could buy lamb frozen but that simply would not do. Lamb really is only served a couple of times a year - served primarily at Eastern when it is roasted whole on a spit, preceded by an intense soup made with the offal of said lamb.

These misconceptions are played up by Greek-American restauranteurs who, at this point are run by 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations who have been fully assimilated into American culture, and are perpetuated in the name of sales and expectations of the American clientele. Certainly most emphasize quality of ingredients but very few emphasize refinement of cooking. Often it is an older family member who cooks the traditional dishes and recipes, which are passed on to line cooks who are often not Greek. But essentially this is comfort food - from their home to yours and is not intended to be a refined cuisine.

Of course this article is not intended to belittle the hard work of Greek-American restaurateurs who have worked hard, chasing the American dream. The true testament to these entrepreneurs are the legions of Greek-Americans who have excelled in academia, medicine, law, business, etc. The only question that remains is - if this group of people can excel in so many high-profile fields, why can't they just serve a proper Greek gyro?


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Always yours,
miss MW