Greek New Year’s lore roughly accords with Anglo-Saxon traditions about the changing of the wind: If, upon the stroke of midnight in the New Year, one is miffed, quizzical, or downright perturbed, cosmic forces will mysteriously ensure that such moods will remain immutable for the duration of our planet’s revolution around the celestial orb.
It is for this reason, then, that I smiled, when Greek friends manifested themselves upon my doorstep, bearing, instead of the requisite vasilopita, a boxed Panettone, this particular version being, the Motta Colomba. Interestingly, this avatar is actually the cake served at Easter, that coming in the shape of a dove, symbolises a time of peace and reflection. When my friends invited me to insert my own coin within the confection, because, as they informed me, this vasilopita comes without one, I continued to smile, taking the time, in peace and reflection, to visualize their offering being ritually impaled upon a toasting fork and immolated within the fires of Vesuvius by enraged New Year’s kallikantzaroi, of the Orthodox persuasion, of course.
Similarly, I allowed my lips to express joy, goodwill and mirth when an acquaintance also apparated at our place of abode some time later, bearing what he maintained to be a vasilopita. It was in fact, a plaited tsoureki, manifestly frozen at Easter time, its decay suspended in time and space and now thawed out and proffered wholeheartedly. It was the words: Χρόνια Πολλά 2018, inscribed in texta on the outside of a clear plastic bread bag, along with the hole at its rear, where a coin had been manually inserted, that provided the logical basis behind my deduction. As things transpired, the said tsoureki-cum-vasilopita was of historical importance, since the inserted coin turned out to be a two-cent piece, withdrawn from circulation in 1992. Furthermore, I relish the idea of a versatile Greek comestible making itself available to a multiplicity uses, as being the Greek-Australian equivalent of bringing out hot cross buns just after Christmas. Apparently, many Greek-Australian bakers feel the same way, for their vasilopites also look, taste and feel suspiciously like tsourekia as well.
For this New Year, I chose to attempt a recreation of my late grandmother’s vasilopita, which was hard, dry and bread-like, and topped with walnuts whose shells were charred, for my grandmother was a purist and would not cover them with foil. In pursuit of this lofty goal, I attended my local Greek deli just before Christmas, in order to obtain the requisite ingredients early and give myself enough time to experiment. As I waited at the cash register, I was treated to this following conversation between the proprietor and what appeared to be a second-generation Greek-Australian:
“Ela re, how are you going palikari?”
“Gamiseta re. How about you? Busy?”
“Tis trelis mate. Gamiseta.”
“You taking time off?”
-“No way mate. Closing the shop only on the main days. Too busy. Gamiseta. What are you doing for New Year’s?”
“Going to my pethera’s re.. Gamiseta.”
“How’s the missus?”
“Giving me strain re, gamiseta. Wants to go to Queensland.”
“What is it with missuses always wanting to go on holidays to Queensland re? Gamiseta.”
Turning to me, the smiling proprietor enquired:
“No I can’t,” I responded.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“ I can’t do what you are encouraging me to do.”
“Huh? Why not?”
“I’m fasting,” I informed him.”
Whereupon both my interlocutors chimed in unison: “Gamiseta!”
Apparently, the more you conflate the two Greek words into one, and the more you repeat them, the more Greek you are. My antiphon to the ritual chant appeared to grant immense cheer to the proprietor, for he would not let me leave without obtaining custody of one of his vasilopites, one of the tsoureki-looking types, gratis.
“Ellada,” the proprietor exclaimed, spreading his arms expansively as I walked away. “Only we Greeks understand the vasilopita. The rest of the world? Varvaroi vre paidi mou, gamiseta.”
I attempted to explain to him that both eastern and western New Year’s celebrations derive from the ancient Greek Kronia, the festival of Cronus, the god of Time, which involved selecting a “king” by lot, and then, the Roman Saturnalia. I added for good measure that the traditions surrounding vasilopita are very similar to western European celebrations of the Twelfth Night and Epiphany, the king cake of France and Louisiana and the tortell of Catalonia.
“Yes, the proprietor responded, “but there is one thing we have that they don’t.”
“What?” I asked.
“They aren’t Ellines, re,” he crowed triumphantly. ‘Even Agio Vasili was Greek.”
I returned two days after Christmas, surmising from my experimental concoctions that my grandmother’s vasilopita recipe contained other secret ingredients I had not accounted for.
“How are you re? How can I help?” the proprietor asked, expending the last of his leftover Christmas cheer upon my insufficiency.
“Do you have mastiha?” I asked.
“Yeah re. Katse….Here it is re.”
“Is that the Greek one or the Lebanese one?”
“ It’s the Greek one re, what do you take me for?”
Suddenly, he looked up at me, frowning. “Re, are you doing baking?”he enquired tentatively.
The proprietor shook his head in disbelief: “Seriously, re?”
Looking defensive, he hastened to confide. “Nah relax re. It’s all good. No judgment. Your secret is safe with me, re. Καλή χρονιά.”
With the advent of the New Year, just before the vasilopita is served, it would be ideal to retrieve, from the depths of the cupboard, my invention, the Greek Australian board game for the holidays: ΠΑΡΕΞΗΓΗΣΗ. The object is to visit as many squares on the board as possible, which represent relatives’ houses. If you wipe your hands on the tablecloth instead of using a napkin, go back three spaces. If you forget to gossip about your third cousin, go back two spaces. If someone makes a snide remark about your distant uncle’s Filipino girlfriend’s culinary prowess and you don’t join in, advance three spaces. If you fail to show appreciation for your newlywed investment banker brother-in-law’s new barbecue, go back one space. The object of the game is to get to the finish with the largest amount of relatives not speaking to you.
Extra points are awarded for:
1. Guessing around the New Year’s Day table, which of your relatives have deemed your Christmas presents unsuitable and have already surmised whence they were purchased and obtained a refund.
2. Guessing around the New Year’s Day table, which of your relatives know that you have deemed their Christmas presents unsuitable and have already surmised whence they were purchased and obtained a refund.
3. Guessing which new age relative will make the most outlandish New Year’s Resolution, including world peace, sustainable and ethically made yoga pants, the cooking of gluten-free lakhanodolmades and commencement of a communication embargo with their mother.
4. Guessing around the New Year’s Day table, which relatives will not be speaking to you by the end of the cutting and distribution of the vasilopita.
5. Referring to the cutting of the vasilopita as κοπή της βασιλόπιτας, and not κόψιμο της βασιλόπιτας, which is what happens when your vasilopita gives you the runs.
In keeping with the spirit of most Greek organisations, there is a rule book, but no one is expected to follow it. Sadly, since its invention, I have found no one within my social circle who wishes to play.
When my vasilopita emerged from the oven, it looked and smelled like a History Channel graphic re-enactment gone horribly wrong. Malodorous and hard baked on the top, it lacked structure and was soft in the middle, much like myself, really. The consensus being that it was not fit for human consumption, adhering to the strictures of hallowed custom required us to pull out the previously gifted tsoureki-vasilopita, upon which I chipped my tooth, thereupon discovering the ingenious insertion of the two-cent piece.
“Γούρι, γούρι,” one relative joyfully exclaimed.
“Don’t swear!” another advised, as I uttered nefarious idiomatic curses, clutching my mouth in agony. “If you swear today, you will be swearing all year.”
“That’s what happens when you play the fool and try to do a woman’s job,” a middle aged invitee observed darkly.
“What did you say?” I looked up, my eyebrows contorting like a Russian gymnast on steroids, in fury.
“Τίποτα, τίποτα,” he retreated three paces. “Τίποτα, καλή καρδιά, καλή χρονιά. Και του χρόνου.”
“So you want him to chip his tooth again next year, do you?” an enraged aunt demanded.
“Όχι, όχι παρεξήγηση,῾he retreated a further two paces.
I sat back, mesmerised as I watched them play ΠΑΡΕΞΗΓΗΣΗ unwittingly, in a manner that exhausts superlatives, crumbs of tsourekovasilopita streaming from their mouths as they engaged in heated invective, my cheek muscles jerking my lips into a chasmic smile.
“That’s better, my overprotective aunt beamed, hurling a stream of pejoratives over the table. “Smile. Now you will be smiling all year round. Και του χρόνου.”