A long time ago I spent several months in Greece, in Chania on Crete. Many Greeks consider Crete to be the boondocks of the country and Chania, on the western end of the island, is in the boondocks of Crete. It didn’t matter: the old town was lovely and off the beaten tourist path; the locals were decent, hard-working folks; and the simple, fresh food was fantastic. Reading The Summer of My Greek Taverna: a Memoir, by Tom Stone, brought all the good memories of my time on Crete flooding back.
Stone arrived on the island of Patmos, on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, almost by accident, looking for a quiet place to write his novel. The book soon went on the back burner as he fell in love, first with the island and then with a young Frenchwoman who would soon become his wife. Stone wrote and sold his novel, began a family with his wife and renovated an ancient stone farmhouse. After seven years on Patmos, however, money began to get a little thin and they moved to Crete where Stone got a job teaching English in the town of Rethymnon. Suddenly, with no warning, Stone received a phone call from one of their Patmian friends asking if he would be interested in renting and running a taverna for the summer season. With scarcely a second thought, Stone, an eager amateur chef, packed up his family and they all went back to Patmos for the summer.
This memoir details the struggles and adventures involved in Stone’s taverna experience, from dealing with a crooked partner, to obtaining supplies during religious fasts and climatic droughts, to convincing his traditional Patmian neighbors that chili con carne was tasty. He learned the hard way that when your friends become your restaurant’s patrons, you are no longer their friend: they don’t laugh off the fly in the soup when their drachmas are on the line. Stone scarcely saw his wife and two young children from working 14-20 hour days during the summer’s height and soon developed severe varicose veins from being on his feet such long hours. The taverna was ultimately successful – the American Stone’s own recipe for moussaka was definitively preferred over the local versions – but far too demanding, and he gladly gave it up after the one summer.
The Summer of My Greek Taverna is a nice, easily read little book. Stone does a good job of utilizing reminiscences from his earliest seven-year sojourn on Patmos to give the island’s history and to flesh out his characters. In addition to being a memoir, this book is also a cookbook: the author writes lovingly of food and includes nineteen recipes that he put into play in the taverna’s kitchen. Many are traditional Greek dishes, like tzatziki (a yogurt-based cucumber and garlic dip), keftedes (Greek meatballs), and moussaka (sort of an American chop suey style casserole with béchamel sauce); he also includes the chili con carne and a chicken curry that sounds wonderful. [Note: the links in the paragraph above are for different recipes: you gotta get the book to get Tom Stone's versions.]
Memoirs can be difficult to write without getting mawkish. Stone is never overly sentimental and recalls his summer with fairly clear eyes — not hesitating to call himself a fool when foolish — but Greece's islands have a way of romancing the flintiest of hearts. Even after all his blood, sweat, and tears in the taverna, and getting rooked by his purported friend for his trouble, Stone is still enamored with Patmos. His little book is the love letter he'd like us all to read.
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