The new National Hellenic Museum in Chicago’s Greektown neighborhood won’t actually open its doors until November but the sneak peek they’re cooking up for later on in the week might just get peoples' mouths watering. For WBEZ, Nina Barrett got a taste of what’s to come.
To the Greek-American community, the opening of the New National Hellenic Museum will be an event of epic proportions: It will be the first national Greek museum in the U.S.
“Did you know that there’s over 17,000 museums in the United States, and not one solely dedicated to the Greek history, or culture or heritage?” Toula Georgakopoulos, the museum’s director of external affairs said.
“And it’s kind of funny, since the Greeks had so much influence on culture and Western civilization,” she continued.
Georgakopoulos said the museum will feature many of the highlights one might remember from history books: Minoans, Myceneans and a certain ingenious mechanical invention that worked out badly for the unsuspecting Trojans.
“One of the exhibits we’re going to have in November, ‘The Gods, Myths, and Mortals,’ is going to have a huge, 12-foot replica of a Trojan horse that kids can climb inside,” she explained.
But other included critical aspects of Greek culture might seem less familiar, even for those who dine out a lot in Greektown.
“It’s a regional Greek restaurant, and we like to showcase the diversity of flavors and the diversity of cooking methods in all of the regions of Greece, and that’s kind of our mission, as well as to reintroduce Greek cuisine as a diverse concept,” explained David Schneider, the chef-owner of Taxim restaurant in Wicker Park.
Those who watch a lot of food TV might recognize David Schneider as the Iron Chef who went leg-of-lamb to leg-of-lamb with Cat Cora, another chef with Greek in her blood. But he’s also a chef with an educational mission and the museum recruited him to lead another epic undertaking: a three-day series of food and wine tastings, lectures and demonstrations called “Kouzina.”
“Kitchen!” Georgakopoulos translated. “Kouzina means kitchen, and everybody gathers in the kitchen, right? If you have a party at home, even though you have your entire household beautifully decorated, your living room, your dining room, somehow, by the end of the night, everybody just gravitates towards that kitchen,” he added.
Kouzina will be a kind of enormous, edible exhibit featuring 17 Greek and Mediterranean-accented restaurants will host tasting stations; a market will sell hard-to-find specialty items and Schneider is preparing an elaborate four-course banquet.
“And he’s literally going to take you through every region of Greece, and tell a story, basically through food and wine,” Georgakopoulos said. “And it’s going to be paired with wine, and everybody’s going to get a full experience of all that Greek food, and also the concept behind it, and that’s kind of what we’re trying to teach through Kouzina, is the culture behind the food,” he added.
Schneider embodied that culture. As an American-born kid who—like so many Greek-American children—spent summers in an ancestral Greek village, he absorbed a style of cooking that is deeply rooted in local tradition. Barrett got a taste of it recently when he fixed her the grilled octopus included on his menu for the dinner.
“In Greece, what you’ll see traditionally outside where the fish market is in the harbor,” he told her, as the big fat octopus tentacle sizzled on the grill. “You’ll see the young kids, the sons of the fishermen, they’ll be taking the octopus by the head, and slamming it against the rocks repeatedly for at least 30 minutes to 60 minutes. This is something that we did as kids. My dad wasn’t a fisherman, but we’d go to our village on the island of Evia, and fishing was just like something you would do…” Schneider remembered.
Besides the octopus, he will also be serving pastourma, a salt-cured meat-- kind of like pastrami--that was traditionally made from camel, and lountza, a brined pork loin in red wine, spiced with coriander seed, as it’s made Cyprus.
Americans rarely encounter these and many other foods that define Greece as a treasure trove of regional specialties.
“There are almost 100 different regional cheeses in Greece that don’t have a showcase in the U.S.,” noted Greek cookbook author and restaurant consultant Diane Kochilas said.
“The regional wines, and indigenous varieties, things that are really different from your chardonnay, your cabernet, the international varieties that people seem to know lots about. Honey, incredible honey that has regional distinctions, seasonal distinctions based on what the bees feed on at different parts of the year,” she added.
Kochilas will fly in from Athens to offer cooking demonstrations at the event in conjunction with Winnetka restaurant Avli, where she’s a consultant. She said she admires the concept of a museum that incorporates food as enthusiastically as say, vases and statues with missing noses, as a part of its vision.
“I think it’s a brave step to consider food as part of the culture,” she said. “It’s not high art, it’s not antiquities, it’s not Greek history—but it IS all of these things, because it’s probably the one part of Greek culture that has a certain continuity that you can see at many levels,” she explained.
And certainly, it put a new spin on the old hoity-toity idea of museums as purveyors of good taste.
The National Hellenic Museum’s Kouzina event runs Wednesday, Sept. 21 through Friday, Sept 23.