Sophia Sergentanis, my grandmother–my yiayiá–is standing over her stove stirring pots of Greek rice and stifado, beef stew, when I arrive. She greets me with hugs and kisses on both cheeks, as does my papoú, Manny, my grandfather. I can smell the pan of stuffed grape leaves on a second stovetop and the filled spinach pastries, kalitsounia, warming in the oven. I open the range door and carefully extract one.
“My gourounáki! Get out of the chicken!” she says in mock outrage, then laughs as she realizes she meant to say “kitchen.” Moments ago, her “chicken” was quiet. Now it’s been invaded by “gourounáki”… her little pig. She says there aren’t going to be enough kalitsounia for dinner now. But there are always more than enough.
Yiayiá spends much of her time cooking these multicourse feasts for our family and friends at her home in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. “My family, especially my grandchildren, they want the original Greek food,” she says, smiling at me. “That’s really funny.”
But when the original Greek food is this good, why eat anything else? Yiayia is a native cook; she grew up on an olive farm in a tiny village on the island of Crete, watching her mother at the stove. “Oh my gosh, my mom loved to cook,” she says. Yiayiá learned some of her best dishes from her mother; others from the all-girls school where she studied home economics.
Just before her 21st birthday, Yiayiá met Papoú, a family friend who had immigrated to Massachusetts. He was visiting family back in Crete–a three-month stay–and his family did their best to make a match during that short window of time. Despite her best efforts at playing hard to get, she eventually fell for the kind boy with the big smile, whom she’d met for the first time on an arranged date at a pastry shop. Soon, they married, and suddenly she found herself in the unfamiliar climate of Springfield.
“It was hard at first because I was so far from my family,” Yiayia recalls. “The weather was 100 percent different. I always said I was never, ever going to leave Crete.” Cooking became a refuge. “The first year I came here, I cooked the things I learned in school and my mom’s recipes,” she explains, “but now I love to try a variety of things.” Even so, we keep requesting the same foods she’s been making for decades. And it’s not just us, her family. Every year, Sophia lends her talents to Glendi, the Greek festival held at our church every September. There, hungry visitors have been known to snatch up 10,000 of her diples–delicate, honey-drenched Greek pastries–over a single weekend.
Whether it’s making dinner with one of her grandchildren, or cooking for 50 people on Christmas Day, Yiayiá always enjoys what she does. “It’s fun because everybody thinks anything I serve is good,” she says, “but I think they just give me compliments.” But there’s a reason I make a beeline for the kalitsounia every time, and it has nothing to do with compliments: The woman can cook. Maybe that’s why Yiayiá always has little pigs in her chicken.