logoEat - Drink - Protest

A culture blog by Lauren Girardin, a San Francisco-based city girl who eats out and kicks about.

May 16, 2006

Greece ~ Day 1: food

Focused on the food. All descriptions read left-most picture, from back to front, L to R, then to the next photo.

Also, read below for "On the Significance of Discovering Cheese Fries in Greece"

Breakfast: the first of many a.m. meals of fruit with yogurt, the high-fat Greek kind; in the back, Todd is eating eggs over easy with ham and toast.

Lunch: bread; Ouzo, a licorice-flavored booze; marinated octopus with tomato, red onion and green pepper; Citron, a citrusy booze made by fermenting the leaves of the citron tree, the fruit of which is "like a giant lemon"; manouri, Naxos soft cheese, similar to ricotta. Followed by fried eggplant with a tomato, onion and garlic sauce; kefta, fried lamb meatballs with french fries.

Dinner: We bar-hopped for dinner, the first stop for sunset and Naxos white wine, which was drinkable; olives; Naxos hard cheese (probably kefalotiri). Then to our next stop for ouzo; shrimp with an intense feta, tomato, onion and green pepper sauce; a tremendous pile of fried sardines with lemon, we did a pretty good job eating these, leaving the heads behind.

At our second restaurant, we were visited by a Greek god who took the form of french fries with cheese!

On the Significance of Discovering Cheese Fries in Greece

French fries with cheese

I grew up on Long Island, New York, a land of plenty - plenty of strip malls, mega malls, beaches, parkways and plenty of Greek diners. These diners, run by actual Greek families, teemed (and still teem today) with packs of horny, broke, bored, high-metabolismed Strong Guyland teens, looking for cheap calories, patient waitstaff and coffee.

Prominent on the menu of every LI Greek diner is french fries, thick cut "steak" fries. Better yet, it is popular and wise to order these fries topped with cheese, usually mozzarella, which are stuck under the broiler for a fast melt. I - and many of my friends and certainly other Long Islanders - carried a passion for and curiosity about the origins of this dish with me into adulthood. Who had the culinary epiphany to top french fries with cheese? Was it an inspired snacking stoner? If so, how did it become a diner standard?

Canadians are sometimes convinced I'm talking about poutine, the Quebecer dish of french fries topped with squeaky cheese curds and often gravy. However, sticklers would never allow their poutine cheese to be melted, so this is likely a parallel evolution with similar cheesy overtones. New Jersey folks may lay claim to the ingenious melding of fried potatoes and melted cheese by talking up their doofily named Disco Fries. Yet, to be authentic Disco Fries must have thick brown gravy in addition to the melted cheese; though a side of gravy can sometimes be ordered to go with your Long Island cheese fries, this is an aberration from the norm (a tasty aberration, true). And certainly, Jersey's version got its git go during the days of disco, which is well after both the appearance of poutine in the 1950s and the opening of the oldest Long Island diner, which the New York Times puts in the early or mid 1940s.

As Long Islanders like me fled for far-flung places like San Francisco, we realized that cheese fries are a uniquely New York dish, and even more so, almost exclusively limited to Greek diners. While San Francisco has a small Greek population, and also has dining establishments that are diner-esque, the Greek diner is not of the left-coast.

Origin of french fries with cheese foundImagine my elation then, when I found "french fries with cheese" on the menu at an ouzeria on the small island of Naxos, in the Cyclades Islands of Greece. Perhaps I over-gushed when I gibbered the story of Long Island cheese fries to our waiter. He seemed to understand - if not why I was giddy, at least that my giddiness was the safe, sane sort of giddiness you want from a customer - and told us that fries with cheese is a traditional Naxian dish. Our waiter left us to our ouzo (a spirit which may have been contributing to our high spirits), returning moments later with a broad grin and a large pile of Naxian french fries with cheese on the house.

The cheese may not have been molten and was a type of creamy local goat cheese instead of mozzarella (it is Greece, after all), and there was a dusting of rigani, or Greek dried oregano on top, but it was fries with cheese and it was good.

Though I must regrettably file cheese fries in the category of foods I can only enjoy on trips to New York - like bagels, proper pizza and Italian ices - I at least now understand the Greek derivation of the divine dish. In all likelihood, Greek immigrants brought cheese fries to the U.S., opened Greek diners in New York and served cheese fries to the hungry post-war boomers. From there, cheese fries, and variations on the theme, spread from New York to New Jersey along with suburban blight. That's my theory, and I'm sticking to it.