Beloved book survives personal tragedyA life course when picked often seems utterly focused, then direction shifts and the chosen course leads to destinations unknown. Such is my story. It is the tale of how an anthropologist became a restaurant owner and cookbook author. Then, how, due to a personal tragedy, she became a disaster expert, lecturing worldwide on catastrophe. And finally, how she put it all together in a work she loves beyond all others: a cookbook and memoir celebrating Greek food, history, language, custom and life called The Olive and the Caper. It is a story of change, loss, recovery and new horizons that, I hope, is satisfying to heart and palate. I originally went to live in a Greek village as a serious-minded graduate student, but was quickly swept into workaday village life a daily, year-round, never-ceasing cycle of gathering provender and preparing it. At first, I was drafted into the life of women. With them, I simmered soup over a propane burner, gathered snails after rainstorms, baked black barley rings and bargained over fish in the market. I was welcomed every day with rounds of fresh goat's cheese which I fried into cheese chip omelets. I picked capers and brined them, collected greens to boil and oil. All the women, sister and American stranger, baked together, each of us bringing an armful of grape twigs to fire the communal oven. Today, when I return to the village, now equipped with electric stoves, we still collect in great chatting groups to make Easter cakes and roast fig sandwiches. I then joined the life of men. I harvested barley with a sickle, threshed and winnowed kernel from shaft, picked and weighed tomatoes, stamped grapes into juice for wine. I drank grappa in taverns, and after a long day's work, toasted a good backgammon game with a bang of my glass on the table. My unexpected affair with the glorious food of Greece led to another shift. Though I held a professorship in anthropology, I became one of the owners of the famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. Soon after, Chez Panisse chef Victoria Wise and I opened a restaurant of our own and wrote three cookbooks together. Throughout, I returned to Greece constantly, exploring the life, the food and the joy of it all. Eventually I was approached to write a Greek cookbook. The book was moving along, half done, when on October 20, 1991, a spark from an old fire in Oakland re-ignited. A ferocious firestorm developed, sweeping down the hills and in four short days destroyed over 3,000 homes. Mine was one.
Ironically, I was in Greece at the time attending a food and wine conference and was able to save neither a page nor a frying pan. Twenty-five people died in the fire and 6,000 were left homeless. I lost my home and all my possessions: my photographs, heirlooms, artwork, every kitchen utensil, one car and two pets. Since my office was in my home, I lost all my years of anthropological research, my writings and my entire library. I had no salt, none to put upon my food and none left for tears. I had no thread, none to stitch my daughter's hem and none to hold my days together. The scheme of my life was irrevocably ruptured. Who I was and what I intended to do utterly unraveled. The Olive and the Caper completely burned. I was about to let the book go when Victoria offered to help. Workman, my publisher, was supportive, but at first I demurred. As an anthropologist, and now a survivor, I knew I had to write about enduring devastation. I co-authored and edited two books on disaster. Only then did I return to my beloved Olive and Caper. The basics of life prevail: family, friends, love. I know, I have been there. For me the simplicity of carrying on, of meals, of care, both in America and Greece, has been sustenance. In the new Olive and Caper I speak of it all, of memories when none on paper remain, of rich bounty at hand, of cooking and sharing, of stories from times ancient and modern, of recovering and coming to new vistas, of vicissitudes and strength and survival, of endeavors never planned for, but once met, relished. An anthropologist, cooking enthusiast and author, Susannah Hoffman lived and worked in Greece on and off for more than 30 years. Her latest cookbook, The Olive and the Caper: Adventures in Greek Cooking, includes 325 recipes and dozens of essays on Greek food and customs.