By Fred A. Reed
On the slope of Mount Lycavitos, in the heart of a pricy Athens district called Kolonaki, once stood the institution that subtly undermined the way Greeks viewed eating…and a lot more. It called itself The Food Company. It had the cheek to tell tourists in to go away; it wasn’t for them. Instead, it offered Greeks a glimpse into the North American culinary, and cultural, experience. What they saw—and tasted—bemused and delighted them.
For there was more to The Food Company than food. Much more. It opened a door into a parallel universe, a blend of the familiar and the utterly—for the traditionally conservative Greeks—unfamiliar. Or, if I may say so, exotic, as if benign extraterrestrials had landed and set up shop in modest premises that belonged to the Athens municipality.
Indeed, you might have found aspects of its aesthetic in San Francisco, or perhaps certain sections of Manhattan or Boston. But The Food Company was the invention, the creation, and the brainchild of a single individual, the late and sorely lamented Barbara Fields.
Full disclosure obliges me to declare that I had been introduced to Ms. Fields several years before she opened her minuscule universe-enfolding establishment in Kolonaki and conceived for her a strong sense of admiration. Not to mention that we shared affection for classical music, although her tastes in opera ran to Richard Strauss, while I swore by Handel and Mozart.
What was there, I found, not to admire about Barbara’s powerful sense of self and her impulsive creativity. What crevice, I observed, was small enough to escape her unerring eye for anyone who failed to satisfy her expectations.
Not long after meeting her in the late ’70s, I learned that she had given up a life of comfort as a San Francisco socialite, with its round of museums and opera and black-tie events, to remake her life with Dino Siotis, a Greek poet who hung around the City Lights bookstore, knew Ferlinghetti and Ginsburg, was long-haired, politically radical and prolific, and whose name she adopted.
Twenty years passed, and Dino returned to Greece to take up a position in the cultural affairs ministry under Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, the man the 1967 fascist junta had been tasked by its American handlers to stop more than a decade earlier. Papandreou, however, had returned in triumph, and in 1981 won his first election in a landslide, heading the best government that Greece has ever known.
That was when Barbara stepped forward with her project. Was there a parallel between two utterly distinct events: an election that—at last—brought democracy to Greece and the apparently random opening of a restaurant? Looking back to those intoxicating days, I would say ‘yes.’
How exactly she did it I do not pretend to know, but I do know that she recruited an old friend, Sandy Fainer, and an anonymous silent partner with the necessary infusions of cash. I would often stop by on my way back to Canada from one of my reporting trips to Iran.
By then the Food Company was up and running. It was a minuscule space, perhaps ten tables; with a few more on the narrow sidewalk that Barbara swept clean every morning. The neighbours, who had been letting the refuse accumulate, began to follow suit.
The spheres had entered into confluence in that sub-intimate corner of Kolonaki. The atmosphere was animated in the extreme: the customers were Greek, after all. But the music was invariably the Andrews Sisters or something of that style and vintage. The food was “American”, a distant approximation of what you might find in a New York diner. But it was most definitely and assuredly not the traditional Greek fare with everything drenched in olive oil. The plague of fast food hadn’t yet hit the country; the produce was unfailingly fresh and of the highest, tastiest quality.
You couldn’t miss it when you stepped through the door: a mural painted by a young lady called Cleopatra Mourselas. I cannot today recall what it depicted, only that it managed to capture the vivacity of the space and that of its founder and dominating presence.
I had another reason to like the mural. I had a few years earlier translated a novel by Cleopatra’s father, Kostas Mourselas, called Red Dyed Hair. Of my several translations from Modern Greek I liked this book best: it was full of profanity, of graphic sex, of betrayal and redemption, it was funny and tragic, the quintessential story of the decline and fall of the Greek left and, particularly the once-powerful Communist Party that had fought, and lost, a civil war.
Red Dyed Hair was the story of a generation, the same generation that elected Papandreou. The Food Company had contrived to tap into and embody that generation’s long-suppressed hopes for something better, something different. The recipe, as it turned out, was a simple one. And what made it work—in her microcosmic restaurant—was Barbara, who had the gift of bringing people-filled spaces to life, of sniffing out interesting individuals and causing them to meet other such individuals. There she was, at any hour of the morning or early afternoon, bustling about, smiling, making sure that everything was in its place, that customers were happy and that they were getting served punctually.
At first, the Food Company functioned with an amateur staff, enthusiasm compensating for a professional hand in the kitchen. But eventually, Barbara hired a professional chef who knew his way around ranges and fridges.
The business thrived; the Greek press wrote enthusiastic feature articles; customers lined up for a table; the Andrews Sisters were as infectious and upbeat as ever, if not more so. Even traditionalist Greeks accustomed to the languor and clangour of bouzouki music would wag their heads and tap their toes.
What could possibly go wrong?
Time had passed and the winds of fate were no longer wafting Barbara’s way. The Papandreou government began to falter. The City of Athens did not renew the store lease. They decided it wanted another business to occupy the premises. Launch its own version of the Food Company? Teach the ‘foreigner’ who’d shown up the Greeks at their own game a lesson or two? Was it a counter-attack by the ultra-conservative Athens mayor and her anti-Papandreou cronies?
Faced with the inevitable, Barbara closed the business and migrated to another Athens district a few blocks away, called Exarchia, where she opened another larger and more ambitious restaurant. But the chemistry wasn’t the same. While wealthy pensioners made Kolonaki their home, Exarchia swarmed with anarchists; a sullen, surly and often dangerous lot they were. Some of them were provocateurs in the pay of the police, behind whose lines they would retreat after smashing windows or lighting fires at one of the demonstrations that were routine in the area. On the streets windows were boarded up and facades disfigured by layer upon layer of graffiti.
Barbara attempted to be motherly to her new neighbours. Hired a young lady from the area as cashier, and was forced to dismiss her shortly thereafter. Her black-clad friends didn’t agree with the dismissal. Some days later in September 2011 as she was leaving her and Dino’s apartment one morning, a man, who was never identified, brutally beat her, broke her arm and robbed her.
Indomitably, Barbara tried to fight back. But this time the forces arrayed against her were too strong and she began to decline. Four years later she suffered a stroke, the delayed effect of the sidewalk attack. She withdrew to Tinos, where Dino had built a house overlooking the Aegean. A house from which, on a clear day, you could see other islands in the Cyclades chain, and on a clear night, watch the Mykonos ferry leave port on its way to a brief stop at Tinos harbour.
Then came a second, disabling stroke. Barbara never lost her smile, but life her was slipping away. She died at age 79 in Athens, in early June 2019.
The Food Company was her moment and her short-lived monument. We were the same age, minus one day.