“Her Heritage Made Sense”—Diasporic Success!
Women Transmitting and Queering Foodways in Annie Liontas’s Let Me Explain You

by Yiorgos Anagnostou

In honor of the International Women’s Day
—Μνήμη Ελένης Αντωνιάδου


The question of how to turn immigrant practices into compelling heritage for the next generation often preoccupies individuals and communities. In taking up this inquiry, I pursue an underexplored route, namely literature as a venue for insights about real cultural (re)production in the diaspora. I turn close attention to Annie Liontas’s Let Me Explain You (2016), a novel tracing the place of foodways in the fictional lives of Greek immigrants and the second generation. In charting the transnational movement of its characters in relation to food-making settings—coffeehouses and domestic kitchens in a Cretan village, immigrant diners, and a high-end restaurant in the U.S. East Coast—the novel probes how the characters navigate new conditions in the diaspora to rework their connections with food and in doing so reinvent class and gender identities but also, in one case, affirm non-normative sexuality. As a gendered practice, foodways carry different significance—disparate potentialities and constraints—for men and women. The novel charts the gendered cultural geographies the characters negotiate, the manner they transmit or disrupt tradition, and succeed—or not—in making it relevant for the second generation.

The value of the novel for reflecting on real intergenerational cultural transmission rests on two axes: (a) the author’s profound understanding of the intricacies of Greek foodways; and (b) her critical consciousness regarding the ideological work of patriarchy in perpetuating gender and sexual hierarchies. This is to say that first, it recognizes the significance of context-specific pedagogies based on deeply layered knowledge and vested care for the meaningful socialization of the second generation into heritage. And second, it demonstrates the emotional scars and social injuries that tradition-related hierarchies inflict on individuals. The intersection of the two narrative axes leads to the narrative’s attention to reworking inherited cultural practices toward gender equality and sexual inclusiveness.

In narrating the complexity and ideological work of immigrant foodways at the intersection of patriarchy, gender and sexuality, the novel directs the conversation about cultural (re)production in the diaspora away from the common tendency to reify tradition—to treat it, that is, as an object that can be mechanically reproduced. This makes Let Me Explain You a valuable pedagogical resource for educators and individuals invested in the making of meaningful diasporic Selves as an equitable cultural enterprise.

Keywords: Greek/American foodways in the diaspora; patriarchy, food, gender, and sexuality; queering foodways; diasporic identity formation; gendered Greek/American narratives of success; second generation women and heritage transmission; immigrant dinners.

Traditions continue to exist only insofar as they are continually practiced and transmitted interpersonally, because artisanal and performance knowledge cannot be fully captured by codification or recording.

—Dorothy Noyes

We do, invariably, find ourselves already formed within determinate, authoritative, cultural-historical traditions and communities. … identity inhabits the continuous play of finding and making.

—David Scott

... reinvention. This is immigration ...

—Annie Liontas

Narratives about foodways and gender in Greece often acknowledge the extraordinary potency of an ordinary women’s activity—cooking in the kitchen. They stress that meals produced with traditional knowledge possess power, bringing to their makers self-empowering joy, prestige, and status, albeit within a cultural field of strong expectations regarding the role of women as homemakers, household managers, and caretakers of family and kin, alive and deceased. In rural areas, food-making is a gendered activity of transmission across female lines as ethnographers keep documenting and novelists exploring. “Recipes are passed hand to hand, from mother to daughter,” the narrator in the novel The Priest Fainted, attests. “Girls helping their mothers to prepare simple meals acquire an unspoken knowledge in their palms and fingers.” “If you come from these villages,” she continues, “you must find your history in your body” (Davidson 1998, 4; my emphasis). Cooking entails embodied knowledge whose application may unleash sensuous forces, deeply affecting those who partake in the meal. Even a priest cannot resist a traditional dish, the experience immersing him in a maelstrom of “fear and ecstasy,” and creating glimpses “of a new life to come” (5). Such is the power of the food made with internalized knowledge and “secret clues”: it transports its partakers into a different realm, tempting even those sworn to resist pleasure to imagine entering its realms, and in the process transform, ever reinvent, themselves.

The gendered activity of making meals increases in complexity when the encounters of tradition with modernity intensify. While traditional cooking primarily orients women in connection to caring for collectives—a nuclear and extended family, a village, a religious or ethnic community—cooking in modernity is utilized not only in the interest of challenging traditional gender roles but also as a paid labor and professional pursuits. It offers gratification and pleasure for oneself alone, the means for exploring love interests, often a point of reference for resisting patriarchal expectations of women’s domestic duties and asserting non-normative sexuality. And yet, in the grips of still powerful gender ideologies, cooking may enmesh women in the webs of normative expectations regarding domesticity. Hence food preparation may entail negotiations, ambivalence, and even rejection depending on one’s biography, ideology, and socioeconomic circumstances. It is this unstable and fluid terrain that prompts novelists, poets, memoirists, and anthropologists to probe the gendered significance of food in specific settings and in connection to real or fictional lives.

I contribute to this conversation by recognizing the power of food-making—and the social relations that it engenders in particular settings—to shape diasporic subjectivities at the intersection of immigrant practices and those at the new home. This intersection acquires an additional valence when it factors in the second generation, and the ways in which it navigates the immigrant values that it encounters and is called upon by figures of authority to embrace. This intergenerational aspect of diasporic spaces may involve simultaneous, context-specific experiences of disconnection and attachment, conflict and joy, resistance and consent. Linkages and ruptures, therefore, are regular features in intergenerational cultural (re)production.

Building on the renewed call to foster Greek/American1 gender and sexuality studies (Leontis 2021), I ask the following: what happens to the embodied knowledge of traditional cooking when Greek rural women and men encounter new social environments upon migrancy? How do cooking skills traverse generations in the diaspora? Migrancy, including the second generation, presents a border cultural zone where the pleasures of traditional food and its gendered dictates may clash with ideologies directing women away from the kitchen as a gender-coded obligation. How, where, and under what material and cultural circumstances do diaspora women and men work out the place of food in the particularities of their lives? To what end?

These questions inform my close reading of a Greek/American novel—Annie Liontas’s Let Me Explain You (2016)—a narrative thread of which explores the power of food to mediate class, gender, sexual, and professional identities. The novel engages with the significance of food in the lives of three characters across space and time. Two are Greek immigrants—one male, Stavros, another female, Marina—who upon arrival as adults from the same Cretan village to New Jersey, in 1979 and the 1980s respectively, utilize ancestral food in the new setting for its economic prospects but also cultural and personal empowerment. When it comes to their relationship with food, migrancy represents continuity and discontinuity for both. The third character, Stavroula/Stevie, complicates the generational and gender location of Stavros and Marina.

The journey of all three characters involves movement across gendered spaces in which foodways take central center in achieving professional livelihood and negotiating identity. Stavros opens a Greek/American diner—an originally male foodway space—relying on knowledge he acquired by working in the masculine spaces of coffeehouses in his place of birth, driven by a burning desire for economic independence and social recognition. From being scorned in the village he manages to make himself an independent business-owner in the United States, achieving a proprietorship which asserts his masculinity. Marina, a co-villager, migrates from the traditionally female realm of the domestic kitchen at home to the kitchen of his diner—yet still another female space in the gendered immigrant division of labor in this workplace—to assert her position as a valued cook and kitchen manager becoming an equal partner in everything but name. She joins the diner at a moment when Stavros is struggling to keep the business afloat, her cooking skills working as a catalyst for successfully negotiating equal pay with the owner, making herself an indispensable—albeit invisible—presence, leading eventually to the diner’s spectacular success. This development secures for her a measure of economic independence in her otherwise solitary and seemingly asexual life.

The personal journey of Stavroula/Stevie, Stavros’s eldest, American-born daughter, presents the third trajectory through which the author traces the material and ideological contours of diasporic food culture. Her life story unfolds across immigrant generations, genders, and gendered food roles. Born in the United States, she is taken to Greece as a toddler in the immediate aftermath of her parents’ divorce and is returned as a school-age child. She experiences her father’s patriarchal presence at home and her mother’s absence, when the mother’s drug addiction forces her to abandon her children. She is given her father’s name in two feminized versions. Her introduction to the food business happens in jobs crossing gendered roles, ranging from the diner’s kitchen—first in the masculine job of dishwasher then as Marina’s cook apprentice—to attending a gender-inclusive culinary school, and, eventually, to her professional recognition as a chef in an eclectic gourmet restaurant. Food figures large, as we will see, in the consciously orchestrated public display of her homoerotic sexuality.

This is a novel then about movement across countries, social spaces, and generations, narrating the processes that these shifting cultural geographies set in motion: cultural transplantation of embodied food-related knowledge from the pre-emigration past and its transmission across generations; but also, adherence to, recontextualization, or rebellion against selective facets of traditional foodways and their embedded ideologies about gender and sexuality. All these are attended in concrete settings—the family, the professional kitchen, the ethnic diner, the eclectic restaurant—within which labor is invested, knowledge is transmitted, identifications materialize, longings are realized, negotiations ensue, and disidentifications happen.

The fiction of Let Me Explain You dissects how immigrants with specific gendered biographies navigate the realities of their new environments to make meaning in life and build material and cultural worlds, which American-born daughters encounter and, via immigrant mediation, negotiate in turn within broader cultural contexts. Immigrant ideologies may drive the next generation away from certain traditional practices or pull the young toward their orbit. Closely attending to the complexities of this landscape I show that the novel’s fictional narrative generates keen insights about a real issue, namely the strategies and pedagogies connected with diasporic cultural (re)production.

Foodways, Gender, and Diasporic Belonging

Food powerfully simulates memory, moving individuals toward their past. For the immigrant patriarch—Stavros—in the novel, it was a particular pastry—galaktoboureko—that triggered an emotional return to his childhood, eliciting memories “he did not know he had.” The pastry, which early on in his American story he relished in a Greek-owned diner in New Jersey, “tasted like his mother’s fingers. It smelled like her apron. It was exactly like the galaktoboureko she used to make, it was the twin of her galaktoboureko, and it made him wish for home” (Liontas 2016, 240). Food generates intense nostalgia even when one’s childhood, such as Stavros’s, was traumatic. Indeed, food consumed in childhood “forever defines familiarity and comfort” (Gabaccia 1998, 6), creating a venue for an immigrant to locate his personal and cultural story in his body. In Stavros’s case, a male patriarchal figure longs for his boy’s body engulfed in maternal comfort, the power of food making “him want to burrow his head into his mother’s thigh like he did when was a small boy” (240). The making of a pastry, traditionally a female domestic product, is now embraced by male diner owners in migrancy, which in turn leads to a situation where an assertive male under duress longs for a boyhood under protection from a mother. Patriarchal subjectivity is not disconnected from inner anxieties and vulnerabilities.

But food from home does not merely animate memories on immigrants. It presents an economic prospect in the American present, as the burgeoning ethnic restaurant industry in the United States illustrates. Notably, immigrants leave the mark of their own culinary traditions not merely in “ethnic restaurants,” but also in an all-American eating institution such as the diner. As places offering multiethnic dishes from their start in industrializing America—catering to factory workers—diners increasingly started revealing the ethnic identity of their owners in the 1960s, with the emergence of multiculturalism and the concomitant demand for ethnic food in the marketplace. It was in this historical context that diners, an already major Greek niche, used “ethnicity as leverage when competing against the rise of the fast-food industry in the sixties” (Maresca 2020, 39). The shaping of “the since then all-American diner, into a Greek-all-American diner” (28) turned into an ubiquitous phenomenon. In the multicultural scene of the diner, Greek dishes—including items in the vast menu section of desserts—were the medium for diner owners to share “their family’s Greek culture,” cherishing “their Greek-American status” (Roth 2014, 19).

Even before cashing in on a menu expansive with Greek options, Stavros’s initially lowly, “close to default” diner creates a Greek/American space when it incorporates the galaktoboureko as its signature dessert amidst American comfort foods. Diners simultaneously satisfy the American tendency to search for both “the familiar and the novel” (Gabaccia 1998, 8), and, in this capacity, offer venues where immigrant food serves as a sign of hyphenated identity for both the owners and their diverse clientele.

Stavros’s place is not an exception. It represents his new home, “the Galaktoboureko, which his six returning truckers called the Gala” (Liontas 2016, 264). Given that American eaters “desire to eat a multi-ethnic mix of foods, and to make this mix part of themselves” (Gabaccia 1998, 227), the diner’s assigned name—Gala—represents such an act of cultural translation, domesticating its foreignness while retaining aspects of it, inscribing it in the social imagination of an occupational group as Greek/American food culture. If we “quite willingly ‘eat the other’” (9), digesting the foreign into something familiar happens not only at the level of the body but in language too.2

What makes diner ownership feel like a hyphenated home? The making of a new home for immigrants, Clarence Mondale (1992) writes, involves the riddle of “how to work out the terms of exchange between incommensurates,” between the old and the new (54). It is the association of familiar food with the new cultural environment, that makes the Gala a place of Greek/American belonging. Stavros’s first experience of consuming Greek homelike food in the United States sets in motion a reorientation toward hyphenated identity:

From now on when he thought of galaktoboureko, as a father or an old man, he would not just remember galaktoboureko in Greece. He would have to remember galaktoboureko in America. He would have to think about galaktoboureko on a white plate at the diner. It would not just be his favorite dessert from childhood, …. It would be the dessert from this morning, when he went for pancakes instead of work … (Liontas 2016, 240).

The consumption of Greek food in the host country unfolds a twofold process. It defamiliarizes immigrant food, as Stavros’s consumption of the familiar dessert in a new environment turns galaktoboureko, “without [his] realizing it,” “into something foreign” (240). The intimate becomes foreign as it is experienced outside its original cultural associations. At the same time, the partaking of the familiar pastry connects the immigrant with a previously strange surrounding; the foreign setting—the culture of the diner—now turns into a familiar territory in its affective association with a food item from the homeland. An aspect of the old world interlinks with an aspect of the new world; the two, now inseparable in experience and memory, enter the immigrant’s life story as a Greek/American identification. The making of hyphenated immigrant identity commences as a product of simultaneous deterritorialization––placing the immigrant foreign within the host—and reterritorialization—restructuring the foreign into a new familiar—of Greek food in the United States.

Gala feels as a new home for an additional reason, this time economic. It represents independence via self-employment, an attribute which is central to the owner’s sense of masculinity and integrally linked with the fulfillment of his life’s dream to escape his humiliating dependence––due to utter poverty back in the village. It offers a Greek/American destination where the immigrant, scorned as a boy in his pre-emigration past, finds self-worth and respect as a “self-made” man in connection to the experience of mobility and concomitant self-transformation (see Chock 1995). A place of both economic and gender self-realization, then, the Gala anchors and constitutes the male immigrant, marking a new beginning as hyphenated belonging.

Immigrant Marina—a neighbor of Stavros’s family in Crete—also manages to make Gala her new home. She flees her natal village alone, with the Gala diner—its existence known in the village—as her destination in her determination to escape local gender norms. Hers is also a journey from devaluation toward a search for self-worth, specifically as an independent woman, an empowering independence of a different kind, as I will explain, than the one Stavros achieves. A priest’s daughter, the only daughter of a family with fifteen sons, and a figure deprecated in her childhood for her physical appearance—she goes by the nickname keftedaki (Marina Meatball) (Liontas 2016, 265)—Marina emigrates to free herself from what she perceives a predetermined future. From her position as a woman of low economic status, Greece is “nothing except a country full of dirty plates. That’s why I got out before they could marry me off” (165), she bitterly lets out the few times she voices her private life. Emigration is her way out, a rejection of traditional gender dictates which naturalize the connection of women with domesticity, marriage, and motherhood. Casting the domestic kitchen as a place of women’s containment she adds her voice to the collective resentment of immigrant and diasporic women who disavow it as an oppressive imposition but feel compelled to reclaim traditional foodways for their own purposes (see Marinaccio and Naccarato 2015).

It is these transnational passages across places and cultures which result to the making of Gala the material and symbolic stage for Greek/American cultural (re)production. It is this place which enables Marina to reinvent herself as an assertive, authoritative professional. Her skills of cooking and processing whole animals—a product of rural socialization—prove to be an asset. Though slaughtering and skinning large animals is Greece is commonly a male activity, in migrancy she puts her skills into professional practice that secures an economical supply of fresh meat for the diner. She succeeds in negotiating a handsome salary for herself as a cook—operating thus along the feminist insistence on equal pay for women, though she is not involved in the movement. Being able to turn Gala around from a place remaining barely afloat into a successful diner valued for its homemade food quality, she becomes indispensable, her newly acquired position as a successful professional translating to both personal and cultural empowerment. She exercises considerable agency within the premises of the Gala and contributes to the recognition of Greek food as an important commodity leading to cultural status: “There is cheap American food to lure the American in, and then there are the irresistible Greek dishes to turn them into lovers of Greek” (176).3 And this is also the primary place where the routes for the intergenerational transmission of immigrant foodways commence.

Intergenerational Connections, Pedagogies, Empowerment

How is immigrant knowledge and the related practices it animates—often coded as tradition—transmitted to the second generation? Who invests the necessary labor and care for transferring the complexities of practices such as folk music or traditional cooking? In what settings does this learning take place, how is it taught, and under what conditions? And, most importantly for the purposes of this discussion, how do the actors involved in this process (adult mentors, educators, parents, the young themselves) negotiate the gendered ideologies associated with these practices?

The question of intergenerational cultural transmission—tied with the issue of cultural (re)production in the diaspora—requires that we attend to the micropractices and pedagogies associated with the second generation’s socialization into particular immigrant pasts. As anthropologist David Sutton (2014) maintains, knowledge about a tradition cannot be objectified—identified, measured, and mechanically applied to prevent cultural decline or loss. This knowledge is “not frozen in time; rather, it is deeply responsive to social and material environments.” A learner’s engagement with tradition “always occurs in concrete contexts, deeply shaped by social, historical, and material environments” (5). This is one reason ethnographers take seriously everyday practices such as the transmission of cooking knowledge, skills, and values in the kitchen, to understand the nuances, texturing and circumstances associated with an individual’s interfacing with tradition.

Let Me Explain You treats intergenerational learning of traditional cooking in a manner that strikingly resonates with ethnographic work on the topic. The following juxtaposition of a passage from the novel and a passage from an ethnography—David Sutton’s Secrets from the Greek Kitchen (2014)—offers one example among many highlighting this mutuality between fiction and ethnography on the question of food-making as embodied practice:

Stavroula accepted the knife from Marina and remembered that a knife was not a knife when it was also a hand—one of the very first lessons that Marina taught her. … She ran the blade against the carrot. … She felt the tension in her body release whenever the blade sank (Liontas 2016, 164).

… the pizza maker’s art seemed the epitome of “embodied skill,” exactly the kind of practice that can’t be learned by following a set of written instructions, only through a process of guided apprenticeship involving the slow discovery of the interactions of materials, tools, and one’s own body in the presence of a skilled master (Sutton 2014, 55).

The conditions shaping Stavroula’s intimate encounter with Greek foodways are set by her immediate immigrant world—the father’s ideas of achieving independence and the material reality of Gala. She enters the culture and labor of the diner at fifteen when she is assigned the job of dishwasher by her controlling father. This, as a life lesson for the second generation to inhabit a common immigrant experience: the feeling of having no choice but to perform the most menial and detestable tasks. If dishwashing for Stavros was a source of humiliating emasculation prior to business ownership, it is now seen as a fit rite of passage for his daughter to embody the traumatic position of a vulnerable immigrant who must endure, fight, and find a way out. The immigrant father then subjects his American-born daughter to a test of harsh endurance as a pedagogy for self-empowerment. Placing his daughter within an oppressive situation serves the purpose of inculcating in her the burning desire to move out. A practice for testing one’s manliness in rural Greece undergoes a gender reversal in migrancy. Ironically, the controlling patriarch’s ideology of self-propelled desire for independence opens a route for Stavroula’s professional and non-normative sexual self-determination.

It is Marina who crucially engineers for Stavroula an exit from her assignment as dishwasher to a cooking apprentice, eventually “cooking”—in the Greek metaphorical sense of manipulating—her course to culinary school and professional independence. It is a mediation based on mutual affect—Marina early on takes Stavroula under her wings first as a surrogate mother and later as a mentor in Gala’s kitchen—effected through food as an expression of caring, source of pleasure and reciprocity. Food preparation also serves as a medium to instill life lessons to the young apprentice, it was “107 lessons” at some point, she counted. In contrast to the immigrant father’s authoritative pedagogy, the immigrant Marina relies on food early on in her relationship with Stavroula as a resource of giving to coach the teenager cope with the loss of a kin (Liontas 2016, 164). Later, as a mentor, she shares her skills and knowledge to turn the immigrant daughter into an attentive, imaginative chef, while exercising her power to channel her mentee into a course of professional fulfillment and personal empowerment. “It was Marina who had taught Stavroula to take herself seriously—what she wanted, what she needed to be. You can be a vessel, koukla—she had taught her years ago—as long as you know what you’re meant to carry” (author’s emphasis, 31).

The female immigrant who resisted traditional gender expectations yet utilized food to reinvent herself performs a parallel operation in connection to the second generation. She purposefully transmits her cooking knowledge to Stavroula, willfully steering her away from the connection between food-making and women’s domesticity, but also, significantly, from the male-oriented model of socioeconomic success. Utilizing her authority as an indispensable employee she intervenes in this family’s dynamic to redirect the teenager immigrant daughter from a projected career in law—her father’s wish—toward cooking school so she can follow her food-related passion without becoming someone else’s cook in a diner or at home. Her gender work makes available identifications which recontextualize a traditional practice in connection to modern ideas of women’s self-determination, doing so by performing a vested ethics of care. Marina performs her opposition to patriarchy while reproducing the value of food-related traditions as empowerment, albeit in a professional context. Her ideology of success is incommensurable with that of her male employer. It is a mode of alternative cultural citizenship centered on caring, affect, and connecting the “old” (traditional cooking) with the “new” (culinary school as a route to a career), inventing in the process a Greek/American identity both for herself and the next generation. It is about exercising agency to mediate professional realization for women to embrace a model of professional success measured in terms of self-fulfillment, not instrumental calculation chasing affluence, the immigrant male’s dream (see Chock 1995). Women act upon tradition as a resource within the social and material constraints of their lives as well as the available opportunities in the labor market to reclaim it for their own purposes.

Cooking entails more than learning a recipe, faithfully executing relevant instructions, standardizing the acquired knowledge through a routine of repetition; rather, it is about a process of embodied interpersonal practice requiring complex cognitive and sensory attunement with the surrounding material and social environment. It is always a process in the making, an ethos that centers Marina’s pedagogy:

Be present, that was the first lesson, and Marina did not mean show up. … You must be mindful, be now. Be the spatula, be the heat, be the cheese sizzle in the pan. … The second lesson, Be on Time, but that did not mean clocking in. It meant getting a feel for traffic, it meant knowing when someone was going to come in hungry. Anticipate the waitresses, who had personalities like cats. Have a sense of urgency that has nothing to do with lunch, which has just passed, and everything to do with dinner, which is facing us down. Be Prepared. That didn’t mean pens and school-rulers. It meant understanding what the customer is going to order before the customer orders. It meant have the resources inside to imagine the future.
“That’s impossible”
“That is how Marina cooks” (175).

The understanding of professional cooking as a cognitive and sensory interfacing with ingredients, tools, and social relations in the immediate environment delivers an “education of attention” (Ingold, in Sutton 2014, 16). Far more than the application of codified instructions, this knowledge is about achieving a state in which the cook merges with the material involved in the making of food while the agency of the cook meshes with the agency of the objects. The maker’s self becomes the heat and the cheese sizzle; she becomes one with the sounds, the feel, the smells, the touch, the sights associated with cooking. Cooking means immersion in the sensual, social and material worlds that makes it possible. Far from being static, the practice of its tradition involves an ethos of attunement which makes tradition a process of sameness and, simultaneously, a process of making—of becoming.

This educational sensibility summons the apprentice to place the practice of cooking in relation to multiple microlocalities and the flows of their temporalities. It calls her to inhabit an expanded sense of social space beyond the “kitchen proper” to include the diner’s serving floor with its flows of customers, their densities, and, improbably, their eating preferences. Effective social interaction with the cooking and serving personnel is necessary. The apprentice is obliged to be simultaneously attuned to the steam of the stove and the stream of social interactions in the places she connects with through her craft.

This learning recognizes the power of paying attention to minute particulars—near and far—as well as patterns in a larger scale. It calls for the exercise of full immersion, fine perception, imaginative anticipation, and practical projection, which it blurs. It requires alertness in cognition and senses, an embodied learning. This, in connection to participation in several temporalities, the here, the now, and the anticipation of what is coming next: an educational recipe, so to speak, for one’s inculcation into the secrets of embodying traditional knowledge and skill.

Marina’s investment in educating Stavroula in attention, serves to further strengthen their interpersonal connection. It reenacts an extension of her ethos of caring, of producing heritage that is meaningful to her young protégé, inviting further reflection about the connections between immigrant adult authority and the intergenerational transmission of heritage in the diaspora.

Foodways, Heritage, Women’s Success

Marina draws upon her authority as an accomplished cook to pass her cooking knowledge to the next generation. She labors in the context of Gala to socialize Stavroula into the notion of cooking as an intricate process of preparedness and embodied practice, instilling the understanding of immigrant skills and knowledge as a route for creating culturally compelling food. Her pedagogy succeeds in having the second generation embrace the appreciation of traditional foodways, while deliberately steering Stavroula toward the broader U.S. culinary professional culture. How to explain the effectiveness of this intergenerational alchemy?

To start outlining an answer let us turn, once again, to David Sutton (2014) who, following Marx, notes that “humans shape themselves in the course of producing objects.” In connection to cooking, the process of “transforming materials or ingredients into forms—the cooked dish—one is also engaged in a process of self-transformation, into that of the competent or incompetent cook” (12).

The second generation’s self-transformation via cooking in the novel unfolds through a twofold—at least—process: (a) the making of the diasporic self via practices in which the value of foodways from the past rests on how one performs it; and (b) the making of the multicultural self at the interface between the habituation in immigrant foodways interfaces and broader culinary practices beyond the “ethnic world.” The novel creates a situation where immigrant foodways find a hospitable home in the society’s wider gastronomic repertoire, namely the professional valuing of eclectic cooking—sanctioned by the dominant culturevwhich the aspiring chef is called to embrace.

Stavroula’s making of a multicultural American self takes place through immersion within a nexus of immigrant and U.S. cultural worlds, a laborious process which enables her self-transformation from a daughter subjected to oppressive patriarchy to a person who empowers herself, professionally and sexually. Notably, this trajectory of personal change takes place in connection to Stavroula’s move from the family diner—where her socialization into the immigrant foodways is privileged—to an eclectic restaurant where her connectivity with these foodways is allowed a place within the broader culinary plurality. This intersection between the mobility of one’s identity with the movement across cultural contexts requires close attention.

The novel’s plot interlaces her education in Greek cooking in the family diner by a surrogate mother with formal education in culinary school to trace the mobility of a daughter of immigrants from the family business to the broader culinary culture, as a much sought-after professional chef. This movement charts how a traditional practice could be rendered meaningful for the second generation and how this practice could find a place beyond the economy of immigrant foodways into the high-end U.S. culinary industry. First, a particular early socialization into Greek food-making produces a tangible aesthetic and affective value—Stavroula loved her mentor’s food and loved her person “like no one else” (Liontas 2016, 165)—resulting in her embracing it: “Her heritage made sense. It was seductive. She did not tell her father how much she enjoyed making gigantes” (175). The designation “heritage” imparts value to the past, it recognizes something as worth preserving (see Di Giovine and Brulotte 2016). It is a living heritage, rendered personally relevant as it comes to life through an ethos constituted around affect, relationality, knowledge, skill, labor, and aesthetics. It is the product of a series of deep investments by an adult toward a vulnerable teenager: caring surrogate parenting around food––it was through food that Marina “coached [the teenager Stavroula] to deal with loss, absence” (Liontas 2016, 164); reciprocity; a mentor’s productive pedagogy; a mentee’s fulfillment in achieving a pleasurable tangible product. There is a gulf between tradition as a wholesale ideology imposed by an authority–—say conventional gender and sexual expectations—and heritage as a mediated practice of mutuality by adults leading to its acceptance by the second generation. As an authority figure who dictates rather than caringly directs, the father stands outside the realm of meaningful heritage and must be excluded. Cultural transmission entails a gendered process centered on the ethos of relational care, effecting meaningful inheritance, food serving as an “ethnic culinary capital” creating and sustaining diasporic identities (see Marinaccio and Naccarato 2015, 71).

Second, the multicultural turn of the American restaurant industry in the 1990s toward a “transboundary” culinary culture––defined by the “mingling and mixing of cuisines” (Gvion and Trostler 2008, 962)—provides the professional opportunity for Stavroula to apply her “diaspora knowledge” and include Greek foodways in the eclectic and boundary-transgressive menu of her workplace, The Salt. “That one [dish] she would layer with leeks zucchini, and green chilis, topped with a creamy, tangy avgolemono source.” The second generation turns into an “inventive [culinary] creator” (see Cinotto 2013, 5), in professional contexts encouraging cultural mixing. In fact, her profession enables Stavroula to perform her early childhood disposition to mix things (“different colors of clay”) together “to create something new” (Liontas 2016, 97).4

What is more, when circumstances permit, she asserts an exclusively Greek menu and its cultural practices of commensality:

the only thing Stavroula would serve [during Easter Sunday] was lamb—roasted on a spit in full view of the diners—with Smyrna figs and htipiti, a feta spread garnished with red pepper. Fixed menu, no alternatives, no starchy dishes. One long table that seated everyone. Strangers sharing the holiest meal, eating with their own hands or they should go someplace else (Liontas 2016, 29–30).

“Going ethnic” in “staged authenticity” (Gvion and Trostler 2008, 962), a component of “gastronomic tourism” (966), places the clientele in a position of crossing cultural boundaries while exposed to some information about Greek ethnoreligious practices. Stavroula’s move from an immigrant kitchen to the kitchen of a high-end restaurant in the East Coast—a region “encouraging as well as introducing culinary novelties” (954)—moves her food heritage across the broader U.S. culinary culture under a particular cultural condition: postmodernity’s valorization of difference, eclecticism, and boundary crossing. This move enables the placing of Greek foodways into American plates and the American palate while enabling a fundamental transformation for the American-born heroine, as we will see, toward sexual empowerment.

In summary, conditions in migrancy fissure conventional gender expectations, opening up prospects for change. The female characters in the novel capitalize on the availability of circumstances, taking advantage of their economic importance, and strategically asserting their desires to deliberately act against restrictions and constraints, toward women’s empowerment. Both can claim a series of accomplishments. Marina succeeds not merely in transmitting heritage but also in mediating the exit of the American-born from the familial comfort of a dead-end career in the diner toward a broader American professional life as a cook, a position that connects “old world” (village cooking) and the new (eclectic restaurant). Through this double agency the author construes a mode of how an immigrant woman turns into a Greek/American subject. This is to say, using the terms of Phyllis Chock’s (1995) admirable analysis of gendered narratives of success, this agency makes for a “self-made” success story for Greek/American women. Marina’s story offers an alternative to the male immigrant story where success is primarily measured in terms of instrumentalist socioeconomic mobility. Her actions engineer the undermining of the father’s one-sided wish to direct his daughter into a career in law via the rerouting of her options toward a profession she lovingly appreciates to such a degree as to be willing to self-finance her studies in cooking school. Pursuing this route Stavroula accomplishes a meaningful professional life where at the same time she can perform her diasporic Self. Interestingly, endowing agency to these female characters—an unmarried immigrant and, as we will see next, a lesbian second generation American—the author contributes to denaturalizing female gender from motherhood, domesticity, and family business while offering a model of female achievement which connects the old and the new in directions toward self-fulfillment.

Queering Foodways

The woman cook is a common trope in the literature and autobiography of same- sex sexuality and subjectivity. Conventionally associated with culturally prescribed domesticity, the woman in the kitchen becomes in this corpus a figure who reclaims the connection of women with food on their own terms. For women, making food together generates affect and intimacy that may turn into erotic longing across cultural and sexual differences. In Georgia Kolias’s novel The Feasting Virgin (2020), for example, the cooking apprenticeship of Callie—a “non-Greek” bisexual mother and wife—with Xeni, an experienced Greek cook who is a committed celibate, simmers into same-sex love. The connection, initially expressed through food metaphors, crystallizes into attraction: “looking down at our entwined hands,” Xeni lets out early on in her relationship with Callie, “noticing how her slender, freckly fingers fit perfectly into my sturdy olive hands, like a warm béchamel sauce draped over grilled eggplant” (271). With time, this affect ripens into erotic love: “I’ve thought of you every single day since you’ve been gone,” Callie confesses after a misunderstanding tore the two women apart. “I can’t cook without thinking about your hands. I can’t breathe without smelling your skin. I love you” (334).

In my reading, Let Me Explain You builds on the “literary figure of the female cook” (Ehrhardt 2006, 94), a common trope in queer food studies, to look into “how food practices and beliefs reinforce and resist heterosexual gender ideologies” (91). Lesbian literature construes “queer literary kitchens” to demonstrate how “heteronormative constructions of gender ... are disrupted, destabilized, and transformed” (91). In Liontas’s queer literary kitchen food serves as a resource for rendering visible non-normative sexual desire as a form of resisting its devaluing from patriarchal heteronormativity. Being confronted with Greek immigrant homophobia, Stavroula’s tormented sexual self is the result of “years of repression hav[ing] resulted in … [her] vexing oscillation between ‘trying to conceal herself’ and ‘trying to make herself known’” (Arapoglou 2022, 199). Being torn in this manner she finds herself in company with the internal torment—the fears and anxieties regarding the prospect of alienation from parents and friends—that had long been afflicting Greek/American lesbians and gays, leading many to retreat into hiding homoerotic desire in the context of ethnic community and familial environments, some into disconcerting ambivalence, and yet others “coming out” either within or away from “ethnic” contexts.

Stavroula’s decision to display in public her love for July—the daughter of her employer in Salt—entails an explosive, albeit belated, answer to her father’s patriarchal power. Believing that the end of his life is near, Stavros has dispatched an authoritative email to his second ex-wife and three daughters, pointing to what is wrong in their lives, dictating self-correction. Written in broken English, the message, titled “Let me Explain,” is unambiguous in its patriarchal heteronormativity when it targets Stavroula. She is singled out as the one whose appearance regrettably does not conform to the normative ideal of womanhood and sexuality; the way she carries her hair places her “outside normal society,” reflecting sexual otherness. This must be corrected, is the paternal demand—expressed at the very opening of the novel: “grow out your hair. It is very very short.” The directive intends to draw a causal link between a heterosexual public persona and sexual subjectivity: “if we are who we are supposed to be on the outside, we are who we are supposed to be on the inside” (Liontas 2016, 7).

Stavroula decides against reasoning with her father, judging this attempt futile. Instead, her answer to his direct assault on her sexuality involves a striking declaration of her homoerotic desire toward July in the “non-ethnic” space of Salt. Her “new seasonal menu” attaches the name of July to every single dish—“July was the inspiration for every flavor combination.” “The spicy pork tacos?” “July.” “Crab cakes?” “Late July” (30). “Stavroula’s entire world would be July, as it was already, in a way” (33), the symbolic naming in the menu exhibiting this world in the open.

If words injure, they can also incite the voicing of resistance from those they hurt. The father’s email is “pushing her” (34) to a rebellion at last after a life-long muting of her sexuality. “It was time for her to be who she was on the outside so that she could be who she was supposed to be on the inside” is her performative voicing of sexuality (32). In this mode of coming out, Liontas employs a common trope in the writings of lesbian authors, “the trope of cooking as an expression of a woman’s love for women” (Vester 2015, 1). The author’s specific strategy for creating a space for resistance centers on the power of language to assert a voice—a subject position. But it entails more than the creative use of language to express same-sex love. It involves the voicing of one’s inner truth in direct confrontation of the language that seeks to invalidate. Stavroula refuses to allow the language of patriarchy to define her person. She finds empowering self-assertion in a voice which appropriates the language of heteronormativity—engendered in her father’s words—into a language of opposition asserting her homoerotic self.

The mode of Stavroula’s rebellion is not independent, once again, from her habituation into the metaphorical work of food. The idea of creatively colonizing the menu with “July dishes” derives from Marina’s pedagogy—it was she “who had taught Stavroula about naming dishes—how it was slipping a key into a lock: most fit, but only the right one could make the door swing open and the eater enter” (Liontas 2016, 31). Following sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the habitus produced in the mutuality between the two women generates a durable disposition. Far from being an attitude, habitus is “embedded in the agents’ very bodies in the form of mental dispositions, [and] schemes of perception and thought” (Bourdieu in Robbins 1991, 109), which is fundamental to the relations individuals sustain with their social worlds. And although it is “a set of dispositions which incline agents to act and react in certain ways” (Thompson 1991,12, author’s emphasis), it does not stand for an inert substance, but a resource individual act upon purposefully and creatively. The mind, as Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold (2007) note, “mingles with the world,” its “creativity is inseparable from that of the total matrix of relations in which it is embedded and into which it extends, and whose unfolding is constitutive of the process of social life” (9).

Stavroula performs this cognitive disposition creatively, in fact queering her mentor’s pedagogy on the importance of naming. If Marina displays a distaste for same-sex love, the inventive naming in the menu connects homoerotic desire with the promise of delightful tastes: “July Angel Hair served alongside Tarragon Lime Bay Scallops. Roasted July Poblanos with Cashew Chipotle Sauce. Classic Chicken Salad with Red Grapes and Smoked Almonds: For July. July galette” (30). Affirming a disruption of sexual norms takes place in parallel with assaulting culinary norms and conventions.

The choice of Salt—and not Gala—as the context for sexual self-affirmation is explained by the specter of immigrant heterosexual normativity tempering Stavroula’s sexual empowerment. She is deeply fearful that exposing her sexual identity will alienate Marina who is known for her discomfort with homosexuality. “Marina, the person Stavroula had admired since she was a little girl, Marina, the person she loved most. The reason she was hidden all this time” (Liontas 2016, 168). Having faced the lack of a nurturing biological mother as a child, Stavroula gravitated her emotional attachment to the caring Marina full force. It follows that she “could not take it, losing the one person whose love has felt as everlasting as bread. There was no reason to fear her father’s letter, except this” (169).

In the rebellion against heteronormative patriarchy in a space away from the homophobic immigrant gaze, we recognize the calculation of a character with a strong “relational sense of selfhood” (Arapoglou 2022, 198) who does not wish to jeopardize her life-defining attachment with her nurturing mentor. In her anxious conundrum, fictional Stavroula/Stevie joins those factual Greek American feminist lesbians who opt not to declare and debate their sexual identities within their families and ethnic communities, fearing rejection. Psychologist Leah Fygetakis’s (1997) pioneering autobiographical account and scholarly article has given voice to this predicament in the 1990s. “Living in dichotomy,” she wrote, presents itself as a painful yet sound strategy for avoiding alienation from otherwise loving and enjoyable social relations (186). Her personal experience—“I had to be in two different places in order somehow to be integrated and whole,” she discloses—underlines this duality (155). Insofar as the community remained largely hostile to same-sex desire, the route of abstaining from direct confrontation carried the cost of splitting the Greek and lesbian Selves but reaped the reward of preserving meaningful connections. In her theoretical probing at the time, Fygetakis opted for a position defending this cultural practice against a universal advocacy of coming out as the means for empowerment. Coming out to families, friends, and communities, she argued, is not necessary for Greek American lesbians and gays to remain true—confidently and assertively—to their sexual identities. Liontas builds on this positioning in her fiction, though in life she aligns with the personal politics of Fygetakis, naming her sexuality in public (The National Hellenic Museum 2020). A small but significant corpus of Greek/American writings (Halkitis 1999; Eleftheriou 2020), films (Stratis 2000), and public fora (Leontis 2021) are moving a conversation empowering open affirmation of and public discussion about Greek/American non-normative sexualities.


Let Me Explain You narrates the making of diasporic subjectivities at the intersection of partial connectivity with immigrant pasts and resources in the new home. To explore cultural transformation, it places characters within and across concrete social settings to subsequently attend to the complexities of the ensuing negotiations. In turn, the dynamics of family and the immediate immigrant and broader cultural environment furnish the material and symbolic realities which the second generation encounters and grapples with to fashion meaning in life.

Far from being passive bearers of “tradition,” immigrants and the second-generation act upon cultural material, exercising agency, modifying what is inherited, rejecting aspects of the past, retaining others, and negotiating betweenness, all in specific settings. In charting this journey, Liontas’s fiction is not only closely attuned to the ethnography of food but also perceptive of work in cultural and folklore studies on diasporic identities. In fact, the fictional Stavroula in the literary narrative could as well represent a subject position that David Scott (2017)—reflecting on the oeuvre of cultural theorist Stuart Hall—gives theoretical voice to the epigraph of this writing. Diasporic Selves cannot be understood outside identification-making processes that route individuals through real, embodied pasts which they have no choice but navigate. And, heeding Dorothy Noyes’s (2011) insight on the fundamental importance of the interpersonal dimension of cultural transmission, a traditional practice stands as a repertoire of performative habits and knowledge which requires social, emotional, and actual labor for its (re)production.

This understanding of making diasporic subjectivity confronts the simplifications of symbolic ethnicity, which casts identity as readily shed off, a surface performance (see Anagnostou 2009). Both Scott and Liontas direct attention to contingency as a major dimension in the making of the Self. “Our choices regarding what we can be,” Scott (2017) writes, “are always partially oriented by what we are given through the historical powers that always-already shape us, by the world we are contingently thrown into and which we are obliged to navigate” (110). Indeed, it is a series of historical contingencies—the material availability of Gala, the patriarchy of the immigrant father, the skills and pedagogy of a caring albeit homophobic female immigrant mentor as well as postmodern U.S. culinary culture—that place Stavroula into a nexus of forming her subjectivity while informing her approach of resisting heteronormative patriarchy. All this taking place across new geographies in migrancy which present opportunities for destabilizing naturalized gender roles previously at work in the ancestral village.

Let Me Explain You is the product of deep ethnographic knowledge about the intricacies of Greek foodways, and critical consciousness regarding the ideological work of patriarchy in perpetuating gender and sexual hierarchies. As a result, it directs the conversation about cultural (re)production in the diaspora away from the common tendency to reify tradition—to treat it, that is, as an object that can be mechanically reproduced. Clearly, the narrative alerts, old world practices are not neutral but embedded in ideologies reproducing gender and sexual hierarchies. At the same time, immigrant knowledge may serve as enabling, deeply satisfying resources, enriching individuals from various walks of life, and shaping meaningful social relations and subjectivities. It follows that diasporic (re)production requires reflexive pedagogies if one wishes to resist those ideologies which turn a potentially fulfilling tradition—such as cooking or folk dancing—into a tool for gender domination.5 Intergenerational cultural transmission involves the serious ideological work of reworking and recontextualizing the past to open new inclusive and non-hierarchical arrangements. Heritage involves creative recreation—a process of reinvention.

Liontas’s fictional truths then could serve those in real life who wish to transmit the complexity of inherited immigrant practices while being critically reflexive of their ideological implications. The process requires invested, interpersonal “translation” of immigrant inheritance by deeply knowledgeable subjects—parents, kin, educators—who employ pedagogies of caring, guiding, and the time-consuming investment in doing things together. It involves tapping into a child’s proclivities or interests as well as a family’s resources to socialize the next generation into practices rendered relevant to them. This applies broadly beyond rural traditions to include heritage associated with the literary, visual, and performative arts.

Scholars have an important role to play in the practices of transmission by producing nuanced knowledge and naming the ideological work of cultural practices. The challenge for diaspora’s (re)production is to reflectively incorporate layers of the Greek past—as well as the present—in the making of a multicultural second generation. On the event that the resources acquired during early socialization turn into a foundation for a professional career, Greek could be an element among others in the broader repertoires that diasporic artists, craft persons, musicians, writers, singers, and cooks serve the community and the world.

September 2021 – February 2023

Yiorgos Anagnostou’s most recent publication is the volume Redirecting Ethnic Singularity: Italian Americans and Greek Americans in Conversation (Fordham University Press 2022), co-edited with Yiorgos Kalogeras and Theodora Patrona. Also, two book chapters: (a) “Diaspora Public Diplomacy at a Time of Homeland Crisis: The Philotimo Nation as Global Distinction,” in Diaspora Engagement in Times of Severe Economic Crisis: Greece and Beyond (2022); and (b) «Εκπαιδευτική πολιτική και ταυτότητα στη διασπορά: Διαπολιτισμικότητα, πολλαπλότητα, ισοτιμία» στο Γλωσσική Διδασκαλία και Μάθηση στο Σύγχρονο Εκπαιδευτικό και Κοινωνικό Περιβάλλον – Β τόμος (2022), about the politics and poetics of diasporic education.

Acknowledgments: I express my appreciation to Artemis Leontis for her careful reading of the work in several stages of development and her invaluable insights. An early version of this work was presented at the 3rd International Conference on the Hellenic Diaspora Perspectives on the Hellenic Diaspora III, May 26-28, 2022, an online event organized by George Frazis, whom I thank. Vasilia Kourtis-Kazoullis and Eleni Skourtou, my hosts at the University of Aegean in Rhodes at the time of the webinar, contributed thoughts and lively discussion.


1. On the significance of the marker Greek/American see Ergon: Greek/American & Diaspora Arts and Letters.

2. See for example the music video “I Don’t Know How to Pronounce Gyro” in which the indeterminacy of a foreign name for a food item is resolved in a gendered cross-cultural male encounter—a situation fertile for analysis—making it part of the national vocabulary.

3. On the cultural power of Greek diners see Karapalides (2012). The novel appreciates the role of immigrant women’s professional labor in endowing cultural capital to Greek foodways.

4. One wonders whether this connects with Stavroula’s bicultural experience, intensified during her early relocation to Greece.

5. For a feminist critique of the gendered hierarchies inscribed in Greek folk dancing and a performative subversion of this domination within a multiethnic lesbian circle see Callinicos (1990).

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