Taso G. Lagos, Cooking Greek, Becoming American: Forty Years at Seattle’s Continental Restaurant, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. 2022. Pp. x + 176. Paperback $29.95.
Taso Lagos, for much of his life before and during the process of becoming an academic (he is a lecturer in Hellenic Studies at the University of Washington), worked in the kitchen of his family restaurant, the Continental, or “Conti,” in Seattle. As detailed in this memoir, this was exhausting work, demanding the mental and physical stamina called for by most restaurant jobs. And it was work that often put his relationship with his parents and siblings to the test. But, Lagos suggests, it was ultimately rewarding as part of becoming American, assimilating them into American society in a distinct way that might not have happened if his father remained in his first profession, a plumber, and his mother a housewife. While Lagos himself dreams of becoming a filmmaker—a dream that he pursues, then abandons—he instead gains a PhD in Communication. This is based on research in his birth village in Euboeia, Greece, on the kafeneon as “mediating commons” which works to introduce and integrate new communication technologies into village life, even as it is displaced as a community center by modernity’s bane, the “boob tube” (131). The Conti in many ways is a replacement for the village kafeneon, a “third space” or refuge—made necessary by the “compartmentalization” of life in the United States (3)—for creating social bonds and ties. Yet at the same time the “labor and toil of restaurant life suck the lifeblood of its members” (18). “No human can sustain that kind of daily grind and survive,” he muses, “yet billions have, and they continue to do so today” (25). Throughout the book we get the sense that the Lagos family has survived the ordeal of owning a restaurant, but just barely. And that Lagos himself, looking back with many unresolved emotions, at the same time cannot imagine a different or better story for his family. The restaurant is indeed an “American dream,” despite all of the structural and personal issues that might have made that dream a far cry from its idealization in the ideology of U.S. immigrant life.
Cooking Greek, Becoming American is less a memoir than a series of reflective essays which tackle broad themes in American society through the lens of Lagos’s restaurant experience. It is not chronological; we only learn briefly of Lagos’s family and the loss of three grandparents to the Greek Civil War toward the end of the book. Lagos constantly circles back and forth, less interested in Proustian moments of remembrance than in making sense of the relationship of ideologies, structures of power, and his own family experience as seen from a distance more often than from close up. This makes at times for less engaging reading; I wanted more stories about the quirky customers and networks of support that grew around the Conti, or moments of restaurant crisis and resolution that occasionally pop up in the narrative. I also wanted more details about the family interactions and disputes over keeping or changing the menu. We do get interesting broad outlines of these disputes, as the author, shaped by his time working at a health food restaurant in Los Angeles, argues for more nutritious, more “authentic” Greek food. His proposals include real Feta (not from cow milk), making the lentil soup vegetarian, and banning Crisco from the kitchen, as ways to keep up with changing times in the 1980s, while his father prefers to keep the menu conservative in line with what their customers have grown accustomed to. The Conti’s menu did, in fact, contain an impressive number of Greek standards, from the ever-popular aforementioned lentil soup, to the diverse array of Greek salads and spreads, and a full range of Greek baked goods: galaktoboureko, kourabiedes, “Copenhagen” and the like. The author’s main contribution to the menu, and his father’s main recognition of his influence, comes in the form of “Taso’s Breakfast”: a mushroom omelet heaped over rice with feta cheese, oregano and olive oil, which became a menu standard, beloved of many customers, especially the regulars who knew its origin (90-91). But much of the mood in these essays is mournful, if not bitter as well. The Conti, which closed in 2014, after 40 years in operation, seems to reflect a time that for Lagos has passed, in which restaurants were integrated into the communities that surrounded them, as well as integrating their owners into American identity.
Lagos writes in dialogue with Krishnendu Ray’s The Ethnic Restaurateur (Bloomsbury, 2016) to highlight some of the larger symbolic and structural factors that make restaurant work and restaurant ownership an ambivalent aspect of assimilation into American society. As he notes, the serving of food is shot through with hierarchies of race and gender, and of mind and body. This is especially significant for Lagos in his own transition from cook to academic (he continued to work at the Conti throughout graduate school), balancing the demands of a job which is seen as lower in its contact with bodily functions. As he writes:
Restaurants, by virtue of feeding the body . . . can seem to many as unequal to more intellectual pursuits. This then is the rub with white ethnicity; it relates that Anglo-Americans investigate higher creative pursuits while immigrants, being typically less educated, pursue more utilitarian activities. The only place where these two opposing sides can meet is through food, but once there, there is an unequal exchange and once the exchange is over, once the meal has been ordered, delivered, and paid for, there is little further contact between the parties. (140)
Lagos both recognizes these dynamics and suggests that in some cases the restaurant challenges them. The Conti was nothing if not a place for regulars—who were greeted by name by his mother (who worked as host), and who shared in the daily interactions, moments of joy and sorrow of the community. A number of books have detailed the ways that restaurants become “third spaces,” neither work nor home, commodity nor gift, impersonal market nor purely personal relation (see, e.g., Erickson, 2010; Molina, 2022). One of the key tropes running throughout the book which makes it distinctive from other such studies is the comparison of life at the Conti to life in the Greek village in Euboea where Lagos spent his first years. It was in the village that he got a taste of the tremendous hard work that went into the daily toil of agriculture, noting “the same force of will was evident . . . in the hours spent tilling and maintaining our small farm plots and various orchards . . . the back-breaking effort to cuts (sic) the blades [of wheat], gather them onto a pile, then in the old-fashioned way of separating the stalk from the chaff, have our horse stomp around it, going in circles for hours at a time” (75-76). Some of these contrasts verge on stereotypical, if no less true, such as the “slow” life in the village, where labor was balanced with celebration. Here he notes a key contrast: “if there was a single act of village life that I came to treasure, it was that at the end of hard work there was always a celebration, a moment of cheerful pride for the work done. We had no equivalent at the restaurant” (76). Indeed, this is reflected in the grueling pace of work: the Conti stayed open 362 days out of the year. But at the same time Lagos notes that the “family table” where the family would gather at the end of the night, served some of the function of a village gathering, even on a much smaller scale. It was here that the Lagos family would gather with “a special coterie of regulars that shared stories, occasionally argued politically, and otherwise replicated for my father what he had done in the village . . . people came to treasure this aspect of the Conti, and to this day the group that met there still do at other places. I understood why we are social animals. The value of community revealed itself” (77).
It is the value of community that Lagos sees in places like the village kafeneon and the Conti, a community that is constantly under threat by cultural and structural forces including the faster pace of life in the United States, the rise of neoliberal individualism beginning with Reagan’s election, and the gentrification of Seattle in the wake of the tech boom. Lagos documents the at times ambivalent relationship between the Conti and the Ave Rats: the homeless neighbors who used the restaurant for its phone booth, bathroom, and other necessities. Lagos expresses ambivalence throughout his discussion of this relationship, noting that his family could not turn down a request for a cup of coffee or a bite to eat (84), as part of the connection of the restaurant to a larger sense of community. But the relationship became difficult at times, with Lagos penning an editorial in the Seattle Times lamenting the “outlaw behavior” that had become common in the neighborhood, which seemed to result in increased police presence (65). However, the depiction of some of the troubled figures who became regulars at the Conti, such as “Crazy Eddie,” who is perhaps saved from suicide by chance and the author’s intervention, are some of the more rounded portraits in the memoir. Eddie became a member of the “family table,” sharing his stories—including one in which he falls asleep on the back of a Semi and winds up in Chicago and must make his way back to Seattle—provide some of the rare anecdotal detail that brings Lagos’s reflections to life. When Lagos notes that during his brief campaign for City Council his response to the question of solving homelessness was to suggest that “My response is yes, it can be done, but it requires the help of the entire community . . . everyone . . . needs to pitch in” (88). It is only in the context of some of the experiences he recounts at the Conti that this response makes sense as more than a truism, but a reflection of the importance of third spaces, family and community ties that he has developed throughout the book.
Lagos makes a convincing case that his family’s experiences of running the Conti for 40 years gives him insights into the ways that “integration” can take place for white ethnic immigrants, and a larger community can be built, as fragile as it often seems. At many points, indeed, his eight suggestions for sustaining a restaurant (pp. 103-106) also apply to sustaining a community and even nation more broadly, e.g., “It’s a family. Customers Employees, Salespeople. Vendors. Even the health inspector. Everyone is in it together” (106). Or could be. But of course, as Lagos recognizes throughout, even the most “family” of this metaphorical family is hard to sustain in the midst of all the day-to-day and extraordinary struggles of running the Conti. As much as the Conti was mourned by its many customers, workers and owners, there was no one in the end to keep it going. This reminds me of the beautiful line by Steven Steinberg (1998) about reproducing the recipe for his grandmother Bubbie’s challah bread: “Is it possible that as much as my grandmother’s eighteen progeny revered her, that none of them wanted to be her” (25). Both Lagos and his sister have become academics, his brother in real estate (though occasionally supplemented with restaurant work), and “Since the Conti ended, we as family members have gone our separate ways with little expectation that we will ever come together again” (102). A sad conclusion, but one that fits with the ambiguities and ambivalences that Lagos documents throughout the book. Cooking Greek, Becoming American is clear-eyed about the trade-offs for immigrants in entering the world of food labor, even as it imagines a world in which we all can enjoy that third place where everyone knows your name.
David Sutton is Professor of Anthropology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Since the early 1990s he has been conducting research on the island of Kalymnos and has published four books based on this research: Memories Cast in Stone: The Relevance of the Past in Everyday Life (Berg, 1998) which explores Kalymnian historical consciousness, Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory (Berg, 2001), Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island (California, 2014), and Bigger Fish to Fry: A Theory of Cooking as Risk, With Greek Examples (Berghahn, 2021). These latter explore food practices in relation to questions of memory, history, gender and technology.
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Molina, Natalie. 2022. A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ray, Krishnendu. 2016. The Ethnic Restaurateur. London: Bloomsbury.
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