Taso G. Lagos, Cooking Greek, Becoming American: Forty Years at Seattle’s Continental Restaurant. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. 2022. Pp. 176. Paperback $29.95.
A college Professor and a published author (his previous works includeStudying Abroad , 86 Days in Greece: A Time of Crisis , and American Zeus: The Life of Alexander Pantages, American Theater Mogul ), Taso G. Lagos circumscribes in his acknowledgements the niche for his latest volume, Cooking Greek, Becoming American: Forty Years at Seattle’s Continental Restaurant: The book is “both a narrative (story) and a chronicle (biography) of a business that impacted many lives in the community, most especially my family’s” (x). Inspired and propelled by similar memoirs on Chinese cooking and identity in the US and Canada, such as Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (2009) and Lily Cho’s Eating Chinese (2010), the author sheds light on a largely unchartered area of Greek American experience and culture: the ethnic group’s presence in the hospitality business. As Lagos reveals, this well-crafted and emotionally laden personal account of hard labor as well as of the history of his family and the community within the Continental (Conti)—the Greek restaurant his family owned and ran for thirty-seven years in Seattle—is “part of a larger historical project that he is pursuing on Greek restaurants in the States” (x). Once this much needed survey is published, Lagos believes that it will change the current academic underrepresentation in a field heavily populated by Greeks—yet one rarely examined by scholars.
While writings on the US Greek restaurant business are still a rarity, food memoirs, narratives related to food, as well as scholarly works on the subject appear to be on the increase both within the field of ethnic studies, in general, but also within Greek America. Apparently, “gastrography,” a term borrowed from the medical field and used by Rosalia Baena to describe writing conjoined with cooking, is quite popular with readers, providing them with “tasty pleasures and ‘food’ for self-revision” (Cited in Smith and Watson 2001, 149)—that is, moving readers from culinary delight to self-improvement. Lagos’s memoir of the Continental accompanies and complements similar food narratives written by other authors of Greek origin, such as Peter Manouselis’s Perspective: A Greek American Finding his Way in Greece (2020), which discusses the author’s return to his ancestral island, Crete, and its food culture, as well as Cooking as Fast as I Can (2015), by the famous chef, Cat Cora, on cooking and ethnic/sexual identity. Based on the exploration of Greek American cooking and the connection between the restaurateur and the customer, Lagos’s volume can also be placed alongside earlier food narratives, such as Catherine Temma Davidson’s The Priest Fainted (1998), which focuses on the bonding that takes place between a mother and daughter through storytelling, myth, and revisited recipes. However, in contrast to the solitary central figures of these works and the spirit of individualism that characterizes Western trends of autobiographical writing, Lagos adopts a different, more communal, point of view. That is, the personal life of this memoirist is always situated within his family network and the community that he serves at the restaurant. Even when Lagos is away from Seattle, he cannot but eventually return to the Conti to work temporarily while visiting his family, resorting to the space where his identity is largely defined through his interactions as well as his collisions with relatives and customers alike.
Given the complexity, theoretical grounding, and transcultural framework of the book, Cooking Greek, Becoming American distinguishes itself from other similar Greek American publications (such as those referred to above) through its broader consideration of an ethnic subject’s journey of self-identification. Lagos’s memoir manages to move away from the insularity of Greek American authors to present a publication that adds to the wealth and multivocality of the overall ethnic experience, enriching it with the use of secondary sources, while acknowledging the role of an important, yet obscure, figure: the Greek restaurateur.
As stated in the preface of the book, Lagos’s memoir, and the unravelling of his memories of the Continental are instigated by its selling on June 30, 2013. This turning point—that is, the changes in the family business that signified the end of an era for the author and his family’s self-definition—echoes Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s consideration of the connection between memoir writing and food as “both memory and metaphor,” leaving the reader to identify, in Lagos’s case, the author’s initiation with a potential “shift in subjectivity” (149). Indeed, it is the selling of the restaurant and the realization of the changes that this will bring about in Lagos’s life that prompt the author to record memories from his life at the Conti. In addition to the key role the restaurant played as a locus of socialization and of personality formation for the Lagos family, the author considers its overall role as an “institution,” a “community center,” a “gathering place,” and a “third space,” using the terminology that regular customers used to protest the restaurant’s closure upon discovering the news on social media. In doing so, Lagos adopts Cho’s conception of the ethnic eatery as a “cultural space crafted by restaurateurs” (2010, 50). Based on her discussion of Chinese Canadian eateries, the ethnic restaurant for Lagos appears to be a place where the concepts of what is “Greek” and “American” meet and are disseminated on the menu and where serving food acquires the subversive potential of a counterculture. That is, the Conti becomes a place where the conventional act of serving is no longer an act of subservience. Instead, the person being served is influenced by the culture of the server. At the same time, Lagos also envisages the Continental as “a regenerative force that left a legacy in the hearts of thousands” (x), a unique space that triggered the personal transformation and self-improvement of its customers.
In his introduction, Lagos meaningfully places his memoir within the overall sociohistorical and cultural framework of ethnic studies. Through his historical anchoring, the author connects Greek restaurants to one of the earliest places of Greek immigrant socialization, the kafeneia , viewing the process of Greek Americans becoming white through the space of ethnic eateries and their gradual inclusion within the “canon” of mainstream American food. In doing so, the author emphasizes that he intends to allow immigrants who work in the hospitality sector to express themselves. In his own words, “this work is about those women and men, immigrants who labor in extraordinary effort, but who toil and eventually die, in complete silence and anonymity” (11). Yet, his coverage of the immigrant in the eaterie business is not as inclusive as initially promised since the memoir primarily includes the voices of the Lagos family and, mostly, those of its males, as will be noted below.
Beyond the struggles associated with restaurant work, Lagos argues that the Conti has assisted in his family’s assimilation since, for the author, becoming American is a process of being welcomed by “mainstream society” through a network of customers, friends, and acquaintances. For Lagos, this, admittedly oversimplified, process of assimilation occurs the minute one stops feeling as an outsider when one stops looking “at the happy natives inside, knowing that we can only peer in and never join” them (12). Thus, becoming one of the group means being accepted irrespective of one’s foreigness and, indeed, because of it through the venue of the ethnic eaterie. In fact, Lagos maintains that the Conti was a space of education into Americanness for his family: “our college of Americanhood,” as he graphically puts it (13). Indeed, it is this narrative that allows Lagos, an aspiring and unpublished writer at the time, to openly discuss the shaping of his self-identity within the nexus of diverse transcultural relations.
The ten chapters that constitute Lagos’s book and that illuminate his personal, familial, and communal life in relation to the restaurant are presented as “associative spiral narratives” (Caronia and Giunta 2015, 1)—that is, as non-linear and based on association. These loosely linked chapters sometimes follow gradual and other times radical changes in the author’s status within a forty-year time span of restaurant service: his decisions regarding work and education, his moves to different places, his dating choices and his heartbreaks, but also the slow changes in his mentality, self-expression, and self-confidence. While constantly identifying hard work as the key element of success in realizing the American Dream (as discussed repeatedly in several excerpts but also extensively in Chapter 8), the author weaves two strands together: his family’s presence and the community’s role in their life, positioning himself prominently within his narrative. While “the Conti was not entirely a male space” (16), Lagos admits that his is not a feminist work. In it, however, he examines, in the way of a Bildungsroman, the strong female presence that is mostly represented by his mother. Initially, a rural Greek woman without any knowledge of English and with less than a basic education, in the Conti Lagos’s mother learns the ways of the American world. Lagos claims that his mother is transformed by the place but that she, in turn, also transforms the Conti with her warmth, politeness, and good service. It is interesting that, while the author confesses that friction existed between him and his father regarding important business decisions, he discreetly avoids including possibly embarrassing details about his sister’s role in the business, a young woman now University professor. As the American-born female of the family, it surely would have been interesting to know how she navigated within the restaurant through the Clashing Rocks of traditional Greek femalehood and American female individuality, an angle that has been narrativized in Annie Liontas’s debut novel, Let me Explain You (2015) and, more sketchily, in Nia Vardalos’s blockbuster film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002).
To stress the importance of another decisive characteristic of American identity—community work—Lagos depicts the restaurant as a locus of bonding between his family and the local community, indicating that one table was always reserved near closing time for the family gathering. According to Lagos, this cultivation of affective relations (77) between owner and patron replicated the kafeneion atmosphere from the old village in Greece, a situation of cultural transplantation that works well in the host context since it fulfills an American need, incorporating it into the American world of cut-throat competition. The restaurant, however, is seen more than a place of “emotional recharging” and conviviality through the anecdotes Lagos shares about incapacitated patrons. In chapters 5 and 6, for example, the Conti is literally seen as “a social institution,” catering to the sick and the homeless. Inevitably a question arises: What is the cost of this role to the family? To his credit, Lagos abstains from romanticizing the effect of the restaurant on its owners. As he repeatedly claims, the strain of brutal, non-stop work was so intense and corrosive that it drained the energy and good humor from those employed at the Conti. According to Lagos, utter exhaustion caused atrophy—both of individual family members as well as of the emotional ties between the family’s members.
This moment of bitter admission triggers some difficult questions that, if asked, could have led to a deeper probing regarding negative characteristics associated with the pursuit of the American Dream. What about the Conti’s inter- and intra-ethnic relations? They are never discussed. For example, what role did the restaurant play within the local Greek American community? How did Greeks of the old and new diaspora find their niche in this site of diasporic culture? Moreover, how did patrons of Greek origin interact with other ethnic/racial groups at the Conti? And, finally, what role did race, gender, and ethnicity play in hiring decisions? Were women preferred or was being Greek a prerequisite for being hired? These questions remain unanswered.
To be fair to the author, the volume concludes with a realistic admission of the omnipresent class and race divide in the restaurant business: in general, white customers continue being served by non-white employees. For Lagos, and as far as his memories of the Conti go, this bitter statement balances the romanticized statements that run throughout the book that ethnic, racial, and class divides were absent from the Conti’s premises—a claim that remains largely underexamined.
In closing, at the end of the author’s reminiscing, if the Conti space leaves readers with a craving to relive its atmosphere, they can, at a minimum, replicate the gustatory experience through the final pages of the volume, which include an appendix with several recipes for which the Lagos family was famous. However, instead of simply publishing a book with the old recipes of the Conti as his father wanted him to do, Lagos manages to “feed [the] readers’ desire to redefine themselves by both imagining pleasures and cooking them up, as a way of enacting the life chronicled” (Smith and Watson 2001,149). Indeed, Lagos succeeds in achieving this imaginary as well as tangible engagement for his readers. He preserves and shares the culinary delights customers relished at the Conti, while reenacting the time spent there as well as the life-changing experiences of its numerous patrons.
School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
May 9, 2023
Theodora Patrona is a Special Teaching Fellow at the School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. She has been working on ethnic literature with a special interest in gender. She recently co-edited (with Yiorgos Anagnostou and Yiorgos Kalogeras) the volume, Redirecting Ethnic Singularity: Italian Americans and Greek Americans in Conversation (Fordham UP 2022).
Editorial Note: From time to time, book review editors wish to provide readers with a multidisciplinary perspective on a published work, particularly when that work traverses new terrain within Greek America. Such is the case of Tasos Lagos’s Cooking Greek, Becoming American: Forty Years at Seattle’s Continental Restaurant. As such, we encourage our readers to read and to contemplate both reviews of Lagos’s Cooking Greek that appear in Ergon.
Caronia, Nancy and Edvige Giunta. 2015. “Introduction: Habit of Mind.” In Personal Effects: Essays on Memoir, Teaching and Culture in the Work of Louise DeSalvo, edited by Nancy Caronia and Edvige Giunta, 1–33. New York: Fordham University Press.
Cho, Lily. 2010. Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
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Lee, Jennifer 8. 2009. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chineese Food. New York: Twelve.
Liontas, Annie. 2015. Let me Explain You: A Novel. New York: Scribner.
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Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. 2001. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Vardalos, Nia. 2002. My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Santa Monica: Gold Circle Films.