You’d think after forty days of depriving yourself of decent human comestibles–pizza, hot dogs, souvlaki, turkey and Swiss sandwiches–you’d think my mother would have something decent prepared. Something like roast beef or chicken with potatoes in the oven, pasticho or mousaka, but NO! Thanks to some dumb Greek tradition that got passed down from the time of goat-herding peasants, we had to have “swamp soup,” otherwise known as “magiritsa.” This was the official meal for breaking the Lenten fast. It was a lettuce stew with bits of cow or goat liver and other portions of coagulated beef fat floating around it in a milky-white, lemony consistency of white rice and a smackering of dill trees that always got stuck in between your teeth when you swallowed. We HATED this concoction. “Please, mommy, can you make us lamb instead?” we beg our mother to no avail.
“What’s Pascha without magiritsa?” was her response. “All Greek families have magiritsa to break the fast. My family did, their family before them did it, the family before them did it, all the way down to the first Greeks–Adam and Eve. Sit down and eat your magiritsa!”
Feta made it go down a bit more delightfully so we would crumble it on top and fish out the morsels with a tablespoon. Except for the “kefalaki.” Half-way into the meal, my father, the glutton at the head of the table would remember, “Bre gia fere to kefalaki.” The “kefalaki” was the intact skull of the goat or lamb my mother would boil into a consomme, brain, eyeballs, and all. My mother would get up, fish out the goat’s head from the long stock pot, place it on a long platter arrange slices of lemon around it and deliver it with pomp to the center of the table within my father’s easy reach. My father would give a short clap with his hands and rub his palms together before plunging his fork and knife into the goat’s head. His face in ecstatic excitement, would lighten up as he’d quote the famous line from the Karagiozi shadow puppet theater, “Tha fame, tha poume, kai nistiki tha kimithoume.” The agony of watching my father slurp up the bits of brain in the lamb skull with relish added to our general repulsion for magiritsa. There were pieces of that goat floating all over our soup!
We churned the stew, upturning the hidden contents on the bottom to the top, scrutinizing any suspect pieces of meat. Could that purplish gooey piece be the poor thing’s liver or pancreas? Jigsaw anatomy.
“Fate, fate, paidia, ligo kefalaki. Eine to kalitero meros tou katsikgiou,” our father would inspire us to take a piece of the brains. “Remember, the more mialo you eat, the more smart you be,” he argued.
“Ochi eucharisto Baba,” each one would say in turn. My father, we were convinced, was a barbarian. In case of a severe famine, we would have to make sure to go into hiding. He would have no problem digging into our brains and sucking it in. Those stories of gods devouring their children whole did not come from nowhere. Short of us being forced fed, we escaped the Paschal meal by swallowing ten tablespoons of swamp soup after which we had free reign of Koulourakia and Kourambgedes.