02/07/2012 10:57 am ET | Updated Apr 08, 2012

Cucina Povera, Greek Style

Cucina povera, the Italian expression meaning the cuisine of the poor, is starting to have a new ring to it here in Greece. In times of plenty -- in other words, yesterday -- it meant the inspired cooking of times gone by, when meat was scarce, eggs were barter tokens and a chicken in every pot was wishful thinking.

We didn't give it much thought as we piled our daily steaks, roasts, free-range chickens into our shopping carts and reached for the French cheeses, Belgian chocolates and Argentinian asparagus. Of course, we nodded at tradition from time to time. Most Greeks love their mothers' stuffed tomatoes, oil-stewed vegetables, lentil soup, keftedes... there's a long list.

But with our incomes in free fall and our taxes skyrocketing, it may not be long before even these wonderful, healthy, low-cost dishes become luxuries, out of reach for many families.

Already, for some old-timers, this crisis feels like the early days of the Nazi Occupation (1941 to 1944, in case you're too young to know). Not because there are food shortages. On the contrary, supermarket shelves and bins bulge with goods, the farmers' markets are an orgy of gorgeous fruits and vegetables -- though more and more people turn up near closing time when prices drop.

Instead, it's the uncertainty, of not "if" but "when" the country will default.

Some "experts" from abroad assure us that life will become much more tenable when we revert to the drachma. Maybe so. But it will take a while. They haven't realized that almost everything we consume is imported. And we won't have the foreign exchange to buy fuel, natural gas or even paper. Those gleaming eggplants from Cretan hothouses, those pearly cauliflowers and perfect lettuces from Marathon (next door) will have to stay where they're grown. And rot. While we in the cities go hungry.

I wasn't around of course, but I've heard lots of stories. From my husband, who reports subsisting in Athens on a slice of bread a day, some watery soup thickened with tahini (sesame paste), boiled cabbage, and as many hazelnuts as he could chew.

The hazelnuts were among the supplies brought into Greece by the Turkish cargo ship Kurtulus* to ease the Great Famine in which up to 300,000 people died of starvation.

Ironic, wasn't it, that food aid came from neutral Turkey, although the two countries had been at war just 19 years earlier?

I also remember the tales of my mother-in-law, my first husband's mother. Dora Lada, known to the family as Dodo, was born in 1900. She raised her two children on her own, after her husband died of something preventable not long after the Stock Market crash of '29.

Dodo did not resemble that extinct bird in any respect. She spoke five languages fluently, spelled atrociously in all of them, knew all about plants and could make an elegant lady in a ballgown from a poppy bud -- to the delight of small children.

Although she never lifted a finger in the kitchen, it was her favorite room in the house. She'd sit at the table with her cigarettes and a tiny Greek coffee or a milky glass of ouzo, depending on the hour, and discuss life with her best friend, Eleni -- the best cook in the world, as far as we were concerned -- on the island of Spetses.

Often I would join them, improving my Greek and devouring family lore, just listening as they spun their stories.

They usually revolved around the Maroussi days. In the prosperous early years of her marriage, Dodo and Christos had built a grand house in that village, now a suburb, north of Athens. A three-story mansion surrounded by a large garden, it was reached via an alley of magnificent date palms. After the Crash, they moved to the "spitaki," a much smaller cottage nearby, and eventually sold the big house to an American couple with four children.

Dodo used to cook back then. At least I know she had one dish, "papaki me bamyes horis papaki" or duckling with okra without the duckling.

In April 1941, as the Germans advanced on Athens, there was a mad rush to stock up on essentials. Supermarkets did not exist but all the grocers' shelves and storerooms emptied in a few hours. Dodo was calm. She had no interest in sugar, flour, rice or beans. She knew she could survive if she had enough cigarettes and demijohns of ouzo.

Within a few months, the Germans requisitioned the spitaki and Dodo moved back to her old house. The new owner, Gene Vanderpool, was one of the leading archaeologists at the American School of Classical Studies. You would not have thought he posed a threat, but the Nazis dispatched him to a prison camp in Germany. They also restricted his wife Joan's movements, confining her to Maroussi for the duration of the war.

Dodo and Joan looked after her children together and quickly realized that the children of Maroussi needed their help even more. They set up a soup kitchen and, decades later, when I moved to Maroussi and settled in the spitaki myself, they were still remembered. When my car mechanic learned my name, and found I was related to Kyria Dora Lada, he poured out his gratitude 'til we were both practically in tears.

"She saved me from starving," said Manolis. "My parents couldn't feed us, but Kyria Dora and her friend kept us alive. None of us will ever forget their kindness and generosity."

But Dodo herself was hungry all the time. "How could I eat when every mouthful I took would mean less food for a child?" she used to say.

One day, as I was walking back home at twilight, I saw a familiar plant growing near the road. I went closer to inspect it. Could it be? Yes, it was. A potato!

I looked in every direction, feeling like a criminal. No one was coming. So with my bare hands, I started scrabbling in the earth, maybe I used a stone to help. And before long, I'd reached a little potato. Then another, and another.

I put the handful of potatoes in my pocket and took them home. I did not say a word. But when everyone was asleep, I sneaked down to the kitchen and boiled them in a pan. I have never eaten anything so delicious in my life and I have never felt so guilty, either.

Dodo's story haunts me. I doubt things will get as bad as they were during the Occupation. Then Greece was at war. They knew who the enemy was. Today, though, we are being punished by our own people.

Greeks have survived countless sieges and trials. They became experts at concocting the most delicious meals with the most rudimentary of ingredients. Let's hope we have not lost the knack, because food aid may be slower to arrive this time around.

*The Kurtulus carried out five voyages to Piraeus under the auspices of the Red Crescent until it sank in the Sea of Marmara during a squall in February 1942. Food and pharmaceuticals continued to be delivered using other Turkish freighters until 1946. The initial voyages were made with permission of the Royal British Navy, which was blockading Piraeus at the time in order to restrict Axis troop and supply movements. Deliveries in Greece fell to the Red Cross.