This article was first published on 4 March 2013. It is republished following the author's inclusion in the Independent on Sunday's Happy List 2014 for her work establishing Mazí Mas.
Last October, after six years of writing tortuous essays about gender theory, I decided I was going to open a restaurant. Nothing fancy, just a cosy neighbourhood place, but with food unlike anywhere else, because it was going to be cooked by women who had spent their lives in the kitchen, whose recipes were generations old and had gained the approval of picky children and pickier husbands. This dream is still some years from fulfilment, but the concept is now coming to life in the form of a monthly pop-up restaurant called Mazí Mas. Mazí Mas, which means “with us” in Greek, showcases the culinary talents and diverse cultural heritages of migrant women in London through giving them the opportunity to open their own restaurant for a night. Mazí Mas is the story of many women: some who migrated to London with their families, some who came to work or study, and some who fled as refugees seeking shelter. But Mazí Mas is the story of one woman in particular: my Greek godmother, Maria Maroulis, who taught me how to cook.
Making sense of foreign surroundings
Nouná, as she is known to me (the Greek word for “godmother”), grew up in a seaside village in Greece called Kárystos. Like many other Greek towns and villages, Kárystos was decimated by successive Italian and German occupations during World War II. Nouná was fourteen when the war broke out, and has vivid memories of occupation; the Italians were worse than the Germans, she says, because they guaranteed famine by destroying not only the crop, but also the seed for sowing a new harvest.
'Nouná', the inspiration for Mazí Mas
Nouná and her husband, a carpenter, fared well in the post-war construction boom, but moved to the United States with their two teenage children after the military coup in 1967. They went wherever Nonó, my godfather, could find work: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Chicago, New Jersey, and, finally, New York City. By the time they settled in Astoria, the Greek part of Queens, their children were out of the house and Nouná was spending most of her time alone. With only a primary school education and rudimentary English she wasn’t qualified for most jobs, and in any event was expected to have dinner on the table when Nonó got home from work. She loved America, but even after fifteen years it felt just beyond her reach. She wanted to be part of it. She wanted to open a bakery.
Nonó wouldn’t hear of it. “You’ll make a fool out of me,” he said to her. “I’ll be a laughingstock! Women aren’t supposed to own businesses.”
And so it never happened. Instead Nouná started taking care of me, childcare being something that women were supposed to do, and I reaped the benefits of her extraordinary culinary abilities.
My earliest and most enduring memories are of Nouná in the kitchen. Food was the way she made sense of her foreign surroundings, the way she communicated with people whose language she didn’t understand. To this day, she remembers New York in recipes: the fish store where she would buy fresh snapper for lemony psarósoupa; the neighbour who couldn’t get enough of her melt-in-the-mouth kourambiédes; braiding sweet, eggy tsoureki bread in the kitchen at Easter. Even McDonald’s became a landmark: she liked the chips, and I once ate gum off the underside of a table, which she’s never forgiven herself for.
A common vocabulary
Food is a vocabulary common to most women of Nouná’s generation, because pervasive gender inequality meant that they were charged with childrearing and household management. This was gruelling and thankless work, and yet it also made them the guardians of age-old culinary histories. It’s no accident that when today’s (mostly male) celebrity chefs go off in search of “authentic” recipes, the winding mountain path usually leads to a wizened grandmother.
Chef Thamara Jayasinghe at her Mazí Mas pop-up in 2012.
I started Mazí Mas in part to celebrate the seminal role that women have played in keeping food cultures all over the world alive, and to preserve some of their individual culinary legacies. Our first event last November featured Sri Lankan chef Thamara Jayasinghe. Her chilli-laced fish cutlets were a recipe of her grandmother’s, learned not at her grandmother’s knee, as the cliché goes, but over a long-distance phone call. Thamara, who is in her fifties, had no time for cooking as a young woman; she went to medical school and became a doctor. It was only when she and her husband moved to England that, missing home and her childhood favourites, she picked up the phone and asked her mother and grandmother for lessons. I met Thamara a year ago, through voluntary work at Food Cycle’s much beloved community café in Finsbury Park, which sadly no longer exists. Thamara had been volunteering there for nearly two years, every Friday since the café opened. No one could manage the kitchen like she could. I tried, once, and nearly didn’t come back the following week. The joy of that café was, for many of us, Thamara: her staggering efficiency in the kitchen, her ease and friendliness with volunteers and customers, her comically direct reviews of the food. She reminded me greatly of Nouná, especially when she started bringing me dinner, beautiful Sri Lankan specialties, with stern admonitions that I wasn’t eating enough. And, like Nouná, she dreamed of having a little place of her own.
Thamara is one of hundreds, probably thousands, of women who volunteer in kitchens all over London every week. I know this because for a while it was all I did, too. Many of these women are asylum-seekers or have pending immigration cases, which means they don’t have the right to work. Some are settled refugees but can’t find work. And most - whether migrants or UK citizens, whether they have legal status or not - are mothers.
This is important, because in this demographic being a mother tends to mean not only unemployment, but long-term unemployment; and not only long-term unemployment, but very little prospect of finding work. These women are told that they don’t have skills. They are told that their lives are small, their accomplishments few. They are made to feel insecure for not knowing how to write a C.V., failed for having little to put on it, incapable for having difficulty typing and printing it, and foolish for having tried in the first place. When I went back to Greece and explained to Nouná that she was the inspiration for Mazí Mas, that I had started it because of her, she patted my arm and laughed. “But I haven’t done anything, Niki! I haven’t done anything.”
Mazí Mas tries to give these women their due. We can’t give them full-time employment (yet), but we can foster a sense of accomplishment and self-worth; and a sense of dignity that comes from taking pride in work that is one’s own, and could not have been done by anyone else. Our objectives are simple: to reward women for their culinary skills, to bring those skills to the public, and to encourage and support them to set up their own food businesses or find employment in others (if that is what they want to do). We’ve already had a few successes - our first two pop-up events sold out, and Thamara gave paid demonstrations of Sri Lankan cuisine last month. But these are not nearly as important as the personal victories. “It was an amazing night,” Thamara wrote to us in an email after her pop-up. “It had always been one of my dreams to do something like this and I am so thrilled that everything went well.” Our second chef, Roberta Siao, is in the early stages of setting up a social enterprise that will address food waste here and in her native Brazil.
Guests at Mazí Mas pop-up in 2012.
Mazí Mas is just the start. What I would like to see is women-owned food businesses springing up everywhere. Businesses where the skills that women have honed over decades of raising children, feeding families, and making ends meet are not merely recognised, but essential. Where the knowledge of older women is a resource that preserves culinary traditions, revives methods of making things by hand, and breathes new life into neighbourhoods littered with chicken and chips. Where these women’s experiences of conflict and struggle teach us about thrift, sustainability, and how to build strong and resilient communities. Where they are allowed to be full, equal, and independent participants in public life. I want every Nouná to have her bakery.