Today we’re going to talk about an island in the Aegean Sea, Ikaria, where people are a little different. There are less clocks on the island, because they don’t care what time it is. Ask an Ikarian the time, and you might get the response, “It’s late thirty,” a kind of running joke where everyone’s late, or early, and no one really cares.
It’s an island where most people live in the rugged inland, a habit formed long ago, so as not to attract the attention of pirates at sea. Most Ikarians make a living so modest, they would be firmly placed at the poverty level in most places. Just eight thousand people on a stretch of salt-crusted, wind-swept rock, who happen to live longer, healthier and happier lives than just about anyone else in the world.
Today I’m so please to be speaking with Diane Kochilas, an Ikarian New Yorker, well-known chef and culinary educator, who has written a book that I love, Ikaria: Lessons on Food, Life, and Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die. She joins us today from Greece. Hi, Diane.
Diane Kochilas Hi, Curtis.
Curtis Cord After reading the book, the first thought that came to my mind was, “I wish I had a family in Ikaria.” The second thought was, “At least I can give my family some Ikarian love, through the dishes in your book.” Have you had the chance to share the book with people on the island?
Diane Kochilas They’re proud of it, yeah. I mean, the book is in English, so it’s a little bit difficult for them to understand it, but, certainly the pictures, which my husband took, in fact, and, you know, the stories that people were able to understand. I think it’s very heartwarming for them to see people, who we all know, locally, in a book that’s being distributed, you know, the other side of the world.
Curtis Cord The island is small enough that older Ikarians, and there are a lot of older Ikarians, must know everyone on the island, especially since, as you wrote, “people of all ages live and socialize together.”
Yes, that’s true. It’s a very tight-knit community. There’s, I would say, no age discrimination. In other words, people connect with one another regardless of how old they are. For example, my son might play a game of backgammon with somebody who’s seventy years old. You might see people dancing who are on completely different parts of their lives, an older person and a younger person.
People are very connected to one another, there’s very little alienation, as a result. People don’t feel lonely on Ikaria, they feel like they belong to a community, and people watch out for one another regardless of how old they are. It’s a wonderful thing, it’s very human.
Curtis Cord I wonder about something. As an Ikarian who lives in New York and Athens, and busy with a cooking school, appearances, and book signings, I imagine saying “late thirty” doesn’t work too well for you anymore?
Diane Kochilas No comment.
Curtis Cord You’re a little more ruled by the clock these days than you’d like to be, aren’t you?
Well, I wouldn’t say “ruled” by it, I would say “nudged” by it.
We talk about, Ikarians don’t live by the clock, and that might sound like a radical idea to an American, and especially to a New Yorker, where the clock seems to tick in our veins all the time. I have to say that, we run cooking classes on the island, week-long, several times a year, in the spring and summer, and, almost all of our guests are American, from all walks of life, usually very accomplished people, good travelers, a little bit adventurous, and interested in longevity, the last couple of years. I have to say that, when they arrive on the island, there is a noticeable difference within about two or three hours. You can see it in people’s faces, they just relax.
As somebody once said to me, who had come, “When I got to this island, and I stepped foot on it, I don’t know, something happened to me. The sweet honey of indolence just dripped down on me, and I felt deeply content.” This is what people experience. We have a wonderful time, people get a very different perspective on life when they spend a week on Ikaria, and engage with the locals, and I think it’s a life-changing experience for some people, it’s a wonderful time. Even “tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock” Americans, I think, really appreciate this ability to slow down, because we all need it. We’re all human, doesn’t matter where we’re from.
Curtis Cord Is there a longevity industry on Ikaria? Are there resorts popping up now … ?
Diane Kochilas No. Thank God. No.
Curtis Cord Where do people stay when they visit the island? Are there nice hotels?
Diane Kochilas When they come to our classes, they stay in a very nice hotel on the beach, which is about a ten-minute drive from our home, where the classes are. There are several hotels, it’s a small … There are only four hundred and fifty official hotel rooms on Ikaria. That still keeps it pure, and we’re all very thankful for that.
I’m sure you are.
When I read in your book that Ikarians generally make a meager living, I thought about studies that show that the poorest American are more likely to find their dinner at places like 7-Eleven or McDonald’s, than those with higher incomes, but you wrote, and I’m quoting here, “Ikaria’s longevity diet is the Mediterranean diet of half a century ago, tailored to what was available locally, and defined more by the struggle to procure food than by any contemporary sense of abundance.” We’re talking about poor people who didn’t have the convenience of having, at every street corner, dangerous foods at low prices, aren’t we, Diane?
Absolutely. We’re talking about people who have a very, very deep sense of dignity, because they’re self-sufficient. They grow their own food, for the most part. We know people on the island who live, basically, with almost no money, and they live quite well, in terms of having everything that they absolutely need, food, shelter, company, wine. A friend of ours even makes his own soap, actually, out of olive oil. It’s a very different way to live.
It’s a difficult way to live for somebody, for example, like me, who grew up in a big city like New York, even though I live in Greece. I don’t know if I could spend an entire winter on the island. There is something to be said about this great sense of independence that comes from being self-sufficient. These are not consumers. These are people who have what they need, and they don’t covet more than that. That’s a cultivated … For many people nowadays, sixty, seventy years ago, that was by necessity, but today that’s often, more a cultivated state of living. We choose to live this way.
Curtis Cord It’s a tradition.
Diane Kochilas No, it’s actually a choice, now, I would say. It is a tradition, but it’s also a choice.
Curtis Cord Maybe it all comes back to the clock. If we weren’t always feeling the pressure of time, and we all took it down a few notches, and we got together more over food, young and old, and thought about the things that really matter, maybe spent less time looking at our phones, we might just go out and forage for local greens and eat more beans, eat less junk, and, consequently get an extra decade of breathing. Is that how it is?
I think it’s more complex than that, because the social structure is very different. People are connected to one another, and they’re connected in a deep way, over generations. They’re not connected because they’re simply neighbors, who might move away from one another. The family house is the family house for generation after generation after generation, and those ties are deep, and the bonds are deep.
For example, somebody like myself, who grew up in the United States, even crossing borders and continents, those ties are still deep. My childhood friends were all the children of my parents’ friends from Ikaria. My father was an immigrant. Our kids, in fact, are now friends, and the grandparents were friends. These are ties that last beyond on generation. We know each other’s stories, and we know each other’s histories, and we know each other’s relatives. There’s a real sense of belonging, even in the United States.
Every year at Labor Day, the Pan-Icarian Brotherhood of America has their annual convention, and I hadn’t been in a long time. I went this year, it was in Pittsburgh, which was one of the oldest communities. In fact, that association is the oldest Greek association in the United States. What was interesting to me was that, there were about three thousand people there, from all over the United States. I would say at least sixty percent of them, if not more, were under the age of thirty-five. We’re talking about, at least, third-generation Greek Americans, Ikarian American, who still have this draw to the island. That is very unique.
Curtis Cord I read your book yesterday, an absolutely delightful read. Your writing is so entertaining and clear. I put down the book and went to my grocery store, which, believe me, is nothing to write home about, and managed to make spicy black-eyed peas and greens with smoked herring, except I used sardines instead. My family loved it, with the exception of my seven-year-old daughter, whose acceptance of new tastes is something we’re working on daily. The recipes in your book are really very simple, and that’s just the point, isn’t it?
That’s absolutely the point, very simple. It’s peasant cuisine. What I try to do in the book … In a way, the recipes fly in the face of many nutritional trends in the United States right now. For example, the potato, which has been so maligned in America, was, and still is, a very important food on Ikaria, but you have to take that in it’s context, because they’re not eating potato chips, they’re eating potatoes in a much more wholesome way. You also have to take it in the context of the daily exercise that people are getting, which is not driving to the gym and working out, but working out in a subtle way all day, by walking, gardening, dancing, all the activities that people do, participate in, when they live in a more natural environment.
In that regard, it’s not a diet book, it’s not a low-calorie recipe book, and it wasn’t meant to be. I really wanted to look at what these people were eating forty, fifty, sixty years ago, and most of those recipes come from that era.
Curtis Cord I found that there were so many dishes I wanted to make, that I know I’ll be working my way through this book in the years to come, from things like the noodles with yogurt and herbs …
Diane Kochilas That’s a great dish.
Curtis Cord It looked delicious. That’s my next one I think, and so simple. The pork and collard greens stew, and everything in between, because these are things we should be eating every day, not just when we want to make something extraordinary. Wasn’t that your aim?
Diane Kochilas Absolutely. This is every day food. There are some festive dishes in there, but this is every day food, and also, don’t forget, the meat dishes … Actually, the meat dishes are definitely meant to be more festive. Again, if you take those recipes in the context of what people were eating thirty, forty, fifty years ago, meat was definitely not a daily food.
Curtis Cord You wrote that most meat in Ikaria, when it appeared on the plate at all, was seen, not as the main ingredient, but more like a condiment, which is completely different than the way we think of meat here in America, where it is always front and center. Yet I get the feeling that being able to view it that way could be the answer to a lot of our problems that we face in our diets.
Diane Kochilas This is something that I try to propagate in my own work in the United States, getting people off meat, in many ways. I mean, I’m not a vegetarian, but I eat meat, I think, probably as frequently as my ninety-eight year old aunt used to eat it, when she was younger. Maybe, twice a month? My husband’s a vegetarian, so that makes it easy, not to need meat every day, but meat was, it was a special food, it was a festive food. It was expensive, it should be. Now with all the climate change talk, meat production and consumption is on the forefront of issue that we have to deal with.
Curtis Cord I started at the first recipe, the Ikarian-style New York Kopanasti, which is a soft cheese that Ikarians always have on hand, you said, like peanuts or chips, to offer to anyone who might stop by, and invariably, someone on the island will stop by. The recipe calls for one-third of a cup of Greek Extra-Virgin olive oil, and that’s on page six. I started turning the pages to see if I could find a recipe that didn’t call for olive oil. Finally, I think it was around the mid one hundreds, flipping through, I gave up without finding one. What does that say about the importance of olive oil to Ikarians?
I think it speaks tomes for the importance of olive oil. It was basically the only fat. There was another fat, ironically enough, it was lard, but it was not … Again, it has to be taken in it’s context. It was the butter of the poor. A child’s after-school snack, maybe once a week, might have been a piece of home-baked bread with a little bit of what they called [foreign language 00:14:47], which was lard, basically, and honey, or sugar, or [foreign language 00:14:51], which is grape molasses. That’s a very nutrient-dense snack.
Olive oil was, by far, the absolute, most important and nutritious food in their diet. Don’t forget, people also produce their own oil, everybody’s got a couple of trees, so their yearly supply is taken care of, and it is much easier, in that respect, to consume a lot of it, it’s much less expensive. It really is used in almost everything, even in sweets. If you looked through the sweets chapter, I’m sure you saw several desserts in which olive oil is called for.
Curtis Cord I did. I couldn’t find an Ikarian olive oil anywhere in the marketplace, and by marketplace, I don’t mean just my supermarket or seven hundred oils I see each year at the New York International Olive Oil Competition that I organize. I mean Google, the ultimate listing of everything. It looks like not a single bottle of olive oil make in Ikaria leaves it’s shores, except, I’m sure, in the luggage of visiting relatives. Is that how you see it over there?
Diane Kochilas That’s absolutely true. There’s no commercial production of olive oil on the island. It’s just not big enough, the production’s not big enough. There’s local commercial production, in other words, you can go to one of the larger farmers and get your yearly supply, but it’s certainly not enough to supply a store in the United States.
Curtis Cord I was surprised to learn in your book that your oil is not made from the flagship Greek variety Koroeneiki, it is a local variety called, and help me with the pronunciation, is it Hondroelia?
Diane Kochilas Yeah, Hondroelia, it’s a bigger olive.
Curtis Cord It means “fat olive”, right?
Diane Kochilas It means “fat olive”.
Curtis Cord A variety that I’ve never heard of. Can you describe the taste? Is it as intensely fruity and spicy as the Koroeneiki?
Diane Kochilas It’s different. It’s actually a little bit more acidic, a little bit heavier, I would say. The Koroeneiki does have a distinct fruitiness. It’s not to say that Ikarian olive oil isn’t fruity, but it’s a denser flavor. I can’t really describe it. It’s more solid.
Curtis Cord Do they pick the olives more ripe than they might with the Koroeneiki? Are the olives green when they pick them?
Diane Kochilas Yes and no. That really depends, from person to person, what they prefer. Most people are picking olives over the course of several months, so, in the beginning of the season, obviously they’re unripe, and that oil is very different, it’s more peppery and pungent. As the season goes on, and the olives get bigger, and some of them fall to the ground and bruise a little bit, the flavor is a little bit more acidic.
Curtis Cord There are about eight thousand Ikarians on the island, yet there is an enclave in Jackson Heights, Queens, which, incidentally, is where my grandparents first arrived from Holland. I was surprised that such a small place would have a distant outpost in Queens. Are you aware of other Ikarian communities throughout the United States, other large … ?
Diane Kochilas Oh, absolutely, Port Jefferson, South Jersey, Philadelphia, Detroit. Akron, Ohio. Pittsburgh, which is kind of manna, that was the heard for many years, because the first immigrants worked in the steel mills. Certain parts of California have Ikarian communities, smaller Ikarian communities. Certain parts of Chicago. Those are the places that immediately come to mind. Absolutely. Adelaide, Australia.
Curtis Cord I’m curious how many of the habits from the island survive the move to the new rocky outpost on Northern Boulevard. I picture Ikarians hunched over picking leafy greens and catching rabbits between the runways of La Guardia airport.
Diane Kochilas No, it’s not exactly that, it’s more like unabashed partying when we get together. A lot of wine gets poured, and a lot of food gets eaten, and a lot of dancing takes place, and it’s much more about that. It’s about the social aspect more than anything else.
Dancing throughout the night, and throughout the years, and Ikarians living longer than anyone else.
Ikaria: Lessons on Food, Life, and Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die, is listed as the number one bestseller on Amazon, under Greek cooking, and the reviews are all good, and I’d have to agree.
Diane Kochilas, thank you for sharing your story with us today.
Thank you so much, Curtis. Thank you so much.