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The importance of koliva

April 6, 2009 | 12:16 pm

Koliva 

Koliva is a heavenly dessert: earthy wheat berries studded with toasted nuts and dried fruit and blanketed with a drift of powdered sugar, with just a spoonful of lightly whipped cream for richness. But to many traditional Greeks, that very sentence is appalling, even heretical.

That’s because in the Greek Orthodox religion, koliva is a dish that is heavy with ritual significance. It’s more metaphor than food, really, symbolizing the circle of death and rebirth. The wheat berries represent the promise of everlasting life, the raisins the sweetness of life, and the spices are symbols of plenty. The dish is traditionally served only in a few specific circumstances, including the beginning of Lent, and during memorial services. To me, this is a particularly lovely part of the tradition – each family prepares its own koliva in memory of those they’ve lost, and then they share it with the congregation.

For some, including Elaine Panousis, who generously taught me to make the dish, the idea of eating koliva just for dining pleasure is unthinkable. And so was my including a recipe for it in a cooking story (with whipped cream, no less!).

Reader Marcella Cuonzo-Hadjipapas was certainly irate: "I was taken back by the disrespect given to a dish that is hardly regarded as a 'dessert.' Orthodox Christians consider koliva to be symbolic of death and resurrection, it is prepared during requiem and memorial services for the departed, and not as the end of a stuffing feast topped with whipped cream! What’s next? Dinner at a cemetery? Rolling dough at the altar? If my Greek grandmother would read the column she would shake her head in disbelief."

It was certainly never my intent to give offense. I just wanted to share a dish I really liked (and, in my defense, similar dishes are served around the eastern Mediterranean without the religious ties). But maybe I was guilty of being too modern. It's hard for some of us to remember that food can be appreciated for more than simple deliciousness.

So many of our foods once had religious or ritual significance, but by and large those ties have been forgotten along the way. We serve lamb at Easter and hunt for eggs without giving a thought to what they once symbolized. We greedily tuck into sweet tamales completely oblivious to their role in Day of the Dead ceremonies – so similar to koliva itself.

We’re obviously richer for being able to enjoy all these wonderful foods from so many different parts of the world, but in a way, maybe we’re a little poorer for having lost the meaning that can accompany them. Particularly at this time of year, it’s good to be reminded of that.

-- Russ Parsons

Photo: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times

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