Cooking Up a Community
Two days before this article was due, my husband, friend, and I were sitting at Mezes on the Danforth. We hadn’t planned to eat there—it was a last-minute, panicked decision when the other plan for my article fell through. I had changed the topic of this piece so many times that I had absolutely no clue what I was going to write, and decided that, if nothing else, we’d have a great meal at Mezes.
I’ve been coming to Mezes for almost ten years after a friend and I did a quick “where should we eat on the Danforth” search in 2013. My husband and I even considered getting married there. It is reliably delicious and authentic, and the atmosphere never fails to put a smile on our faces. Customers are always jovial, the servers are warm and friendly, and every few minutes you are delighted by a fire show and a loud “Opa!” signalling that one lucky table is about to devour saganaki.
To me, and to many, that is Greektown. It is a lively, diverse community that has opened its arms to everyone over the years. Even in the 1970s, the nightlife in clubs was incredibly inclusive for its time, welcoming not just Greeks but also members of marginalised communities, businessmen, the elderly, and the youth of the day, all dancing, throwing plates, and singing together.
We see this same inclusivity in Taste of the Danforth—now almost 30 years old—which is no longer simply a Greek food festival but features booths of delicacies from every culture that has moved into the neighbourhood. The stretch of Danforth from Broadview Avenue to Jones Avenue becomes a delicious sampling platter of the diversity within our city.
As is often the case, it took only ten minutes sitting at Mezes before the table to our right struck up a conversation with us. Over the many dishes our table had ordered, the two men, Peter and Harris, began regaling us with stories about Greektown of the past; the small town within a city that sounds almost too good to be true. I phoned Peter the next day, eager to hear more.
Peter and Harris have been lifelong friends. Their fathers knew each other from Amyntaion—the village they had emigrated from in Greece. Peter’s father arrived in Halifax with “$50 and a suitcase” in 1964. The 1960s saw an influx of immigration from Greece to Toronto, largely due to political instability in Greece (which led to a coup d’état in 1967), but also to seek more opportunity than what was available to them at home.
After only a few days in Halifax, Peter’s father decided it wasn’t for him. “He thought, ‘Well what am I doing here? All my friends and relatives are in Toronto.’ So, he hopped on a train and came to Toronto.” He lived with his sister-in-law, establishing himself and learning English, before his soon-to-be-wife immigrated and they settled near the Danforth. Being the youngest of many siblings, his wife didn’t have very strong cooking skills. “It’s funny, because when my parents got married my dad gave my mother a Greek cookbook… This thing was as thick as a telephone book, it was unbelievable,” Peter laughs. She still has the cookbook, though it is worn, stained, and well-loved. “My sister says, ‘Mom as soon as you die, I want your cookbook!’ She can’t read a word of Greek, but she wants that as a remembrance of my mother.”
Over the years, his mother’s cooking skills improved and expanded beyond Greek favourites, sampling the cuisine from the growing community. “She would start making other things, like there would be a pasta night, [and] every Saturday night in our home would be pizza night… On Sundays in the summer, it was usually steak or souvlaki barbecued by my dad, in the winter it was traditionally roast beef Sunday, we’d eat leftovers for Monday, Tuesday, and then she’d get back into preparing a Greek dish.” Peter’s mother collected these new recipes and skills from talking to family and friends, watching it on TV, and through other cookbooks gifted to her by her husband. “My dad loves to buy cookbooks, even though he doesn’t really cook… [he would] love to look at the pictures, and ask my mom to try and cook them, and then he’d translate it for her.”
“In Greek, mezes translates to ‘appetizers.’”
In Greek, mezes translates to “appetizers.” They are meant to be shared amongst family and friends, bringing everyone together around the table; an example of the welcoming community, represented in its food. “We used to get together at my grandmother’s house and there’d be one long table, and it would be just full of different foods,” Peter remembers. He describes each dish and explains that the mains were often cooked at a nearby bakery in the village, using the warm ovens after the bakers were finished preparing their bread for the day. Frankly, the concept sounds brilliant. “As they [women] became more educated and started working, they didn’t have time to cook at home. So, they would prepare the meals in the morning, or the night before, and they’d drop them off at the bakery in the morning, and then pick it up and it’s fully cooked.” Peter goes on to explain that yes, this tradition also found its way to Toronto, and did occur on the Danforth back in the day.
Over the years, many Greek immigrants slowly migrated east to Scarborough, but, according to Peter, the sense of community is still alive and well. “There’s still a lot of Greek restaurants and key shops and bakeries in the area and, if anything, it’s kind of expanded beyond the Danforth, because there are other key bakeries, like Serano Bakery or Donlands Bakery [sadly, closed], that are not actually on the Danforth… People will go to the bakery and then go down to the Danforth, walk around, and have lunch or dinner.”
“People will go to the bakery and then go down to the Danforth, walk around, and have lunch or dinner.”
Without intending to, he perfectly proved his point that night at Mezes. He and Harris, friends since birth, no longer live in the neighbourhood. Harris has immigrated to the U.S., and Peter is now in Scarborough. “All the Greek families from our hometown—I think there were probably around 20 or 30 families that came over from Greece—we all kind of grew up together.” And 50 years on, here they were, sharing a meal on the Danforth, catching up on old times and making new friends. And, thankfully, giving me something to write about.