Martin C. Barry
As only seems fitting for an interview centered largely on a new Greek cookbook and Hellenic food, the conversation with Christos Sourligas opens with a quick review of foods typical of Montreal, followed by restaurants owned by Greek Montrealers over the years.
For the love of pizza
Born and raised in Montreal’s hardscrabble Park Extension district, Sourligas’s new book, My Big Fat Greek Cookbook, was published by Skyhorse last month and is being distributed by Simon & Schuster, one of the world’s giants in book publishing.
Part of a recent and lengthy conversation with Sourligas turns into a retrospective history of restauranting in Montreal – including this city’s longstanding love affair with pizza.
While a wave of Italian immigration to Canada during the 1950s saw pizzerias pop up in neighbourhoods as quickly as portobello mushrooms, it wasn’t long before newly-arrived Greeks – with their own flair for cuisine – would become the city’s predominant pizza spinners.
Our distinctive cuisine
For years, Sourligas’s father ran Colosseo on Westminster Avenue in Montreal West. Like Pendelis and other famous Montreal pizzerias owned by Greeks, Colosseo helped to popularize the distinctive Montreal-style pizza that comes topped with thinly-sliced hot pepperoni or long strips of steaming smoked meat.
At another point in Montreal’s restaurant history, many delicatessen eateries (which were originally brought to the city by European Jews) were also taken over by Greeks. As it happens, Sourligas’ father also owned and operated one of these.
The Greek restauranteurs
“A lot of diners and other restaurants were owned by Jewish working class that sold off their businesses mostly to Greeks and then went into the shmata business,” he said, referring to the Jewish community’s longtime involvement in the garment industry.
Sourligas agrees that compared to Toronto or even New York (where pretensions are perhaps more likely to influence the restaurant scene), Montreal seems to have naturally evolved its own characteristic style of restaurant cuisine stemming from a combination of the various influences.
Sourligas’s formative years were in Park Extension near the corner of Champagneur and Ball avenues. He also attended Barclay Elementary School on Wiseman Ave.
Park Ex shaped him
A broadcast television and comedy/entertainment sales executive for the past 20 years, he acknowledges that growing up in Park Ex greatly influenced his outlook and contributed to his success as a sales rep and spinner of tales when needed.
“In the Park Extension I knew, it was a society or culture where you were either a bully or you were bullied,” he said. “Lots of times you kind of had to talk your way out of a corner or a pinch. So I had to develop the gift of the gab as a storyteller. And that’s how in a way I was kind of able to slip in and out of different situations.”
A tribute to his mother
Sourligas’s new volume is more than a Greek cookbook – actually a tribute to his mother, Evdokia Antginas, whose life seemed to be approaching its end when he was first contemplating writing it. However, she ended up co-authoring the book with him.
“This cookbook was born out of necessity, after my mother was given 12-18 months to live by her doctors,” he said, describing an ordeal she faced around three years ago with a serious heart ailment. Fortunately, it was resolved through a non-surgical intervention which was relatively non-invasive and saved her life.
Preserving the recipes
“Being the typical filmmaker and storyteller that I am, I was immediately overcome with a profound need to document my mama’s Greek food recipes before she passed on,” said Sourligas. “I felt the need to honor this woman while she was still alive by preserving her priceless recipes so that generations to come could savor her life’s flavors.”
Although popular Greek restaurant cuisine is now more often than not associated in many people’s minds with Hellenic fast-foods such as souvlaki or gyros on pita, Sourligas isn’t really into that sort of thing.
No fast-food clichés here
“They’ve become complete clichés,” he said. “The thing is that’s not the sort of thing you make at home. People buy them in fast-food restaurants and some sit-down restaurants feature them. But it’s the equivalent of going out for a pizza.”
Instead, My Big Fat Greek Cookbook focuses on what Sourligas refers to as “legit rustic mountain village peasant food.” As his family hails from Arcadia in Greece, that’s what he focuses on.
Examples of uncommon but rewarding recipes in his book include Stewed Okra (bamies laderes), Rabbit Stew (kouneli stifado), Jellied Tripe Soup (pikti patsa), Boiled Goat (gida vrasti), and Quince Spoon Sweet (glyko kydoni).
TV series in development
A tireless creative promoter and producer who has won several awards for his films, Sourligas is currently working on a major new historical-drama television series project, in the same vein as Game of Thrones, but with a classical Hellenic twist.
“It’s a Greek story, a historical drama that’s meant for international distribution,” he said, sharing some of the details. The ten one-hour episodes could end up on HBO, Starz or Showtime. It might even appear on Netflix, although Sourligas hasn’t touched base so far with the streaming media company. “You don’t go to Netflix – they come to you,” he said. “They only work with the people they want to work with.”