One big, fat Greek gathering still gets Stella Kartsonis cooking in her Kansas City kitchen. At 79, Stella keeps busy with her two children — Jimmy in Leawood and Christina Kartsonis-Woltkamp in Overland Park — and five grandchildren.
On April 14, 1969, Stella was featured in the Come Into My Kitchen column with a spread of food in celebration of the Greek Orthodox Easter that year. Also in the photograph were Jimmy, then 8 years old, and Christina, then 4 years old.
The recipes featured from nearly 50 years ago — Leg of Lamb, Pastitsio, Koulouria (Greek Easter Cookies) and Shish-Kebabs — are some of the tried-and-true recipes of the Kartsonis family that have been handed down for generations.
Q: In November 2015, when the Come Into My Kitchen column celebrated its 60th anniversary — making it the longest-running feature in The Star — your photograph from the 1969 column was the one on the cover of the Food section. Isn’t it amazing how quickly nearly 50 years can go?
A: That feature ran November 4, the day after the Royals parade, which celebrated our World Series win. I received so many calls that morning from people saying, “You’re in the paper today!” and I thought people saw me in a picture someone had taken during the parade. Little did I know it was the Stella from 47 years ago! Jimmy says that he pretended to be sick that day, so he could be in the photo and Christina had to stand on a stack of phone books to bring her up to that height.
At Eastertime, Greeks take hard-boiled eggs and hit them together, because only one will crack. The person with the uncracked egg at the end wins. You can tell in the photo that Jimmy is getting ready to hit Christina’s egg with his own. My husband, Ernie, who died in 2012, always had a marble egg he would use to crack everyone else’s eggs, so he would win. He had a wonderful sense of humor.
Q: Can you explain what your Greek heritage means to you?
A: Being Greek is being part of one big, extended family. It’s wonderful to be Greek and to be a part of such a close-knit community in Kansas City. While we do love to have an occasion to celebrate, Greeks are known for their ‘philoxenia’: their ability to befriend strangers and a big part of that is feeding people.
Growing up in Horton, Kan., my parents Chrisoula and James Kallos ran the restaurant, Jim’s Waffle House. It was a wonderful way to grow up and the biggest adjustment I had after Ernie and I got married was trying to figure out how to cook for two, instead of 100 people. Ernie never had to worry about how many people he would bring home with him for dinner, because I always had made more than enough food.
Q: What are the distinguishing ingredients found in Greek food?
A: Well, olive oil runs through our veins and it is used in most every dish. Greeks also use a lot of garlic, oregano, dill, parsley, mint, lemon and cinnamon. Of course, there’s always honey, nuts, feta cheese and olives somewhere on the Greek table, too.
There is a wide variety of how Greeks cook, depending on where they come from in the country. My parents came from the Kalamata area in Greece before settling in Kansas in the 1930s. My mother was also featured in the Come Into My Kitchen column in 1983, where she shared recipes for Galopeta (Greek Custard), Karethopita (Walnut Torte), Spanakopita (Greek Spinach and Cheese Pie) and these cookies, Melomacarona.
Q: So is this your mother’s recipe for Greek Honey Cookies?
A: Yes, this is her recipe, which even won her a recipe contest. I think it is important to pass along our rituals and recipes to the next generation, so they can carry on our culture and traditions. For many years, I have been involved with the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church’s festival and one of the people directing guests through the food line.
As I grow older, I have learned to appreciate the smallest things in life and am grateful I’m able to enjoy every day. I am thankful for the people around me and for this same home I have been able to be in for all these years. When I look back at the Stella in that photograph from nearly 50 years ago, I think, “Gee, I had a lot of energy to be able to cook that much food!”
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org to nominate a cook.
Greek Honey Cookies or Melomacarona
Makes 6 dozen
For the cookies:
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 orange, juiced
1/4 cup hot water
5 1/2 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
For the topping:
2 cups honey
1/3 cup water
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, cream vegetable oil, butter and sugar together using an electric mixer set on medium speed. Set aside.
In a small mixing bowl, whisk baking soda into orange juice until dissolved. Add to creamed mixture. Pour in hot water and beat with electric mixer for 5 minutes.
While mixture is beating, sift together 5 1/2 cups flour, cinnamon and cloves. Add dry mixture slowly to beaten mixture until a soft, non-sticky dough forms — adding up to 1/2 cup more flour, as necessary.
Using a teaspoon of dough, form into small ovals using your hands and slightly flatten with the tines of a fork when placed on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until cookies are lightly browned. Allow cookies to cool completely.
Prepare the topping by whisking honey and water together in a saucepan over medium heat just before reaching the boiling point. Carefully place a couple cookies at a time into the warmed honey mixture for about 1 minute and remove with a spider/strainer and place onto a baking sheet lined with waxed paper.
In a small bowl, stir walnuts and cinnamon together and sprinkle mixture over honeyed cookies, while still wet. Allow cookies to set before storing in an airtight container.
Note: Baked and cooled cookies may be prepared several weeks ahead of time and stored in airtight containers. Finish with the topping process right before serving.
Per cookie: 132 calories (46 percent from fat), 7 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 3 milligrams cholesterol, 17 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 22 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.