Saganaki

Joy of the Day 10/365: Cheese on fire

You know how when you go out to a Greek restaurant in America and order saganaki, and the waiter will bring out a little metal plate with a slab of cheese on it, pour alcohol over it, light it on fire, yell "Opa!" and then put it out with the twist of a lemon?

Well, that's not quite a Greek thing.

Saganaki -- which refers to serving hot cheese on a metal dish -- is a classic Greek dish. (Depending on the region of Greece and the preference of the cook, the cheese can be kafalograviera, halloumi, or various other kinds of cheese.) But the business of lighting it on fire in front of the diner is a Chicago invention. Greek food became a trend in the city around 1968, when a local named Chris Liakouras opened a restaurant called the Parthenon. A string of Greek restaurants along Halsted Street followed, which helped make Greek food a widespread culinary trend. Liakouras allegedly invented the Chicago way of preparing saganaki after a customer suggested it -- and from there it spread across much of America. 

I'm from Chicago, but these days I'm not particularly proud of my city. I remember coming home from Asia in the autumn of 2013 and randomly running into people I knew on the street, four days in a row. But those days are gone, I guess. After a rough experience with a renowned Chicagoan about a year ago, I've come to feel unwelcome here. Friends have moved away, I've lost touch with most of the communities I was once part of, and I rarely go out. So much for Chicago pride.

And yet: cheese on fire. It's undeniably a Chicago thing. And it's so useless, so lunkheaded, so colossally stupid, that it always makes me smile.

Opa to that.