For elderly Greeks, cornbread is an inferior staple. When asked, they will tell you about the dense and crumbly breads they consumed during World War II’s German occupation. Fighting the terrible famine of 1941 that claimed many lives in Athens, some families living in the outskirts of the city managed to cultivate some corn, and painstakingly ground the grains in hand coffee grinders to make hard yellow bread.
My father and my uncles—my mother’s brothers—invented and operated an ingenious contraption using an old bicycle. They took turns and laboriously pedaled to rotate the heavy millstones they had somehow managed to get. To this day older Athenians dismiss cornbread with contempt, much like as mother refused to taste my Italian-inspired pumpkin risotto because it brought to mind the weeks and months her whole family ate pumpkins from the garden—usually without even olive oil, let alone cheese.
Bobota (pronounce bo-BO-tah) is the word for cornbread and often for cornmeal. Unsuccessful, badly risen wheat breads and cakes were contemptuously also called bobota. The word is clearly non-Greek; according to the most prestigious Greek dictionary, it comes from Albanian. But if this is true, the word must have been part of the old vernacular of that country. Bobota, the word, didn’t survive in modern Albania. Fortunately, cornbread has triumphed! From my invaluable assistants Ela and Stamatia I learned to makehortopsomo, a wonderful cornbread with greens, scallions, and feta.
My husband likes the dense cornmeal cake his late mother used to bake. Enriched with sultanas and orange juice, that cake—also called bobota in Thessaly, central Greece—is doused with syrup while still hot. Some people add wheat flour to make it fluffy, but I prefer the original pure corn version, a crumbly gluten-free cake. Inspired by Italian cornbreads, I often bake my variation with olive oil, eggs, and cheese, adding chopped smoky sausage from our island.
Stathi, our neighbor and friend who comes from southern Albania, loved that richly flavored cornbread, but shyly told me that this is more like a cake. He was longing for the rustic version his mother baked in her wood-fired oven: a polenta-like mixture of cornmeal and hot water spread thinly on a well-oiled sheet pan. His wife, Ela, baked cornbread following her mother in law’s instructions, but Stathi wasn’t satisfied. It probably lacked the smokiness of the wood-fired oven.
“Whether it was warm or cold and hardened, we would crumble my mother’s cornbread in a bowl, toss it with watery homemade yogurt, and eat it as people now eat packaged cereal,” Stathi said. “It is the breakfast I dream of.”