Last weekend, I was sitting in the garden chatting with Ba, after a beautiful Sunday lunch with all of the family. I was asking Ba about his first memories growing up in a small village in the Peloponnese in the early 1930s. One recollection Ba had was of walking to the village school, during a snowy winter without any shoes. Ba was not all on his own here, as all of the children from the village went to school without shoes. Every morning before school the teacher would inspect the children as to the cleanliness of their little feet.
In her book "Mermaid Singing" Charmain Clift offered the following similar observation of the island of Kalymnos and its little children, who went without shoes, in the 1950s, "And across the plateia beneath our balcony all of Kalymnos passed each day as if for review: captains and divers, sponge buyers and sponge sellers, deck hands and fishermen, strolling to the coffee houses and tavernas and gambling tables past with idle winter-harboured boats; their busy wives, heavy-skirted, black-coifed like medieval women, swooping across bundles the plateia with water pitchers, market baskets, strings of fish, bundles of faggots or wood shavings from the carpenters' shops, flat boards stacked with newly-baked bread; strangely garbed men from the mountains herding ragged, skinny sheep to the slaughterhouse; barefooted children playing endless complicated games with sticks and stones and little piles of almonds..."
Both Charmain and Ba's recollections really put into perspective how one item of clothing, which we take for granted today, was so incredibly precious in years past - that are not all that far behind us. Indeed, it was not only in Greece, but in 1930s Australia that shoes were a highly prized and very special item. My own Grandmother used to recount a story of how when she was a young girl her father ordered her a beautiful pair of patent leather shoes, all the way from America. She cherished her little shoes, much to the envy of her younger twin sisters.
Given how precious shoes were in the past, it is not surprising that this traditional dish of stuffed eggplants was given the name "little shoes". In her insightful blog, History of Greek Food, Mariana Karovulaki provides a wonderful offering of the history of the shoe in Greek culture, both in words and pictures, from Aphrodite's sandal to the Maiden of Livadeia's low cut shoes. Mariana also shares a great recipe for her "little shoes" which she describes an an "unforgettable pleasure". Another excellent recipe for "little shoes" can be found in the wonderful treasure trove of Peter Minakis recipes, on his blog Kalofagas. At Souvlaki for the Soul, Peter G also provides a fantastic recipe for "little shoes" along with a stunning visual feast for the eyes with his absolutely stunning photography.
My recipe for "little shoes" is direct from my mother's kitchen circa 1970 when these delicious little morsels were served up on mum's classic big heavy brown ironstone plates. (I think mum had also been listening to a lot of Nana Mouskouri and Demis Roussos at the time.)If you prefer a vegetarian version for this dish, you can replace the ground beef with finely diced mushrooms, as Mum often did.
While you can whip up a batch of "little shoes" at anytime of the year, most local market's are currently heaving with a wonderful summer bounty of shiny black eggplants. It is just such an excellent time of year to make "little shoes" - especially if, as we have seen over the last few weeks, you are stuck in doors on a drizzly, overcast and slightly cooler summers day. In the true Greek spirit of not wasting anything, I also like to make a little salad from the tender celery leaves, some red onion, a spitz of fresh lime and a splash of olive oil to serve along side the "little shoes". The salty, crunchy celery and its leaves and tangy lime dressing contrast nicely with the rich, melty eggplants. I hope you enjoy!