Homemade gyros by Barbara Simmons.

First job leads to lifetime love of food

Growing up in Jefferson Township had its challenges. Four miles wide and about 10 miles long with no sidewalks and no public transportation made it tough for an average teenager to get around. You were always bugging your parents or a sympathetic older sibling for a ride. What we all did at the earliest possible moment was get a job to earn enough money to buy our own cars. A car meant freedom and was an absolute necessity in our semi-rural hometown.

I did have a bicycle, though, and I was able to commute to my first job on it. At age 15, I got my working papers and applied for a job at Zorba’s Charbroil on Espanong Road. Vinnie and Son’s Pizzeria is there now, but Zorba’s Charbroil occupied that location for years. Zorba’s was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The owner, Fotis Papagalos, and his family always sat in a booth in the back corner of the restaurant. They spoke to each other in Greek. The scratchy radio was always tuned to a New York station that played Greek music. I learned a few words – ti kagnis, kala, opa…

Although there were no Greek specialties on the menu, Fotis would prepare dinners for his family in the restaurant. Fragrances like garlic, oregano, dill, and lemon would waft over the counter, and I

Gyros made by Barbara Simmons.
Gyros made by Barbara Simmons.

would yearn to try those delicious smelling foods. The smells were different than anything coming from my mother’s kitchen. She was an exceptional cook, and she would have been more adventurous in her recipes, but she cooked to please my father. Meat and potatoes and mostly German recipes are what appeared on our table night after night. My father was even skeptical of anything Italian. Red sauce? God forbid. “Vat iss dis schtuff?” he would ask suspiciously. So I would smell the delicious aromas from the foods being prepared at Zorba’s but, sadly, I was always too shy to ask for a taste.

Zorba’s wasn’t often terribly busy, so my savings for that car I was dreaming about grew slowly. During summer weekends, though, Fotis kept the place open until 4am to catch the bar crowd on the way home from Lake Hopatcong’s many watering holes. Customers from the Jefferson House, the Spot, Lenny’s Pagoda, Chabon’s, the Betty Jane, the Paterson House, and the Windlass would come in to straighten themselves out after a night of merriment for breakfast and lots of coffee before going home. On Saturday nights, I would double my earnings in tips.

My shift started at 8pm. I would ride my bike up Castle Rock Road, up the big hill on East Shore Road, around the corner onto Espanong Road by the Star of the Sea Catholic Church and park it in back of the restaurant next to Fotis’ Lincoln Continental. We’d start getting busy after midnight, and I’d serve eggs and coffee until 4am when we would close up. Fotis would turn off the charbroiler. I’d fill the salt, pepper, sugar, and ketchups, refill the napkin dispensers and clean down the counters. At about 4:30, I’d get on my trusty bicycle for my short mile and a half commute home. No worries—I had a headlight.

Greasy, sweaty and pretty wired from working all night, I was never able to go to bed right away. Taking a shower would have made too much noise, so after parking my bike on the side of the garage, I would quietly go inside, grab my bathing suit and a towel and run down to the lake with my flashlight for a quick swim before going upstairs to bed.

My curiosity about the cuisines of the world may have started in Zorba’s kitchen. In college I explored my “foodie” horizons and tasted ethnic foods whenever and wherever I could. In the mid-seventies, diners (almost always owned by Greeks) started serving more authentic dishes, finally showing off their delicious cuisine to an ever more receptive audience. Gyros, spanakopita, moussaka, pastitsio and souvlaki became common menu items. Feta and phyllo dough were sold in almost every supermarket. It was thrilling—I could make Greek food at home.

Gyros are one of my favorite Greek dishes. They are fun to serve and eat and make great party food. Seasoned pre-packaged gyro meat, either beef or a combination of beef and lamb, is available at many supermarkets and butcher shops and can be used instead of the marinated chicken featured in this recipe. Don’t forget the pita bread which I brush with olive oil and warm on the grill.

Marinade:

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ teaspoon grated lemon rind

1 clove fresh minced garlic

½ teaspoon oregano

dash of salt and pepper

2 teaspoons cumin

Slice the chicken breasts in half lengthwise and pound with a meat tenderizer. Marinate the chicken for one to four hours in the refrigerator.

Tzatziki sauce:

1-6 ounce container whole-milk plain Greek yogurt

½ clove (or more, to taste) garlic, minced

½ cup grated cucumber

2 tablespoons fresh(or 1 tablespoon dried) dill, minced

Juice from ½ a lemon

1 tablespoon olive oil

dash of salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and refrigerate until using.

Toppings:

1 cup sliced cucumbers

1 cup sliced tomatoes

½ cup sliced onion

½ pound feta cheese, crumbled

1 cup chopped lettuce

 

Place each topping in a separate bowl.

Grill the chicken breasts, and then slice diagonally into thin slices.

Brush the pita breads with a little olive oil and throw on the grill until crispy on both sides.

Assemble the gyro on a warm pita with the chicken and your choice of toppings with a big dollop of the tzatziki sauce on top. Mmmmm. Enjoy. Kalí óreksi!

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