- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 10, 2004

As the world’s greatest sporting event arrives once more, it is intriguing to learn not just how and where the Olympic Games began, but also the role food played in them. Jocks and nonjocks alike will undoubtedly enjoy learning what early athletes actually won and the culinary significance and real meaning of taking home a trophy.

Although I am a Greek scholar, while researching my latest book, “The Olive and the Caper” (Workman), I discovered all sorts of new and interesting food-related details of the early Olympics. As most of us know, they began in ancient Greece. But do we know that the first race was won not by a professional athlete, but by a cook named Koroibos, who sprinted the length of a stadion, or 600 feet?

The year was 776 B.C., and Koroibos lived in a town neighboring the sacred sanctuary of Olympia on Greece’s Peloponnesus peninsula. Although this was the first official Olympics, it’s likely that similar games took place even before, perhaps as early as 1,000 B.C. Olympia had long been a sacred site dedicated to the great Greek god Zeus and his wife, Hera.

In their honor, a festival already took place every four years. After Koroibos’ win, the sporting events became the central focus of the festival, and soon Olympia’s contests were the major sporting event of ancient Greece.

Like today, the Games took place every fourth year in the month we call August. The tradition lasted for more than 1,000 years, until A.D. 393, when Christianity replaced the ancient religion.

Two mythological tales explain why Olympia was chosen as the site. In one, Hercules founded the Games there to commemorate the most odious of his 12 labors: the cleaning of the foul Augean stables. (The task was so difficult that he needed one of Olympia’s two rivers as a rinsing hose.)

In the second, the hero Pelops, for whom Peloponnesus is named, was told he could win the hand of the Olympian girl he loved only if he defeated her father in a chariot race, a triumph he managed by unscrewing the linchpin of his opponent’s wagon. A sculpture depicting both stories stood in front of the edifice that dominated ancient Olympia, the great Temple of Zeus. Today, we can see it at the museum in Olympia.

The first temple at Olympia honored both Zeus and Hera, but as Zeus gained ascendance, an enormous, separate temple was erected to him, and the old one was left to Hera. Within Zeus’ great temple sat a magnificent gold and ivory statue by the famed sculptor Phidias.

In the statue, Zeus was shown on an elaborate throne holding Nike, the goddess of victory, in one hand and a scepter in the other. It had long been rumored that Phidias’ workshop was in Olympia, and archaeology confirms this story. Unearthed in one spot were piles of statue fragments. Among them was a rustic drinking cup inscribed with “I am Phidias.”

Archeologists have found heaped next to the temple evidence of a high pile of bones and ashes left from animals — usually oxen — sacrificed to the gods. The part offered to Zeus was the thigh or shank, with the remainder consumed as part of a feast for the supplicants. We can still see ruins beyond the temple, indicating a row of 12 treasuries, which housed the gold, silver and other offerings to Zeus given by various Greek states in gratitude for their Olympic victories.

We also know that two other temples, one to Pelops and one to the great mother god Gaia, sat nearby and that next to them was a round structure built by Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, to commemorate his victory over all the Greeks. It held golden statues of him and his famous son.

Central to the town was a sacred precinct called the “altis,” or sacred grove of Zeus. In the northwest corner of the altis was a building that contained a perpetual fire and a banquet room in which the athletes dined. Across from it stretched a row of bronze statues of Zeus, erected with money from fines imposed on athletes who violated the rules of the Games. Nearby stood a double building, the bouleuterion, where the athletes took an oath not to play foul.

Then came the stadium. In the early days, the track ran right by the great altar of Zeus. Later, so many athletes came that the stadium had to be enlarged and moved.

Although the Olympics started with just footraces, more and more sports were added over time. Soon, the Games hosted discus, javelin and shot-put throwers, as well as jumpers, boxers, wrestlers, horse racers and charioteers. In one event, called the “pankraton,” meaning all strengths, athletes performed a set of tasks similar to today’s decathlon. Horses and chariots were raced in a hippodrome beyond the stadium. Contestants vied naked or dressed in full armor.

From the altis to the stadium, athletes and umpires passed through the krypte, a covered entrance. Inside lay a track marked by a stone starting line wide enough for 20 runners. By it ran a stream with lions’ heads spouting water into basins from which contestants could drink.

Surrounding the track were embankments where the spectators perched. The stadium held no seats except for one box for the judges, about a third of the way up from the starting line.

Although it was not always followed, during the events, a truce was declared throughout the Panhellenic world so that athletes could come from Asia Minor, North Africa, Sicily, Spain and France. Only Greek-speaking men were permitted to compete, but parallel games for women took place near the temple to Hera. Near the stadium was an Olympic village composed of many tents housing the competing athletes. Like today, during the Games, the town was jammed with fans. The stadium could hold 40,000 people.

Food vendors and entertainers were everywhere. When an athlete won a contest, he and the city he represented dedicated an offering. Olympia today remains overflowing with urns, bronze and terra cotta statues, arms and armaments, and the largest collection of ancient Greek weapons in the world.

Prizes for victories in the Olympic Games were somewhat different from today. To take the gold was as important then as now, except that the gold then was not a medal but real money that could be spent. One prize was 500 drachmas, a true fortune in those days. More important was to take a trophy. And then, as now, what “trophy” meant in Greek was “food.”

Triumphant athletes received oil; figs; and, more important, meal stipends. Victors from Athens, for example, were provided with food for the rest of their lives. Those who won horse or chariot races won hippotrophy, which literally means “horse feed.” This was no joke since the cost of animal food for a professional horse or chariot racer could be prohibitively high.

Contestants also had to eat. In fact, they carbed up during the Games, as athletes do today. Most of their foods were grains. But one can imagine them eating pyramis (literally, pyramid-shaped food, from which the shape of the architectural pyramid is taken) of wheat berry, barley groat pudding and noodles.

They also drank, although breakfast was the only time Greeks drank wine straight. For other meals, they added water to their wine. Clearly, they loved to celebrate, because the grounds of Olympia were littered with ancient wine cups.

As we might expect, they ate garlic, onions and, particularly, leeks with their grains. Leeks were one of the most common foods of ancient times. They were so common that the present Greek word for green, “prassino,” is derived from the word for leeks, “prassa.” Leeks are still a popular vegetable, and I offer them up in a Byzantine recipe for phyllo-crusted leek, potato and olive pie.

Ox was eventually replaced as the main meat of Greece by lamb and goat, but a dish of lamb shank seasoned with the ancient spices coriander and cinnamon still follows the sacrificial tradition. Fish from the seas surrounding Greece over which so many of the athletes had to travel was as highly prized in ancient times as now.

Greeks could identify not just from which sea the best of fish came, but also from which inlet. It seems appropriate, then, to honor the Olympic athletes with a fish dish sauced in the sort of wine the ancient Greeks drank, a sweet and tart wine such as mavrodaphne, visanto or the muscat of Samos.

The sesame cake with sesame frosting recipe that follows is steeped in the origin of the marathon. Although the marathon was not an event in the original Olympics, there had long been a cult to the god Pan. A rascally folk god, not a mighty Olympian, Pan liked folksy offerings, especially sesame and honey cakes.

After it was learned that the originator of the marathon, the messenger who ran from the plain of Marathon to Athens to announce the arrival of the dreaded Persian army, was a follower of Pan, the cult grew enormously. People attributed the runner’s endurance to the wily goat-legged god, and the sesame cakes of Pan sprang up everywhere. The following recipes are from my book “The Olive and the Caper.”

Leek, potato and olive pie

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 medium leeks, white and light green parts, finely chopped

1 large egg

1 tablespoons milk, plus more to tuck down crust

2 medium potatoes, peeled and coarsely grated

3 tablespoons chopped Kalamata or other good black or green olives

1/3 cup grated kefalotyri or Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

3/4 teaspoon salt

Dash of cayenne pepper

12 to 15 sheets commercial phyllo dough

Additional olive oil or melted butter for the phyllo

Lightly oil the bottom of a 9-by-13-by-2-inch rectangular, or equivalent round, baking dish. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a nonreactive skillet. Add leeks and saute over medium heat until well-wilted but still bright green, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

While leeks cool, lightly beat egg with 1 tablespoon milk. Place potatoes, olives, cheese, dill, salt and cayenne in a mixing bowl. Add the leeks and egg mixture, and stir together. If necessary, trim the phyllo sheets a little larger than the pan. One at a time, drizzle each sheet with olive oil or melted butter, and layer half of the sheets in the bottom of the baking pan. Top with the filling, spreading it evenly.

Layer remaining sheets of phyllo on top with oil or butter, tuck in around the edges, and score partially through sheets to mark out the pieces. Oil or butter top of pie. Then, lightly dipping your fingertips in milk, run a drizzle of milk over each scored mark to prevent the phyllo from flaking.

Place oven dish in preheated 375-degree oven, and bake until the top and edges are golden and crisp, about 1 hours. Serve immediately or at room temperature. Makes one 9-by-13-by-2-inch or equivalent round pie. Makes 12 servings as an appetizer or 6 to 8 as a main dish.

Roasted lamb shanks with garlic, thyme, cinnamon and coriander

6 small lamb shanks (about 11/4 pounds each), cut in half

12 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

6 large branches of fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves

1 3-inch piece cinnamon stick or tiny pinch ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon salt

teaspoon black pepper

cup white wine

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

1 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Place lamb, garlic, thyme, cinnamon, coriander, salt, pepper and wine in a lidded roasting pan or clay pot large enough to hold the meat in a tightly packed layer. Turn the ingredients to mix, and coat the lamb. Cover the pan and roast in preheated 375-degree oven for 1 hour.

Turn shanks over; continue roasting, uncovered, until the meat is falling off the bones, 45 minutes to 1 hour more. Mix together the parsley, chives and dill. Transfer shanks to a platter. Moisten with some of the cooking juices, sprinkle with the herb mixture, and serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Baked white fish fillets with blood orange, sweet wine and bay leaf

2 to 2 pounds white fish fillets, such as halibut, swordfish, shark or cod, cut in 3- to 4-inch pieces

Fresh lemon juice


3 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium leeks, trimmed, white and light green parts cut into 2-inch-long shreds

12 kumquats, sliced in thin rounds

1/3 cup Seville or blood orange juice

cup mavrodaphne or other red muscat wine (see note)

1 large or 2 small bay leaves, crumbled

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Freshly ground black pepper

Place fish fillets on a plate large enough to hold them in one layer, and sprinkle them liberally on both sides with lemon juice and salt. Cover and set aside in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours.

When you are ready to cook, transfer fish to a large nonreactive baking dish and set aside. Heat olive oil in a medium nonreactive skillet over medium heat. Add leeks and kumquats, and stir until slightly wilted, about 1 minute.

Stir in orange juice, wine and bay leaf, and bring it all to a boil. Cook over medium heat until leeks and kumquats are well-wilted, about 2 minutes. Pour sauce over fish, spreading the leeks and kumquats out evenly.

Place dish in preheated 450-degree oven, and bake it until liquid is bubbling and fish flakes easily when pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle chives and freshly ground black pepper over the top; serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Note: To purchase or find out more about ancient-style or other Greek wines, visit www.allaboutgreekwine.com.

Sesame cake with sesame icing


1/3 cup unbleached flour

1 cups fine bread crumbs

cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg, preferably freshly graded

Pinch of salt

cup tahini (sesame paste)

1 cup fresh orange juice

2 tablespoons finely chopped orange zest

1/4 teaspoon orange flower water, triple sec or curacao

1 tablespoon sesame seeds


1/4 cup tahini

cup confectioners’ sugar

teaspoon vanilla

Lightly oil a 10-inch springform pan. Sift flour into a large bowl. Add bread crumbs, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and salt, and stir with a fork to mix.

Combine tahini; orange juice; orange zest; cup water; and orange flower water, triple sec or curacao in the bowl of a food processor or electric mixer, and process until blended.

Add mixture to dry ingredients and blend well.

Pour batter into prepared pan, and bake it in preheated 350-degree oven until edges pull away from sides of the pan and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Remove cake from oven, and set it aside in the pan to cool a few minutes. While the cake is cooling, make the icing. Place tahini, confectioners’ sugar, vanilla and 1 tablespoons boiling water in a bowl, and beat until smooth.

Toast sesame seeds in a small ungreased skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they begin to turn gold, about 3 minutes. Transfer cake to a serving platter, top side up. Drizzle icing over the top and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve immediately or set aside for up to several hours. The cake will keep for up to 3 days at room temperature.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

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