Friday, July 12, 2013

Helen Tsanos Sheinman

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

Love, Laughter and Lunch: The Evocative Memories of a Cypriot Family’s Journey
(Pointed Leaf Press) is Helen Tsanos Sheinman’s lovely debut “cooking-memoir” and it took me straight back to memories of island-hopping in Greece as a teenager. Then it swiftly took me straight on into Greek island house envy—and we don’t suffer from house envy in this column very often.

Click to order Love, Laughter and Lunch.
Helen, who was born in London of Greek-Cypriot parents, now lives in New York with her two daughters and interior designer husband, Andrew Sheinman. They spend summers on Serifos, still one of the simpler, quieter Greek islands “where you’re guaranteed to see Kyrie Petros in the supermarket,” and where I remember local villagers offering very clean little rooms to rent in their own houses …

So when I was reading your book and looking in particular at the photos of your daughter’s 21st birthday party on Serifos, I thought, “It’s like a real-life version of Mamma Mia!” and then my very next thought was, “I bet she hates Mamma Mia!

[Cries out] I hate Mamma Mia!! [starts laughing] Actually Mamma Mia! does have an element of what goes on in Greek island life in the summer. The one I don’t like is My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Why not? Was it too much of a caricature?

Perhaps. It was actually making a caricature for the first time, in my eyes. I guess that’s hard to take. It was funny though!

How Greek do you feel?

So Greek. Certainly when I’m in Greece—and also in London—but that’s a different kind of Greek.
Looking past an alabaster fixture in the foyer through to the living room. An oversized mirror in the foyer was so large it had to be lifted through the apartment windows.
A poem by Helen's brother, Lysandros Pitharas hangs above a pair of stools designed by Helen's husband Andrew Sheinman of Pembrooke and Ives.
I don’t think people realize what an extensive Greek diaspora there is all around the world. I grew up in Zimbabwe where there was (and still is) a Hellenic school, a Hellenic sports club and there were quite a few Greek restaurants.

Yes. I think the largest [diaspora] in is in Australia, in Melbourne. I was lucky enough to go there and it was so lovely to see how Greek cuisine and Greek-ness has been elevated. Here it’s different—you think of diners.

I can’t tell you how your book brought back such happy memories of my first real trip without my parents, which was island-hopping in Greece with a friend. Serifos was the very first island we went to—this was before anything had become glamorous—and all the local villagers came to meet the ferry in order to offer you a room in their house. How much has changed?


Well I’m going to say something right off the bat because it’s changed but surprisingly enough nobody now meets the ferry. It’s become a very quiet island. I think other islands have moved on and catered more to the tourists. One thing about Serifos is that it distinguishes itself from the surrounding islands in the Cyclades because its main town is not enclosed like the other main towns—they were mainly built to protect the people from the seas and pirates. But with this particular town, you can see out and you can see the port and at night it’s like a fairy tale because there are all these lovely lights just trickling down.
One of a pair of constructivist metal side chairs flank a Scandinavian Mid-century console from Strawser & Smith. 'The Queen' is by artist Chris Levine.
An ornate mirror hanging above the fireplace mantel was original to the apartment.
In the living room a work by artist Cy Twombly hangs above a custom sofa by Pembroke and Ives.
A pair of Mid-century wood frame side chairs are from R.E. Steele antiques in East Hampton.
We went on to Paros and the main thing I remember was camping on Golden Beach, which was then a nudist beach, and each day this very old man on a donkey laden with grapes would wind his way down the mountainside and then he’d spend about an hour surrounded by naked Germans while he sold all his grapes. Then he and his donkey would wind their way back up the mountain.

[Laughs] Those are the kind of impressions I grew up with as a child and I wanted my girls to have those kinds of impressions. First of all, to back up, Andrew [Helen’s husband] and I met on Golden Beach in Paros … all those years ago.

Oh really? Were you wearing clothes?


I was wearing clothes—you don’t have to be nude on a nudist beach. We were sleeping on the beach and had been there for about four weeks. I just remember getting up and brushing your teeth in the sea—I thought that was about the coolest thing.

I know there are trendy hotels now at Golden Beach but at that time there was only one tiny restaurant where you could pay to shower in cold fresh water in an open stall behind the building. When you turned the water on, all the chickens came running to join you in the spray. I sometimes wonder if we’re losing those sorts of experiences in our bid to make everything glam.

[Laughs] I think those are the things I yearn for and look for in life. I’m not scared of being part of real life like that. It’s also a part of being young and taking in the moment but it’s also being able to recognize those graphic and beautiful, colorful things.
Helen, a board member of CAG (Concert Artists Guild) occasionally invites artists to give small concerts on this1903 grand piano by Steinway.
Peeking into the dining area which divides the den beyond with Doric columns.
Looking down into the courtyard of Helen's historic Upper West Side building, The Apthorp.
To what extent were you back and forth between London and Cyprus?

My family is Greek-Cypriot and they moved to London in the fifties, so both my two brothers and I were born in London but we had a very strong upbringing of Greek-Cypriot heritage and we summered every summer in Cyprus. So in coming to America, I wanted to somehow repeat that in my family.

How did you end up in America?

Andrew, who is British, was transferred here … he was dying to leave England. And I followed him basically. It took me much longer than Andrew to accommodate to America.

What did you find difficult?

All those fears … you know, that you get cut off from the world, the plasticity … then the fear of being here alone without the support of family. Up until my daughters were about eight or nine, I was fighting to go back, for them to have an education in England and then after that, I gave in to it.
Family silver is stored in industrial kitchen shelving.
Looking across the kitchen. Metal café chairs surround a pedestal top table in corner of the kitchen.
A computer makes it easier to access recipes in Helen's prewar kitchen.
'The goods" include several French Press coffee makers.
A group of pates from Cyprus hangs next to a New Mexico landscape by photograph Nicholas Trofimuk.
Lithographs by Picasso hang on a wall above the kitchen table.
So how did your interest in cooking develop? Did you cook when you were young?

Always! Food, dance, song! Always in my house, always—absolutely with my hand on my heart and definitely the beauty of my mother is always that. We were very comfortable around food, very comfortable about talking to people around the table … it was just part of what we did.

So what do you think of Americans’ relationship to food? Often, there seems to be an anxiety about eating.

[Sighs] I mean, why? Why do this to ourselves? I just know and you know when you need to sort of walk a bit extra that day or take a little bit less.
In the TV room a photograph by Tina Barney, "The Europeans," hangs above a sofa covered with a colorful throw.
A pair of leather French Art Deco chairs stand near a marble top library table.
A clay sculpture of a nude was made by Helen .
A side table in the TV room holds the family phone, books and the game of Boggle.
Looking across the TV room towards the dining space. The photograph of John Lennon is by Bob Gruen.
Luminous colored photographs are by Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor.
Peeking into the dining room.
Looking across a dining table by Corbusier into the living room.
There has just been this huge, comprehensive study on the benefits of a Mediterranean diet (as it used to be, not necessarily what they eat nowadays)—they had two groups, one group that was eating the Mediterranean foods and one that was eating whatever they normally ate. And after five years they had to stop the study for ethical reasons because the group eating the Mediterranean diet was observably so much healthier.

You know what I think it is? And I know it might sound stupid, but it’s the olive oil. It’s the olive oil! It’s so bloody simple! I know that instinctively.

And cooking … not eating processed food. But it didn’t make them lose weight particularly—their hearts and other organs were much healthier.

It goes without saying!

What are your most favorite things about Serifos?

Ohhh my God! So much! First of all the simple routine of things there. You’re guaranteed you’re going to see Kyrie Petros (Mr. Petros) in the supermarket and those little routines. Obviously I’m on holiday there but it is lovely to switch things around a little bit.
Helen and Andrew's bedroom. Childhood photos of Helen and Andrew's now grown daughters, Alexia and Isabel.
Photographs of Alexia and Isabel hang above a headboard designed by Andrew. The Toio floor lamps flanking the bed are from Flos Lighting. More family photos and Andrew's silver box collection fill a corner of their bedroom.
But the reality of current-day Greece and Cyprus … it’s very tough times for everyone isn’t it?

They’ve decided to use Cyprus as the puppet, the example or the experiment—you know, if we can take money from people’s savings, then we can overcome our debts. They wouldn’t do it in Spain. And Russia has treated Cyprus as a tax-free zone.

But shouldn’t people have paid more taxes?

Look, I mean definitely. But it’s so hard to change a culture. What gets me really angry is that you don’t just point at someone and say, “You don’t pay taxes!” when you don’t look at yourself and see what you’re doing. There’s corruption everywhere. There’s no sense of all us working in this together. People there, educated and non-educated, are petrified because there’s no work and there’s no money.
Helen and Andrew's now grown daughter's bedroom now serves as Helen's office and a 'catch-all' for laundry, storage and the likes.
Helen had just returned from a two-week trip, which explains the freshly laundered clothes on the bed.
Books and more books fill a plastic cube system from Design Within Reach.
How did your book come about? It’s a beautiful book. Everyone must salivate over the recipes and the pictures of your houses on Serifos.

Thank you! I always felt I had this book inside of me and I worked with so many amazing people. In the end what was really gorgeous was that we would prepare for a shoot, so for Easter I would make the lamb and everything else and then the idea was that we would all eat at the end. It made the workday so much better! The book almost became a third child.

So what’s your comfort food—what would your last meal be?

A Greek salad with amazing tomatoes, a beautiful piece of fish, and then watermelon and a perfect cup of Greek coffee—that’s my ideal meal!