Got a “Hungry Heart…? Think Symeon’s!

by Karen Field

About the author:  Karen Field is a retired cultural anthropologist who was born in New York City.  She taught for over thirty years at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, where she collaborated on a course on Food and Culture with novelist Thomas Fox Averill, author of Secrets of the Tsil Cafe: A Novel with Recipes (University of New Mexico Press, 2001).  She has done research in India, Sweden, France, Spain, California, and the Utica-Rome area and, with Richard L. Anderson, co-edited Art in Small-Scale Societies: A Reader (Prentice-Hall, 1993).  

She now resides in Holland Patent and savors the rich international cuisines of the Mohawk Valley.   

It sounds too good to be true!

It cuts your risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, obesity and a range of other ailments, including breast cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s (Bloomfield et. al. 2015). It’s endorsed by no less an authority than the Mayo Clinic (Mayo Clinic Staff 1998-2019).  And it even lets you enjoy a glass or two of wine with dinner (Pullen 2017)!  It’s the “Mediterranean diet,” and residents of the Mohawk Valley wanting to try it need look no further than Yorkville, home of Symeon’s Greek Restaurant.

I first learned of the place back in 1973, when my uncle John Speckhard, who taught science in local public schools, would come home to Holland Patent raving about this “great food” he’d discovered, thanks to a friendly gentleman who was handing out free samples on a street corner near the Parkway in Utica.  That friendly gentleman was Symeon Tsoupelis, who, with his wife Ann, had just opened a tiny restaurant on Oneida Street.  My uncle soon adopted that spot, called Symeon’s, as his “go-to” eatery, claiming they served “the best hot dogs I’ve ever eaten.”  By the time the business relocated to its current site on Commercial Drive in 1982, our whole family and many of our friends had added it to their own “go-to” lists.  Today the menu is so extensive that, even when we go with a large group, each of us can pick a different favorite dish… most recently, moussaka (a beef and eggplant casserole with bechamel sauce) for me, marinated Thracian chicken for my husband, and the souvlaki plate for our son, himself now a teacher… preceded, of course, by succulent dolmades (stuffed grape leaves). And for most of us, Symeon’s provided our first brush with Greek cuisine… well before the phrase “Mediterranean diet” had entered common parlance.

As used in healthcare circles today, the phrase refers to “a healthy eating plan based on typical foods and recipes… characterizing the traditional cooking style of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea,” such as Italy, Lebanon, and Greece (Mayo Clinic Staff 1998-2019).  It emphasizes the intake of vegetables, fruits, and nuts, downplays red meat in favor of chicken and/or twice-weekly servings of fish (Symeon’s daily menu offers salmon, tilapia, and two styles of haddock), uses olive or canola oil rather than butter or margerine in order to avoid “bad” (LDL) cholesterol,  and encourages the consumption of low-fat dairy products like yogurt (Symeon’s tzatziki dip, for example) rather than their higher-cholesterol cousins.  Moderate consumption of alcohol, particularly red wine, is allowed, and by some practitioners, even encouraged (to this end, Symeon’s has an extensive wine list, including offerings from Greece, Italy, California, New York and Australia for as little as $4.95 a glass).

The year 2001 marked major changes for the Tsoupelis family.  Sadly, Ann passed away, and Symeon sold the business to their son, Symeon, Jr.  He continues to run it today, together with his wife Shelli and their two children, Sophia, 20, and Symeon III,15, who pitch in during summer vacations. 

On one rainy morning in June, Symeon, Jr., a tall, trim man with lively eyes, assured me that they embrace the association of their place with the health benefits of the now widely popular Mediterranean diet. “I talk with about 15 groups of school kids every year,” he said.  “They come here for lunch when they’re studying ancient Greece, and I cover a lot of topics… entrepreneurship, travel to Greece.  While I talk about nutrition, I’ll always mention the Mediterranean diet.  I’ve been invited by some adult groups to talk about it, too, like a local retirees’ club and some folks at S.U.N.Y.”

“Aren’t you afraid some people might see your food as ‘too” healthy, rather than ‘fun’?” I wondered.

He laughed.  “Not at all.  There’s only two kinds of food… good food and bad food.  And ours is good!” He went on to note that about ten years ago, some patrons expressed a need for a gluten-free options in order to help them deal with their celiac disease, a digestive disorder caused by an unusual reaction to the protein gluten, found in all foods that contain rye, barley, and wheat, which can only be controlled by a strict gluten-free diet (Charmaine 2018). “We met with a woman who was the head of a local organization of celiac sufferers, and we went over every item on our menu, ingredient by ingredient.  She told us which ones her members could have, and which they couldn’t.  Now we have a whole gluten-free menu.  Here, take a look.”  He handed me a long, tastefully printed list.  “These aren’t special recipes.  All these items are on our regular menu. I’ve had people tell me that they’ve suffered all their lives with stomach pain, bloating, a whole host of symptoms, and after maybe two weeks on a gluten-free diet, they’re feeling much better.  So all of our servers are thoroughly trained to help our diners maintain the diets they need to follow, just like they’re trained to help pair our foods with our wines.”

“Are you seeing more interest in vegetarian options these days?” I asked, since my daughter, a vegetarian, is due for a visit soon.  “Not really,” he replied, “the demand for those has stayed pretty stable.  But vegetarians can find plenty of choices here.”  I counted at least four items on the main menu that could easily serve as vegetarian entrees: fourno (an eggplant casserole), fasolakia (green beans in tomato sauce), arakas (peas in tomato sauce), and kabobs of marinated vegetables– bell peppers, yellow squash, zucchini and Spanish onions– charbroiled and served over white rice. To round them out as meals, all are available with sides of rice pilaf and yogurt as well as hearty Greek salads containing feta, a low-fat, low-calorie, calcium-rich cheese made from goats’ milk. 

I mentioned to Symeon that my family has greatly enjoyed his signature spice blend, prominently displayed for sale in the restaurant’s lobby.  I wondered if it had been designed with health concerns in mind, since the Mediterranean diet typically discourages the high salt intake that is often associated with blood pressure problems.  Symeon gave a vigorous nod.  “My own mother used to automatically reach for the salt shaker before even tasting her food.  So many Americans do.  Our blend contains some salt, but it’s well mixed with pepper, garlic, paprika and oregano. And once they’ve tried it, many people seem to like it much better than plain salt.  They must, because we sell a lot of it!  We even export it to 15, 16 countries!”

 While I had his attention, I couldn’t resist asking, “do you see any new health trends developing in the food business these days?” 

   He thought for a moment.

   “Maybe a little more attention to portion control.  That’s part of the Mediterranean diet.  It’s not like that movie ‘Supersize Me!’  You order pasta in Italy, you get a dish this size– ”  he made a circle with his hands– “not this size,” pulling his hands wide apart.  “But otherwise, nothing really new.  The Mediterranean diet has been popular here in the U.S.for quite awhile now. ‘Gluten-free’ became a boom a few years back. Now the main change I see in food is the decline in dining out.  In the past two, three years, it’s been all about takeout… Grubhub, Uber Eats, that sort of thing.  People are just so busy.  Their kids are in all kinds of activities, they’ve got so many places to go, so they just want to pick their meal up on the way home.”

   I digested that news with a bit of sadness as I looked around at the restaurant’s simple, warm decor with its touches of Greek art and Tsoupelis family portraits.  Surely, I thought, future diners would be missing a treat if they relied only on takeout cartons!  But I noted that the place is indeed doing a thriving takeout trade, and even offers delivery service on orders of more than ten entrees for office parties, family gatherings and the like.

   “So,” I asked, “where do see Symeon’s ten years from now?  Will there be many changes?”

   He paused, reflecting.  “No,” he  said.  “I think consistency is our strength.  Not only in our food, but in our people.  Many of our staff have been here so long, we’re like a family.  For example, our three prep cooks have 84 years of service between them.  We have customers who keep on coming back, and they’re like family, too.  You don’t find that so often in this business.”

   “And you?” I persisted.  “Where do you see yourself in ten years?”

    He gestured around us.  “I hope I’ll be right here.  I’d like it if my kids wanted to run the place one day, but I want them to do whatever they want to do– as long as they can earn a living with it!  That’s the one thing I insist on!”  Then he grinned.  “And I’d like to have a little more time to do the things I love outside of work.”

   “And those would be…?”

   His eyes sparkled.  “Skiing, mountain biking.. anything outdoors!”

   I smiled.  I had a feeling that, fortified by all that heart-healthy Greek food, Symeon (and his customers!) would be happily hitting the slopes for many winters to come.

  Symeon’s is located at 4941 Commercial Drive, Yorkville, New York 13495.  Hours are Sun. noon-9:00 pm, Mon.-Thu. 11:00 am-9:00 pm, and Fri.-Sat. 11:00 am-10-00 pm.  Reservations, takeout, delivery, and inquiries, (315) 736-4074.

   References:

Bloomfield, Hanna, M.D., M.P.H. et. al., November 2015.  “Benefits and harms of the Mediterranean diet compared to other diets.” Washington, D.C.: Department of Veterans Affairs Evidence Synthesis Program.

Charmaine, Facty staff. November 29, 2018.  “10 Symptoms of Celiac Disease.”  https://facty.com.

Mayo Clinic staff.  1998-2019.  “Mediterranean diet: a heart-healthy eating plan.” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.  www.mayoclinic.org.

Pullen, Caroline, M.S., R D.  July 24, 2017.  “13 Greek foods that are super healthy.” www.healthline.com

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