What's in Stella's fridge? 

On the shelves with the woman behind the writers' fest

click to enlarge Stella in the kitchen.
  • Stella in the kitchen.

You might have run into Stella Leventoyannis Harvey jammed in amongst the 1,000-plus crowd — talking to Feet Banks or Will Ferguson, ensuring Jian Ghomeshi had what he needed? — at this year's Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, which she founded back in 2001.

You might have crossed paths with her at one of the many writers' events she's organized through The Vicious Circle, a.k.a. Whistler Writers Group, which she also started years ago and has spawned, among other things, three writers groups in Whistler, one in Pemberton and another in Squamish. Or you might just know her as a good friend and neighbour in Whistler, running into her and husband, Dave, at the farmers' market they love to go to, or maybe cross-country skiing — "I love it!" — or on the slopes, where she doesn't really like to ski — "I'm afraid!"

But you probably haven't peered into Stella's fridge, this woman of many chapters who's done stints as a social worker for prisoners, mentors MBA students at the University of Calgary and, truth be known, started all these wonderful writerly initiatives that Whistler, and the world beyond, have come to love because, A., she felt lonely and at loose ends when she first arrived, and, B., she's always wanted to write.

Stella, whose maiden name, Leventoyannis, roughly means "a sort-of larger-brave John" ("Levant" translates from Greek as "larger, brave"; "Yannis" means "John"), admits she loves Greek food, which comes naturally from her dad's lineage. His parents fled from Greece, like so many others after the first Great War, and started a dairy business in Egypt, making yogurt.

Food is memory. The smells, the tastes, the textures; the long leisurely meals with extended family and friends that would start at two in the afternoon and drift into the night with conversation — all of this meant so much to her growing up, first in Cairo and, later, in Calgary, when her Lebanese-French mother whipped up fabulous Lebanese, Arabic and Greek dishes.

"To me, I grew up with that — it's the only connection to my culture, to where I came from," she says. "My mother was an exceptional cook when she was alive, so I distinctly remember waking up on Sundays to the smell of her cooking, and you know in those days when we emigrated — it was 1962 in Calgary — you could not find ethnic food."

When it opened, the family would go to the Unico factory in Calgary, where workers dug olives and feta cheese out of barrels with their bare hands — no rubber gloves, no nothing, she says with a laugh, and Stella laughs a lot.

"Maybe that's why I hate olives."

Olive-hating or not, Greek food pops up so often in Stella's first novel, Nicolai's Daughters, that it's a character unto itself. Chocolate stains speckle Alexia's linen blouse at lunch; Christina cleans them with spit on a napkin. Oregano, garlic, onion and beef are bubbling in a pan on the stove as Nicky lays on his stomach, colouring. Theodora buys bananas, strawberries, fat green peppers and bright red tomatoes at a market — sniffing everything she selects, and stopping to talk to just about everybody she meets, just like Stella likes to do. (Dave jokes they aren't going to Whistler's market anymore because it takes so darn long to get through it.)

So it's very ironic that Stella doesn't actually cook. In fact, before moving to Whistler in 2000, where Dave has skied since the mid-'60s, she was living and working crazy long hours in Rome as a consultant for high-powered clients like Telecom Italia. Her fridge was so empty, friends would visit her self-described "showcase house" and exclaim, 'what do you eat?'

"Now my fridge is always full because my husband cooks, and it freaks me out a bit," she says, laughing again. "What I really liked about living in Europe, and also because my mom used to do this as well for a long time, is ... you go to the market, you buy whatever you want, you make it up, you eat it, it's gone."

Even though it's a family legend she's not much of a cook, Dave and Stella buy groceries together — they try to go local and organic as much as possible — and plan meals together, as they were for friends coming up from Vancouver right after this interview.

The menu: a Milanese-style stewed veal shank (basically, an osso bucco), with a fennel reduction, and a side dish of yams, or maybe a Greek-inspired dish of simple greens she grew up with called horta. Here, they use greens like spinach or kale, boil them up and serve them with fresh lemon and olive oil. "It's to die for," she says. Dessert is never a big deal: maybe some coconut ice cream with a very Greek sour cherry sauce.

But all this talk of good food reminds us that we've been having way too much fun just talking, so we'd better get to the fridge, which was the whole point.

The Jenn-Air stainless steel fridge sits upstairs in the open kitchen/living/dining area in the large, wood ski-cabin-cum-house in Emerald Estates that Dave built back in the 1980s. It's since been renovated and has plenty of room for Dave's four kids and families, Stella's son from a previous marriage and any other guests.

To start, there is nothing on the top shelf. The next shelf is empty, too. On the third shelf we find some curried chicken, Brussels sprouts and mashed yam left over from last night's dinner; smoked black Alaskan cod; Monkey Bay sauvignon blanc (they keep white wine on hand for guests); juicy red pomegranate seeds in a bowl; and some chopped parsley.

Next shelf down we find sundried tomatoes; five Whistler Brewing beers; Oikos Greek yogurt; pomegranate juice; coconut milk because Stella is lactose-intolerant; and a jar of seeds. (Her stepchildren call her The Bird Lady because she eats all kinds of raw seeds in the morning.)

In the produce drawer are onions and lemons and half a tomato; the other drawer contains organic kale and carrots, celery, and a bag of herbs they grew.

The fridge door, as expected, is covered in condiments — "too many for me, man," says Stella. They include an assortment of seed butters; beer jelly; sour cherry jam imported from Greece that usually tops ice cream or yogurt; flaxseed oil; apple cider vinegar; maple syrup; and applesauce; as well as eggs from Pemberton.

All in all, it's a pleasant fridge to explore, one that reflects her days in Rome with an empty fridge; her life now in Whistler with a husband who loves to cook and her newfound communities; and the convivial meals she enjoyed as a child — all of it keeping her nourished while she cranks the writerly wheels at Whistler, and starts her next novel.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who loves Stella's tip of using a dab of olive oil on a paper towel to get rid of those annoying fingerprints on your stainless steel appliances.

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