Graduating Project | Ilona Baughman’s A Touch of Spice: Eating, Exile and Identity

A scene from the 2003 film A Touch of Spice

This is the first in a series of posts on the diverse range of projects our students undertake as a culmination of their Gastronomy studies. To write about your own graduating project, send an email to

by Ilona Baughman

I came to the Gastronomy department, not surprisingly, with an abiding interest in many aspects of food. In the course of my studies, I found myself most particularly interested in food’s utility as a lens into culture. A class with chef Ana Sortun opened my eyes to the sophisticated culinary legacy of the Ottoman Empire. I soon began to investigate food’s utility as a lens into my culture, me being a daughter of Greek parents, and a granddaughter of Ottoman subjects.

I learned that although Greeks have lived throughout the Eastern Mediterranean for millennia, only a fraction of them actually lived in the place that became Modern Greece in the early nineteenth century. The Ottoman Empire was comprised of a diverse, multi-cultural population. The new republic quickly and successfully promulgated a nationalist agenda that rejected that diversity, along with any memory of its legacy, which resulted in an almost entirely homogeneous Greek population. This collective amnesia of the recent past enabled the newly constructed national narrative to leapfrog over time, and trace a straight line from the present back to a glorious past in antiquity.

The idea of Greek culture as a modern construction, in opposition to the Ottoman past was the subject I wanted to tackle in my thesis, using food and eating practices as a way to illuminate cultural differences and similarities. The problem was how to narrow the scope to a manageable, meaningful project, with sources to which I had access.

The answer came to me after seeing the 2003 film A Touch of Spice. It is the story of a Greek family from Istanbul who, for political reasons, are deported to Athens, a place as alien to them as anywhere on earth. Berated there as foreigners, they are considered positively unpatriotic for continuing to cook and consume “Turkish” food.

The film thus poses the question “what is Greek food – and by extension – how does one really define Greek identity?”  An analysis of the film has allowed me to investigate the issues inherent in teasing out these questions of national identity, anchored in recent history.

Using the film has also solved the issue of sources: the film and cookbooks are my primary sources. Secondary sources include works in food studies, film studies, nationalism and Modern Greek history. The writing is finally underway. With a little luck, you will see me at graduation this May!

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One comment

  1. Good afternoon Ilona,
    Greetings from Montana. I just came across your comment and study of “A Touch of Spice” while doing cultural research relevant to cuisine.
    Do you happen to know the term used to describe the deportees?
    I thought it was Karamani, but I think I’m mistaken.
    While in Greece last Fall I came across examples of their cuisine which does not resemble the cuisine of the mainland.
    Did you graduate?
    How did your research metamorphose into a paper?
    Moe later

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