submitted by Effy Alexakis And Leonard Janiszewski on 26.10.2007
A major photographic social history exhibition Selling an American Dream: Australian’s Greek Café, will open in Chicago in 2007, and travel to Washington, D.C., and New York before touring Australia. The exhibition challenges existing notions of how Australian culture, particularly in regard to its food style, was Americanised. Historian Leonard Janiszewski and documentary photographer Effy Alexakis, the exhibit curators, have been researching Greek-Australian historical and contemporary presence in both Australia and internationally since 1982. Their project and archive, In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians, encompasses visual, oral and literary material and is based at Macquarie University, Sydney, in association with the Department of Modern History and the Australian History Museum. The exhibit will marry historical and contemporary images, oral history, and multimedia components.
The exhibit shows that the “Greek café”—broadly regarded as a quintessentially Australian phenomenon— was a ‘Trojan Horse’ for the Americanisation of Australian eating habits early in the twentieth century. American influence was transmitted by Greeks who had relatives or friends working in the United States in food catering enterprises, or who had been there themselves working in such establishments. The classic Greek country café experienced its golden period from the mid-1930s to late 1960's. The Greek café evidences a marriage of American food catering ideas to British-Australian tastes, including the association of food with entertainment and fantasy.
This union of food with entertainment was seen earlier in Australia’s Greek-run food catering enterprises such as the oyster saloon or “parlor” (American spelling was usually used) of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The American style soda bar/sundae parlor had appeared in Australia by the mid-1910s, and the American style milk bar by the early 1930s. Names such as the California, Niagara, Monterey, Astoria, Hollywood, New York and Golden Gate, suggest the American origin of the Greek café. This was reinforced by its menu of American sundaes, milkshakes, sodas and freezes or crushes, American confectionery (hard sugar candies and milk chocolate bars), and another popular product, American ice cream.
During the Greek café’s golden age, an important and close working relationship developed with picture theatres—an association between food and entertainment which had initially been suggested by early soda fountain service and back bar designs which emphasised fantasy by use of coloured lights, mirrors and stained glass (“the light fantastic”). Again, these relationships had been adopted from the United States by Greek-Australian café proprietors. A significant number of picture theatre operators were Greek-Australians who had or continued to run cafés. By the 1950s many Greek cafés had introduced jukeboxes.
American and British popular music attracted a youth clientele where young Australians mimicked the clothing, attitude, and language of their overseas singing idols. In a sense, for most of the twentieth century, Greek cafés were selling a dream—essentially an American dream. Even the Art Deco style of architecture of Greek cafés and picture theatres appears to have been influenced by American rather than European Art Deco. The Australian Greek café’s link to America also hastened its demise in the final decades of the twentieth century. American fast food replaced family cafés. Television challenged cinema. Highways by passed country towns and their road houses supplied both fuel and food. Supermarkets and convenience stores sold packaged ice creams, chocolates, bottled flavoured milk, and aerated drinks. Except in tourist areas, Greek cafés were forced to become take-aways or were relegated into memory or oblivion.
University Museums and Collections (UMAC) Newsletter January 2005 Page 14.
Astoria Cafe interior
Newcastle, NSW, 1940's
Partly hidden by the soda fountain pumps is the cafe's Greek proprietor, Jerry Kolivas. Jerry, was originally from the island of Ithaca. Newcastle's Greek-run food catering establishments of the early twentieth century were dominated by Ithacans - in contrast to the rest of New South Wales which featured a pronounced Kytherian presence. Like many other Greek cafes of its time, the Astoria engaged a significant number of waiting staff (generally, young local women of British-Australian background), and was an excellent example of the popular Art Deco architectural style characteristic of the 1930s and 40s. With the advent of cinema, Greek cafes became the focal point for meeting, eating and drinking, before the film, during interval and after the session had concluded.
Photo courtesy N. Raftos, from the Greek-Australians: In Their Own Image National Project Archives.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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