Nope, you're not looking at a kitchen accident. This is my documentation of last night's attempt to recreate one of my favorite (anti)culinary memories.
When I was 18 and living away from home for the first time, I had an apartment in downtown Chicago, not far from Greek Town. My cadre of art school friends – mostly slightly older, mostly painters, mostly boys – would often end up at my place at the end of a long night full of bad-wine drinking and bad-gallery crawling. Such activities seem to guarantee starvation at 3 in the morning, and, because I'm chronically lazy about grocery shopping, in those days usually a field trip was in order. I don't know who's idea it was to start walking into Greek Town, but it soon became a tradition. I was hooked from the first thanks to the saganaki - or, as we were calling it then, flaming cheese.
Saganaki is a Greek appetizer that involves the grilling and eventual flambe of sheep's milk cheese (usually Kasseri). Some people dip it in egg and fry it, but in American restaurants it's usually cooked in a small iron skillet, right in front of your eyes. I have the distinct memory of sitting at a large round table with about six other people at Mama's, a diner in Chicago's Greek Town. A conversation about the Gerhard Richter painting on the cover of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation
was suddenly interrupted by rising flames and the sound of a very large woman shouting, "Opa!" She'd doused a brick of Kasseri with brandy and lit with a match when I wasn't looking. As I'd soon come to realise, she'd often flambe the cheese twice, just for those who weren't initially paying attention. Saganaki at Mama's cost $3 and came with a plate full of warm pita and unlimited Kalamatas. Considering how much of it I ate my freshman year of college, I have no idea why I lost weight that year (actually, I probably couldn't afford to eat much of anything else).
I haven't eaten the stuff since roughly 1999, but I've never forgotten the way it tasted. Last night I tried to recreate it, to mixed results.