Once while preparing one of her buttery-rich meals, Andromachi Neckas (nee Petropoulou) started an oven fire. The firemen who quickly extinguished the flames were then treated to a sample of her excellent Greek cuisine. Her daughter, Catherine Neckas Iles, has carried on the tradition of fine meals prepared “the old fashioned way” but without the flames.
Galixidi, a seaport town in Roumeli, Greece, was known for its building of fine sailing vessels until that industry declined with the advent of steamships. Catherine’s father, Alexander Themestocles Neckas, was born to a ship-owning family there in 1886. He finished the eighth grade and with no high school in town ran off to sea as a cabin boy. He arrived in the United States in 1904 and worked in restaurants and as a cook in the oil fields of Florida and California. He also worked in New Westminster, British Columbia, then settled in Seattle in 1912 where he became a restaurant owner. In 1929 he returned to Greece to visit his mother and it was there he met and married Andromachi Petropoulou from Patras. As her father had died, there was not an adequate dowry for a proper husband in Greece, but Alexander didn’t care.
Andromachi “Machi” came from a loving, comfortable family and never really learned domestic work in Greece. Catherine recalls that her mother never complained about the adjustment to life in the United States; however, while she did learn English, she resisted becoming proficient thinking she would return to Greece before long.
In 1931 George Plumis returned from Greece with his bride, Theodora. As was tradition in those days, they were met at the train station by a group of Greek friends. They were invited to stay with the Neckas family and with no relatives in Seattle, the two families shared a home for a few years. Catherine’s early years were like having two sisters (Frances and Alice Plumis) in addition to her own younger brother, Tom. Those relationships have continued to this day.
As both her parents were educated and avid readers they wanted the same for their daughter. Catherine benefited from both languages and eventually studied journalism at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her knowledge of Greek was a big help with vocabulary. After working as a radio copywriter in San Francisco, she returned to Seattle and worked for KING Broadcasting. Then she met Gordon Iles through their mutual professional contacts. They married in 1958 and 53 years later they enjoy life with their two daughters and their husbands and four grandchildren.
Catherine recalls the preparation of good food for Greek picnics when she was a child. From The Key to Greek Cooking: “In the past, stuffed tomatoes were a popular item at Greek church picnics. They usually were served alongside fish with garlic sauce, roast lamb or chicken, tiropita, and various other dishes that demonstrated a cook’s expertise. Older Greek bachelors who frequently lived in rooming houses and did not often get home-cooked Greek food would be plied with a housewife’s specialties each time they stopped at a picnic table. During the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s, church picnics in the Seattle area were held in the parks of small lakes surrounding the urban area. The youngsters would swim all day, older teenagers and those of single marriageable age would dance in the park’s dance hall, which usually featured a dance band on Sunday afternoons, and the adults, especially the men, would do circle dances to live music of a clarinet and bouzouki or fiddle or to the blare of a loud speaker playing Greek mountain music.”
At home Catherine was the salad maker for her mother but became the major cook while living with a friend in San Francisco. Her roommate assumed the salad role. With two parents as cooks, she learned a lot from both.
At her high school graduation when asked what sort of gift she wanted, she knew: a book by Emily Post which gave detailed instructions for both impressive and modest meal presentations. “I enjoy the old way of doing things.” Meals at the Iles home are impressive and elegantly served in several courses with soup, salad, entrée, fruit and dessert. Just visiting for this interview Catherine’s classic serving tray was artfully filled with fruit and sweets with silver forks in a silver container. Catherine has also been a major force in food preparation for festivals at her Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Seattle. She combined her journalistic background with her love of cooking and played a lead role in the publication The Key to Greek Cooking.
The importance of the larger Greek “family” has been expressed by Catherine’s daughters. While in high school her youngest daughter wrote a piece about her grandmother and the homemaking skills which were passed on to her. Catherine’s older daughter who after being away from the community for a number of years said, “It was like coming home.”
For Catherine, the only “bad” things about being Greek were, as a teenager, learning to dance only with the other Greek girls, not dating and having to wait until she got to the bus stop to put on her lipstick.By John and Joann Nicon, June 2011
1 Catherine Neckas Iles today
2 Top to bottom: Catherine, Tom, Frances Plumis, Alice Plumis
3 Alice Plumis, Catherine, Frances Plumis, circa 1950s
4 Katie Vellias Nicholaw, Kathy Barbas Bourekas, Alice Plumis Panagakis, Frances Plumis Barnecut, Molly Barbas Tsalaky, Catherine – 2004
5 Catherine and Gordon at their engagement party
6 Picnic at Angle Lake summer home Catherine and Anna Diamond in foreground, circa 1940
7 Serving tray at the Iles home
8 Iles family photo: Abby Gray, Athena Skarpelos , Alexa Iles Skarpelos, Catherine, George Skarpelos, Matthew Gray, Gordon Iles, Jim Gray, Elizabeth Gray, Andrea Iles Gray
Photos 1 and 7 by John Nicon; all others from Neckas-Iles family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, June 2011;The Assumption Church in History, 1939-1979; The Key to Greek Cooking, Fifth Updated Edition, 2009