USC’s first lady is living and teaching others the Mediterranean way
I want to begin by hearing about your childhood. Where were you raised?
Well, I grew up in Middletown, Conn., which is really central to the state of Connecticut. Mom and dad, three brothers. I’m the only girl.
I was curious about the College of Holy Cross. You attended there and received your sociology degree. Why sociology?
Because it’s a study of the obvious, and I figured I was not smart enough to study anything else. No, not true. During my interview, the interviewer asked me, “What do you think you want to study in college?” I am the first generation to attend college. My brother went ahead of me. He was an English and theology major. I had gone to an all-girls Catholic High School, and I was very interested in doing “good.” And so I said, “I like people. I’m not exactly sure what I want to major in.” He said, “Well, are you interested in studying people as individuals or as groups in societies?” I said, “I think as groups, and he said well then you might want to consider sociology.” So I did. I was very happy with that choice.
And you went to Yale? Tell me about the experience from a college in Massachusetts to the acceptance of Yale, and that is a tremendous program. How did that happen?
Well, I was doing an internship in alcoholism services when I was in Worcester at Holy Cross, and I thought I wanted to be an alcoholism counselor. But my preceptor said to me, “You know, Patricia, you’re not going to qualify.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, they’re only hiring recovering alcoholics. So you won’t qualify.” So that was No. 1. He said, “No. 2, everybody and their brother is becoming a counselor. I think you ought to consider public health and administration. That way you could run a program for alcoholics, but you wouldn’t be limited to that. You could work in city/county health departments, neighborhood health centers, hospitals, any other organization.” He said, “There’s a great program at Yale, and you’re from Connecticut.” He said, “You should apply.” But I was kind of taken aback because, obviously, I knew about medical professions and nursing and things. But I hated the sight of blood, and I never really heard about public health until that wonderful mentor of mine led me in that direction. So I did apply, and I was accepted, and it was very exciting to be accepted to Yale, even though, I went from the all-girls high school to the almost all-male college. I was in the second class of women at a formerly all-male college, so the ratio was seven to one. So I always used to tease and say, “Well, where are my seven men. I’m waiting for them.” And then I met Harris, which is really interesting, on my very first day at Yale.
And how did that come about?
They had a reception like a coffee hour for the incoming students, and they invited all the existing students to come and join and meet the new crop, if you will. He had just finished his Master in Public Health and was starting onto his Ph.D. So he was like the equivalent of a third-year student, and I was just coming in. And I saw him, and I thought he was very handsome. And he was talking with someone else. We began talking together, and I asked, “Do either of you know where the Bursar’s Office is because I’d love to go pay my bill before they decide that they’d made a mistake?” And he said, “If you can wait five minutes, I’ll walk you there.” That was really the beginning of our relationship. The following Friday we had our first date.
Was it love at first sight?
No, I don’t think it was love at first sight, but it was definitely attraction at first sight, and I just — I felt like I’d known him forever. So I remember going home because I lived at home during the first semester. I didn’t really want to just advertise for roommates. I know that’s done a lot today. People advertise for roommates on Craigslist or whatever, but I just thought, because I could commute, let me commute in the first semester until I make some friends and then I’ll figure out my housing situation. So I went home that afternoon, and I said to my mother, “I met the nicest guy. I think he’s going to be a really good friend. That was really a good beginning.”
When did your parents meet him, and how long after that?
Not long after that because, as I said, I was living home. So he would pick me up for dates. One of our earliest dates, probably a month into our knowing each other, was an Earth, Wind & Fire concert.
How long after your introduction before you-all married?
We married after I had finished my master’s. So it was about three years after we met.
What happened in 1984?
In 1984, preventive health care was a big thing. After a couple of years, I had to leave a job because Harris got a Fulbright to take a sabbatical to Greece. So our plan was to take our children and live in Greece for 10 months, and the organization that I worked for was not able to hold the job for me for that amount of time. So I had to resign, which I hated because, to me, that job was like a vocation. I absolutely felt like I was born to do this. But we went to Greece, and interesting things happened. I took cooking classes. I took language lessons. Our children were in school there. So I was kind of free. It was the first time in my adult life that I didn’t have a job. I exercised a lot. I fell in love with the food. It was 1987, and back in Massachusetts where we were living, we were eating completely low fat, nonfat, steamed broccoli, boneless, skinless broiled chicken breasts, broiled pieces of fish. We thought the way to be healthy was to eat as low fat as possible. It was okay, but it was sort of boring. And I think you’d find yourself like gravitating to Doritos at night because you just needed something that was exciting and had some flavor to it. When we got to Greece, I fell in love with the food. You know, everything is caramelized in olive oil, which brings so much flavor, and I ate so many more vegetables. So all these vegetable casseroles and little bits of fish and meat. Nothing is really eliminated, but it’s much more weighted toward plant-based. The flavors were so great compared to what we had been eating. And I started to really look into the health benefits of the traditional Mediterranean diet at that point. So that was 1987. When we came back from that sabbatical, we’ve been living the Mediterranean way since then. Harris and I have stayed really fit. I attribute a lot of that to eating so much fresh food and not processed foods. We have really steered away from a lot of restaurant dining. Of course, we eat out all the time at the university now because we have something like 200 events a year, but I’m involved with choosing the menus. I’m very close to my chefs, and they know exactly what I’m looking for and what I’m not. So you don’t find deep fried foods. You don’t find a lot of red meats unless occasionally we have red meats that are grass fed. We really work with it, and I feel it’s given us the vitality to do these jobs that we do, which are pretty much 24/7.
When did the idea of publishing two cooking books come about, and how did that transpire?
Well, right after that sabbatical, I really started thinking about sharing this, but mainly I was like cooking for my neighbors. You know, we had a great neighborhood, and we had a lot of potluck suppers, and so I was always trying to do something Greek to introduce people to it, and I saw that people really loved the food. And then some years later, 2005 I guess, 25 years married, we went to a cooking school in Provence at the home of Patricia Wells, and I said to Harris, Patricia Wells has the life I want. She loves food. She imparts her knowledge on other people. She had a beautiful home in the country with vineyards and a garden and fruit trees. When we would cook, she would give us baskets and shears and ingredient lists, and we would go out to the garden and cut our own vegetables, pick cherries and things, and come in and make these fabulous Mediterranean meals — although hers had more of a French twist than Greek. But I said I would love to do a cooking school on a Greek Island for Americans. Bring Americans there because after our sabbatical we continued to return to Greece probably every few years.
So when did you publish the books?
Well, the first one was published in 2010, and the second one in 2013. So the first one I started actually writing in 2006. I was working for the Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy in South Carolina, and I finished up that job, and we took a sabbatical to Cyprus, which is the island the Harris family came from. So, when we were over there, I actually started testing recipes, and that was so much fun. We were there for three months, and I made all these recipes for my first book, tested them over and over again, and I’d been doing some of them at Columbia’s Cooking already on campus. But, you know, I was perfecting things, and he would come home from his work at night, and we’d have like six things to eat because I was making all these recipes. So that was good. So that book ultimately came out in 2010. It’s now in its sixth publication at the University of South Carolina Press. It’s been one of the big moneymakers for them because short of Walter Edgar and Congressman Clyburn, a lot of what the University Press publishes traditionally has been more esoteric and had more of a smaller — you know, each book would have a smaller audience, right. But something like a food book, especially when it pertains to health, because you see I came to all this not just because of the flavor but because of the health benefits. So the first book actually has 87 recipes, and then, in each chapter, there are summaries of the studies that have been done that speak to why the traditional Mediterranean diet is so healthy, and it’s been studied since the early or maybe mid-1950s. So it’s been like 60 years of studies that show why this is really beneficial. And then each chapter also has stories from our sabbaticals, and those are in there to speak to how the lifestyle is also very healthy, and that nobody’s eating standing over the sink or driving in their car or, you know, things like that.
Do you have a favorite recipe?
Imam baildi is my favorite. That’s from the first book. It means the Imam fainted presumably because the dish was so delicious.
What is it?
It’s eggplant, tomatoes and onions with pine nuts and fresh basil. I grow these little tiny eggplants that get no bigger than a baseball, and I cut those up into wedges, and I put those in pans with, you know, like baking dishes, or you could do it like in a stovetop in a Dutch oven, with cut up tomatoes and lots of onions and a good amount of olive oil. And first I cook it covered for about an hour and what happens is all the water comes out of the vegetables. So they’re just sitting there like with this much water on top. Then, you take off the cover and cook it uncovered for about another 30 minutes, and all that water evaporates. So you’re left with this kind of stew, and it’s really delicious because, if you think about it, when you take the water out of vegetables, they taste more flavorful. They taste more like themselves. Then they’re sort of marinated in the olive oil. Then, I would put in the toasted pine nuts for a little protein and some kind of fresh herb, and since its summer with the eggplants and tomatoes, then I usually use basil.
So your role really is first lady of the University of South Carolina, and you’ve said it’s a 24-hour, seven-day a week responsibility. How much time do you have for you a day?
I try, as much as possible, to keep the morning to myself so that I try not to have any appointments before 10. It doesn’t always work out but, when it does, it keeps me healthy. It keeps me centered. It’s what I love, that morning time. So I wake up about 6:15. Harris is a great husband who brings me a latte in the morning to bed. So we read the newspaper, you know, I pray or meditate. I exercise in the morning. I write – usually I write notes. If I’m writing thank you notes or sympathy notes, I like to do those things before the day begins because I feel like, once I’m in my day, I lose touch with the sentiment that I want to be in that note, and it becomes more like, “I’ve got to get this out in the mail.” So I like to do that first, and I do all this stuff before I shower and dress. That’s why I don’t like to see anybody before 10:00 because, you know, all those things are very important to me. I mean I think you need to keep your soul centered and your body fit, you know. So I recently started trying to meditate. The first day I sat down, and I was overcome with emotion. As I repeated my mantra, I sobbed, and I thought I felt so cleansed and so wonderful. I felt completely held in God’s hands, and it was a great feeling. And I thought this is going be amazing; I’m going be in touch with The Divine every morning of my life. And the next day I sat down to meditate, same position, same room, same mantra, and I kept looking at the clock, and I’m thinking, you know, only 10 minutes has gone by, you know, and it was kind of like nothing. So I realized now, from reading more and more about meditating, that it’s in order to like unplug our brain and just let our sort of soul and center take over, it’s going to take time.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
My children. We have two children.
If you could have personally witnessed one thing, and it can be anything, anything throughout history, and it’s only one thing, what would it be and why?
Oh, my gosh. Wow. You know, there’s so many things. It’s hard to choose which one. But I’m in love with Pope Francis, and I would love to meet him. I would love to meet Pope Francis because I feel like he’s the whole reason why I’m Catholic and why I’m who I am. The way he thinks, this inclusiveness.
If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
I worry a lot about how much negativity and hatred exists in the world, and I would ask what can we do? How can we change people’s hearts the fastest to get us to be the people we are suppose to be, the loving, supportive individuals who make up a one world community that has one God? How do we do that?
Where do you see yourself 20 years from now?
Let’s see, 20 years from now. Doing ballroom dancing. I always said, after we retire, I want to learn ballroom dancing cause what a great way to get your exercise. That’s so much fun. But we built a retirement home down by Charleston, and I said that’s going be my final resting place.
If you had one wish, what would that be?
I would wish that both of my children would really find ultimate success, however they define that to be, and love in their lives and faith in their lives.
What’s your favorite word?
My favorite word? Love I guess.
And what is your least favorite word?