Keeping It Simple with Anastasia Ganias-Gellin of Fancy Peasant
I first met Anastasia Ganias-Gellin in a writing class at the start of 2019, long before anyone knew anything about COVID or what would soon happen to the world. She wrote about food and family and the crushing sense of grief she felt after losing her father to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her stories were beautiful yet painful, and I remember relating deeply to how tightly she wound food into her family narrative, together with the love they share for each other (in my Italian culture, food is our love language, too). I remember thinking, this woman is going to do something with this. And not to toot my own horn, but I was right. A year later, after a self-proclaimed Eat, Pray, Love trip to Greece she started Fancy Peasant in the midst of a pandemic, all while pregnant with her third child.
Read on to hear about her wild ride into entrepreneurship, and her experience with motherhood, which she describes as the hardest thing she’s ever done (“by a fu*kin landslide”).
CP: First, can you tell me a little bit about your beautiful family?
AGG: My dad used to describe them as his, “wild and beautiful brood” and I really feel like that’s what it is. I have three boys: Greyson is 6, Roman just turned 4, and London is 3 months old. Right now I’m really trying to spend some special time with each of them—if I can spend 15 minutes with each kid, focused without any interruptions, without any screen time, that means I’ve had a good day. That’s a mini victory for me.
CP: I love that you said 15 minutes because that sounds doable, especially for a busy mom. Kids don’t need elaborate dates, they really just want your attention and your time.
AGG: 100 percent. People ask me a lot about the transition to three, but for me the transition from one to two was a lot harder. This time I set myself up with a lot of support. I went back to work right after having Roman, which was intense, but it wasn’t like having a growing business. It wasn’t the same pressure as having to get through 500 customer service emails in a day.
CP: Can you tell me a little bit about that support system you set up?
AGG: I didn’t have a baby nurse with my other two children. Greeks just don’t do baby nurses, [laughing] that’s what grandparents are for! My parents helped so much with Greyson, but this time around, with my dad gone and my mom living farther away and six years older, I needed the kind of support where I didn’t feel guilty about saying “take the baby, I have 5 hours of work to do, just bring him to me to eat.” I let go of all the stigmas. The first time around when it came to receiving help I was so ashamed, but this time I told my husband that getting support is something we need to do for our marriage and for the other two children. And it’s helped a lot.
CP: If there’s a mom out there who is feeling that same guilt and pressure, what would you say to her?
AGG: I get hundreds of messages on Instagram asking me how I do it all, and I always respond that I don’t do anything by myself. I would say to take as much help as you can possibly get—don’t feel guilty about it, feel supported by it instead. Oh, and be kind to yourself. I’m struggling a lot right now with my weight, holding on to an extra 25 pounds, but my mantra every day is be kind to yourself. Being a mom is really hard. If I die tomorrow it’s the best thing I ever did but it’s also, by a fu*kin landslide, the hardest thing.
CP: By a fu*kin landslide is right! And I’m sure running your olive oil business, Fancy Peasant, makes everything different this time around, too.
AGG: It makes everything different, in a good way. With my first two, Spielberg could have called me on the phone to star in his movie and I would have said no, I’m with my new baby. This time around, I’m so happy to have an identity outside of just being a mom. After six years I’ve learned that I need a bit of separation to be a better mother, and I’m finally accepting that.
CP: Let’s talk about this separate identity then. How did the business come to be?
AGG: A few years ago I took a writing class where I wrote a lot about my dad and food and sickness and mourning, and how coming together as a family and remembering these meals was a very big deal. I was very connected to our Greek cuisine, but I could never find any Greek cookbooks that broke down recipes for a visual learner like myself. When my dad was very sick I told him I wanted to come out with a cookbook that makes it easy for people to cook Greek food. He was born into poverty, living in a peasant village until he came to the United States at 16 years old. He was able to give me every opportunity in the world, and so I said, “It’s called The Fancy Peasant, I’m like the fancy version of you”.
After my father died I started cooking and talking about grief on Instagram. People wrote to me saying they haven’t been able to get back into the kitchen after a loved one died, and that eating is the most lonely and painful part of their day—I didn’t know how much the worlds of food and grief combine. I found myself teaching people how to cook, talking to strangers, and healing my own pain.
I went to Greece to find olive oil for the few people who were asking me to sell it. I sat with that idea, kept cooking, and then the pandemic hit. My mom, sister, her week-old baby, and her husband moved in for the next 10 months. My sister had run operations for a start-up before and she helped me launch in November 2020. The response to the oil was crazy, we sold out immediately. But I had never started a business, I had no idea what we were in for. We got it off the ground with Stephanie’s background in operations, but we still don’t have any PR, we don’t have marketing. The oil is organic and the growth of the company is organic. My dad has a lot to do with this. I feel his energy all around me. Yes we sell oil, but Fancy Peasant is also a place where we teach people how to cook healthy Greek cuisine.
CP: It’s a resource for people—especially those that are interested in your take on the Blue Zones diet. How do you integrate that into your family life?
AGG: The great thing about the Blue Zones diet is that it is a lifestyle, it’s not just about food. It’s just as important in the Blue Zones philosophy to be involved in community, to be moving constantly, to eat a plant-slant diet, to socialize, and to really do all the simple things that make you feel like you’re living your life with purpose.The pandemic really brought us back to that lifestyle because we were stuck in our homes, breaking bread with family, and talking instead of using electronics. Cooking is one of the best skill sets any human can ever have and the fact that I’m getting my children involved at such a young age is one of the best gifts I can give them.
CP: So do you feel like the strategy for getting them to love the food you do is to get them involved in the kitchen?
AGG: Yes, I think moms need to move past the the-kitchen-is-going-to-get-dirty mentality. I say this because once you let yourself have fun with food your children will, too. Moms get really flustered because there’s a lot going on, but you have to go into it accepting the worst case scenario, that the whole counter might get covered in flour, or there’ll be egg shells on the floor. I also don’t believe in a kids menu, I don’t believe they should eat a totally different meal. Sure I veer from that, like when I incorporate kale chips with dinner instead of broccoli, or give them a green juice in the morning when they refuse to eat vegetables, but I really think it’s important to get them involved in the kitchen and also to make dinnertime a sacred ritual. No phones on the table. We’re connecting, we’re talking about our day, and we’re going to eat.
CP: Growing up, on my birthday, my mom would always ask me what I wanted for dinner. What’s your birthday meal?
AGG: It would be a big pan of spanakopita made by both my grandmothers. I could eat the whole pan, those buttery sheets, that amazing filling. We don’t make ours with butter, we use olive oil and that’s what’s really cool about Fancy Peasant. I’ve taken all those recipes where my grandparents used three sticks of butter, and made much lighter versions. It’s all about using really simple ingredients, and
none of it needs to be measured, you can eyeball it all. There’s no recipe for this way of cooking. That’s what’s cool about the Blue Zones diet, it’s not precious. It’s simple.
CP: On Instagram you have this large and incredible community. What does that mean to you?
AGG: The community is unbelievable. I screenshot messages every day of people telling me things like I’m able to cook a very simple dinner for my entire family because of you, or thank you for making everything so simple. People tell me they’re feeling a lot better, they have more energy. I’m very honest on my platform and I talk about whatever is on my mind, but I try to keep it specific to food and sprinkle in my family. I really struggle with the social media thing, but I know people like to see the three boys and my husband. I try to give them what they want while maintaining privacy. If I’m having a hard week I let myself take a break, because I know my followers will be there. They’re incredible.
Fancy Peasant Skinny Spanakopita
• 1/2 lb. of organic fillo dough
• 3 spring onions, diced
• 1/2 a sweet onion, diced
• 2 pounds fresh spinach, roughly chopped if your leaves are on the larger side
• 2/3 cup Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil
• Salt and pepper
• 3/4 -1 lb. of Feta
• Optional: Yolk of 1 egg (to brush on triangles at end)
Preheat oven to 350° F. Heat olive oil in a large pot on medium-high heat. Sauté spring onion and sweet onion until soft. Add spinach (in batches), salt, and pepper and sauté until spinach wilts. Bring to a soft boil until most of the water from the spinach has evaporated. Let cool. Crumble feta into the cooled spinach mixture. Take a phyllo sheet and spread it out (keep others covered with a towel). Drizzle sheet with olive oil. Cut vertically into 4 strips the long-way. Put 1 teaspoon of filling at the bottom of each strip. Fold once away from you, then continue folding diagonally into small triangles. Continue until entire sheet is folded. Repeat for each sheet of phyllo, until the mixture is done. Lay triangles on a baking sheet. Optional: Whisk 1 egg yolk in a bowl, and brush on the tops of each triangle. Bake about 25 minutes or until golden brown.