When I was five, my mother, brother and I came to live in Beirut. My grandmother Linda was to move in with us as well. My father continued working abroad and came home for every occasion, every holiday and for meetings with employer and client.
Our new home was on the third floor of a six-story building with west-facing balconies overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. A couple of blocks to the north, a black and white lighthouse loomed over our living room and bedroom windows. Our kitchen faced south. Its large central window framed a small neglected lot where a couple of palm trees watched over hedges of prickly-pear cacti. A large sunny, square room with cool terrazzo tiles and white marble counter tops, the kitchen was our first destination in the morning, at noon, and when we came home from school at the end of each day. To the left sat the sink and gas stove separated by a generous span of work-space. On the right, my mother’s electric baking oven and Kitchen Aid mixer proudly stood their ground while my grandmother’s 19th century brass alcohol burner was defiantly placed at the opposite end of the counter.
A table and chairs flanked the window. Since we all ate at different times, having all of our meals in the kitchen did not seem to be a problem except when my father came home. His presence always called for a more formal and inclusive setting in the dining room—at least for lunch which was the main meal of the day.
The kitchen seemed to run on my grandmother Linda’s a schedule. My mother worked around her mother-in-law, respecting her space. They seemed to take turns silently avoiding friction or conflict. Linda would start her day at dawn, puttering around, preparing her own breakfast and setting the table for the rest of us. I often woke up to the smell of her toasting hazelnuts, chickpeas, caraway, cumin and coriander to make her own “Duqqa“, an Egyptian version of Za’tar*. She mixed it with olive oil and spread it over bread and cheese or yogurt. The breakfast table included all of the above with an added bowl of olives and a few jars of honey or home-made jam.
Linda was the twelfth of fourteen children, born in Cairo to a Syrian father and Macedonian mother. She moved to Palestine after marrying my grandfather who was a surgeon for the British military during the Mandate. Widowed in 1938, and escaping to Lebanon with her four children in 1948, Linda was the most frugal and austere person I would ever know. She re-used matchsticks and washed Saran Wrap and plastic bags and hung them to dry on the tiled back-splash. She insisted we turn off faucets while brushing our teeth or washing our hands. She ate leftovers over and over again. She made us wipe our plates clean. She preferred to cook for herself using whatever would be discarded or left over from my mother’s ingredients. She took pride in creating something new and edible from the discarded.
Her cooking was not terribly exciting, but in her defense, it reflected her life’s hardship and the necessity to save. She used her alcohol burner because it was more economical than gas—who was to question? Occasionally she would make a dish that she would share. She made a wonderful Mulukhia** but preferred to hover over my mother’s shoulder giving stern advice and lending an occasional polite hand rather than cook a full meal. I could tell she was used up and tired, but she lit up when we asked her to make us our favorite: her savory squash pie! I would watch her roll the dough with her long slim rolling pin. Thinner than the thinnest of Pizza crusts, she would lay down the cream-colored sheet carefully inside a large round baking pan, gathering it delicately like a piece of satin fabric, and repeating the technique to cover the squash-and-onion filling. Once baked, the golden crust crackled and shattered in a thousand pieces between our teeth while the moist pale yellow-green filling smeared our tongues with a soothing texture and a burst of warm, sweet cinnamon. My grandma knew it was her piece de resistance which set her apart from all the cooks in the family, and she made sure she took the recipe with her to the grave.
*Za’tar: a mixture of dried crushed thyme (or similar wild herb) mixed with sumac, sesame seeds, salt and sometimes olive oil.
**Mulukhia: A typical Egyptian dish made from a green plant by the same name, with long stems and large green leaves. The leaves are chopped and simmered in broth and eaten as a soup or over rice and chicken, with toasted pita chips and minced onions, flavored with lemon juice, loads of crushed garlic, dry coriander and green coriander (cilantro).