The very first cookbook that inspired and encouraged me was a Christmas gift from my aunt Mona. Title: “La Cuisine Est Pour Les Enfants”; translated: “Cooking is for Children”. It was a large format book, maybe 12” x 16” with a hard glossy cover and spiral bound. Large colorful illustrations adorned every page, and the recipes were “hand-written” in a large chalk-like black script. I might have been twelve or thirteen, and thought to myself “I am not a child!”, this looks too easy! I flipped through it and put it aside. The illustrations looked intentionally like a child’s drawings but were luscious and inviting. I was more interested in the technique and the medium than in what they represented.
One day, I cannot recall when exactly, after a hormonal bout of depression and desperation—the usual teen, over-the-top feelings of rebellion and alienation— I was searching for something to occupy and distract me. I picked up the book and read it cover to cover and emerged challenged to try every recipe for my family’s Sunday meal.
Most Sundays, my mother and paternal grandma took a break from cooking and we went out to eat when my father was in town, or, if he was not, we ate left-overs. By then, my maternal grandparents had passed away and we were no longer gathering at their home with my mother’s siblings and their families for huge Sunday luncheons. With my new proposition, my family would have to forgo the Sunday outing, accept and enjoy my cooking, and contribute to cleaning up after it was all over.
Much to my surprise my mom agreed and perhaps encouraged me. Of course she helped as well, but I wanted to remember the experience as a culinary feat that I achieved single-handedly. To this day, I brag about cooking since I was fourteen. It is true. For several Sundays, in the heat of a Beirut summer, I took control of that kitchen and prepared the most outlandish dishes from that cookbook. “Outlandish” because they were not the dishes that my mom or grandma prepared, “outlandish” because they required special shopping for ingredients that were not necessarily available in our pantry or refrigerator, and “outlandish” because they had little to do with our Mediterranean seasonal diet. I took the whole business seriously and beamed with pride when my parents hummed with approval, or expressed their polite satisfaction with forced glee.
I remember a Quiche Lorraine—goodness how boring— but at least it didn’t break the bank like the Filet En Croute! My favorite was the Carbonade Flamande, a beef and prune stew that seemed really exciting because it required cooking the whole thing in beer, or the Coq au Vin that require red wine! Super adventurous and daring for a fourteen year old. I wonder now how that met my mother’s approval and how eating a hot beef or chicken stew could be appreciated in the dead of summer. But my family didn’t seem to blink. I never heard a complaint. On the contrary, they met my dishes with welcoming enthusiasm, pretending perhaps, as if it was the most delicious food they had tried—not that French cuisine was unfamiliar to us, but it hadn’t really made it into our pots and pans. It was my own initiation into the kitchen and that would not have been the same had I begun with my mother’s dishes. I would like to think that Auguste Escoffier and Julia Child, neither of whom I had even heard of then, would have been proud of me!
You may have gathered already that the cookbook was definitely not meant for children. Perhaps for adolescents, but NOT, in any way, for children. It left me exhausted, but cured from my depression. Luckily for everyone, I probably never delved into the dessert section (I don’t recall ever making the Clafoutis or the Choux a la creme! Can you imagine! The entrees were complex enough as it were, and enough of an exercise in tolerance and perseverance for cook and subjects alike. Luckily we survived the few weeks of experimentation and the result was proof enough for me that I was loved and worthy of the family cooks.
That book was where my life in the kitchen began and I have my aunt to thank for it. That gift was only the beginning of her influence. She would continue to inspire me with her unconventional, independent style. She was not a conformist. She was emancipated in her life and in her cooking. She often impressed us with fondue dinner parties and a few international dishes that were unheard of at the time within the family circle. Her Moroccan chicken with prunes and almonds was a recipe my mother and I would adopt and make for years to come. She opened my eyes to different cuisines. Her sense of adventure and accomplishment both in her career and in her kitchen inspire me to this day.