Mona’s Gift

Version 2
Rendering of the book as I remember it. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

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.

First Kitchen Memories: Part 1

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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.
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*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).