With the last few decades of war and upheaval in the Middle-East, my family and friends began their exodus in the mid-nineteen seventies. Moving to different continents and various cities we searched for asylum, safety and stability. For those of us in our late teens and early twenties, the initial excuse was to further our education. But over the years with safety and lack of jobs becoming a concern, entire families and older generations followed their young and their friends, leaving homes and lives behind and starting over in lands that could offer them opportunity and safe haven. Young and old would begin new lives, acculturating themselves to their newly found environments. Dreams were broken, family ties and social structure threatened and loss was traumatic. Isolation was unbearable at times. Uncertainty over our future was the new normal.
My extended family was dispersed over a few continents. We would grow apart culturally, adopting our new environments and making new friends. When we’d meet up again, maybe once a year, we were guests in each others’ homes, politely poking and scratching the surface to help uncover and reveal our new selves. The discovery and revelation of our differences was often painful. Eventually we’d understand, forgive and accept. We had new opinions, new politics and ideologies—change is the name of the game when you are trying to survive and fit in.
Redemption in food
Throughout the years, somehow food was the only constant in a sea of variables. We all transported and exported our traditions into our kitchens. We quickly populated our pantries with staples we sought and found at specialty stores and spice shops . We called each other long-distance for “recipes” or what I should label “how to”s: “How do you make okra stew?” I would call my mother 6,000 miles away in an eight-hour difference time zone. “Do you use lemon juice or Dibs (pomegranate molasses)? …How much garlic?… Can I make it without tomato paste?”
In reality, our family dining table was fractured and scattered, but we managed a virtual reconstruction, where our mothers and grandmothers, aunts, cousins and friends would join us in our kitchens and at our tables to share every dish together in spirit and in soul.
One thing was certain though, no matter how different our lifestyles had become, we all maintained one basic passion for the food—food we had grown up with, food that was the link to our culture, to our mothers and grandmothers. When we met, we indulged in an orgy of the most delicious dishes, seasonal and unseasonal: it might have been July but Easter pastries, Christmas puddings and special occasion desserts would be made especially to welcome us “Home”.
Regardless of location, the host kitchen turned into a classroom of culinary instruction, where participation was instinctive and enthusiastic. All hands and minds were on deck, working together like clockwork. Notes and photographs were taken. Documentation was essential. We’d all contribute to coring Kusa (courgettes), or plucking the leaves off the stems of the fresh Mulukhia bundles. We meticulously stuffed and rolled grape leaves in an assembly line, piling them up in awe and admiration. We observed, we chatted and sometimes we sipped on tea or coffee, while the room buzzed around us with frenetic energy.
Food gatherings have become ceremonial. Around the table, we meet each other with warmth and acceptance. We embrace the adopted friends and newly-found neighbors. We try to replicate the lost, repair the broken and preserve the most basic part of our lives with an added openness and excitement of sharing and discovering what each of us has reaped along the way.
When we visit family, travelers haul ingredients, hosts spend weeks in preparation of dishes they’ll freeze or refrigerate. The first question asked is: “what would you like to eat? …what dish have you missed?…what can I prepare for you?” After the initial chaotic moments of emotional ebb and flow, the hugs and the tears, we settle down a little and then we all head for the kitchen!
The food we prepare is loaded with meaning and promise of soothing comfort. Old flavors that link us to our past, whisked together with new life ingredients, promise to bring resolution and healing. Whether we revive old recipes or embrace and experiment with new cuisines, our kitchens remain the meeting place where tradition is perpetuated and innovation is welcomed; a place where we form and fuse new bonds and widen our circles of food, family and friends.
I write this with love and appreciation for my family and friends (you know who you are) who have fed me, taught me, inspired me and spoiled me with their generosity over the course of my life and in memory of my mother especially, my father, my aunts and grandmothers and a few good friends who left us too soon but with whom we ate and drank insatiably.