Christmas Revisited

My mom Loo-oved Christmas! Going all out, she began her Christmas baking in November. First came the dark fruit cake that soaked in brandied cotton cloth for a month. Later, all the different varieties of cookies and Christmas Stollen* would follow in December. When my mother moved to DC, she gave it all up.

I am not a baker but I tried to keep up some traditions especially when the kids were young. Year after year, the gestures, the decorations, the cooking and the baking would gradually get distilled and simplified. The only tradition that was somehow created here under my own roof, was the cookie decorating sessions. I would make the ginger bread cookie dough, roll, cut, bake and store. Then, once everyone was gathered, I’d make the royal icing, color it with natural food dyes and let everyone go to work.

My home is the meeting place for mother, siblings, family and sometimes in-laws. But Christmas happens late in our household: a direct result of a retail job that exhausted me year after year and totally sucked the joy out the holidays. I drag my feet and lack enthusiasm. Our family preparations for Christmas are just more work. We find ourselves, the last people in a darkened lot, scurrying around for the “perfect” tree, while attendants turn off lights and pack up for the year.

Christmas Eve menu is (vaguely) discussed to accommodate the vegans and the meat eaters, the traditionalist, the liberals and the rebels.  Shopping happens last minute. It involves multiple family members, young and old, tagging along for the experience of frenetic holiday shopping and to haggle over who should foot the bill.

Cookie decorating takes place hours before dinner, while putting up the tree. It’s a mad rush to make it all happen. We gather some friends and neighbors to add to the mix. Our dinner is thrown together haphazardly and chaotically—Martha Stewart would die! My mother would be somewhat disapproving— calling us “crazy”.

But we manage and we PARTY! The evening itself is an improvisational act: a mishmash of a Hawaiian luau with leis, African music, Christmas crackers, paper hats and crowns, pork tenderloin and tuna steaks. Don’t ask. A hodgepodge of people, food and drink, music and conversation. It couldn’t be more eclectic and off the wall if we tried!

My mother passed away two Christmases ago. We spent that Xmas week sadly at the hospital by her side or huddled together at home around the dining table quietly staring at a thousand-piece puzzle, trying to make conversation. Downing the drinks, we waited for a better prognosis, but the inevitable came as a shock, despite of our high hopes for a miracle.

Xmas 2015 was avoided: my husband, our two daughters and I spent five days in Tulum for a change of scene, only to come back with a bad case of food poisoning.

This year, we give Christmas another try. We begin a new cycle, by reopening the circle of life.  With my parents gone I have a mission to accomplish: our family spirit of togetherness and generosity, the care and the love we inherited must live on… and so must the baking. It began two weeks ago. It helps that I no longer have my retail job.

I considered attempting my mother’s delicious fruitcake, but it didn’t take long to nix that thought. Sorry mom! I made tiny stars and gingerbread men, some “undecorated”—for the children to do their thing. I also made Pfeffernusse, German spice cookies, inspired by my aunt Mona’s that would arrive every year by post, until, she too, could not bake any longer. I made my own candied lemon peel. I couldn’t bear to use any store-bought lemon peel with sulphur dioxide and other added junk. And although the recipe recommends freshly ground spices, there was no chance in a million that I would grind cinnamon bark and whole cloves—I do not have an electric spice grinder. I draw the line at black pepper and perhaps cardamom. For nutmeg, I use a micro plane but that is it. The rest of my spices come already ground in a jar.

I am contemplating making Chewy Molasses Cookies which I tried at a holiday party last week. The recipe is from Bon Appetit. Maybe, I should wait for my sister and my baking-loving daughter to arrive. Perhaps they will enjoy the experience of bonding over cookie-making. I think my job is almost done, the baking I have accomplished so far is probably sufficient. Delegating is a good thing. It channels guilt, teaches others responsibility and definitely relieves me from stress.

No matter how hard I try to make things right, I expect the inevitable emotional effervescence of my family to bubble over with its dysfunctions, its insecurities and anxieties, like it has at times in the past. But many of our elders are gone and we will miss them always. This year is the beginning of a new dynamic. I brace myself not knowing what to expect. Come what may…. Bring it on.

One thing’s for certain, I made some cookies and next year I will get better at it. The best is yet to come. I will keep you posted.

I highly recommend the Chewy Molasses cookies. If it’s not too late, try them both. The ingredients are almost the same which makes for a more economical use of ingredients. Here are the links:

The recipe for the Pfeffernusse is from an old Saveur
Bon Appetit’s Chewy Molasses Cookies
__________________________________________________________________
*Stollen: German Christmas bread.

 

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.

Breaking Bread

IMG_8871 copy
Paper collage © 2016 Fadia Jawdat

Exodus

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.

Breaking bread

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.