Culinary Alchemy

Back 100 years ago – OK – maybe not quite that long. But it was the 1980’s. I remember the day I met my first mother-in-law. She wanted little to do with me. Not for anything specific to me personally, but because I was an American. And Claire is Palestinian.

She was then, and still is, a small but formidable woman who speaks Arabic, French and English. And while she gave me lovely wedding gifts including gold, and perfumes and the like, on that day she would have been just as happy if the earth had opened up and swallowed me whole. I was the last person she would have chosen for her son – and the fact that she had not been included in the decision was a sore subject. And I wasn’t Catholic.

I was less outspoken then – hard to believe – and knew immediately, I was out of my depth. This woman had been born in West Jerusalem when the British still controlled Palestine (it was called that back then before WWII). She and her family fled to Lebanon as refugees when she was still a small child, after the British partitioned the territory. Leaving confusion, and decade upon decade of conflict and strife throughout the entire region in their departing wake. But Claire’s family had extended family in Beirut, so they were able to become Lebanese citizens, complete with the requisite passport. Something very valuable that most Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East wouldn’t be so lucky to claim.

The civil war in Lebanon from 1975 to sort of the mid 1990’s (and until today – actually) meant Claire was again in fear for her life and those of her children; hiding with them under the kitchen table as shelling rocked their street in the capitol. Afterwards the trauma was so great she was unable to speak for a time. Her husband, Sami, got a job in Dubai, and after several years working, sent for his wife and his sons and that is where they remained for the next few decades.

When I met her, Claire wasn’t a person who suffered fools gladly. She had no time for nonsense and looked me up and down with a ‘tut tut’ and a shake of her head. And while I’m rarely intimidated by people, this little woman had me quaking in my boots. I wasn’t sure how to connect with her. But then she started cooking. Not Spaghetti-O’s or Hamburger Helper, either. Oh no. This woman’s cooking was an art form and it didn’t start in the kitchen.

Claire would insist her son’s to take her to certain markets she wanted to go to. And she made the butcher cut her meat a certain way. No, not the meat in the case – the good stuff she knew he kept in the back. She picked up vegetables and rejected them, chiding the produce guy for his lack of taste and his trickery. ‘You can do better’ she would say. She was the first person I ever went with to a cheese monger. Before that I had no idea these people existed.

We would go home and she would begin – like a maestro. And I quickly learned that if I was going to make any in-roads with Claire, I would be joining her in the kitchen. I would not speak – I would do as I was told.

in the 60’s and 70’s, I had grown up on tuna casserole and meatloaf. Carbs and things that ‘stick to your ribs.’ from recipes in the back of the Ladies Home Journal magazine, or the Betty Crocker Cookbook. What Claire cooked was nothing I had ever seen before. And she insisted I learn how to make everything with fresh ingredients and spices she hand picked. I was taught about how things taste differently if you grind them with a mortal and pestle vs. chopping them with a knife. And how to use the side of a knife. I learned the order of cooking ingredients to get the most out of their flavors and to ensure they blend well. How doing it out of order can make things taste bitter vs. savory. I learned patience pays off in cooking Middle Eastern food. And that people can tell when you cut corners.

Claire taught me how to test fruits and vegetables to determine if the produce guy is trying to get you to take his old stock. And which is the perfect cheese, with the right amount of brine, for which dishes.

I cooked, not just for hours with this woman, but for days at a time. And during those epic sessions she taught me Arabic. Lebanese Arabic. Not just the language but the culture. Making coffee isn’t just about the coffee. There is the type and the grind, and the right sugar and how you cook it in the pot. There is a way to do it, and when you do it well, you should take pride in it.

‘I am known for my coffee. Everybody knows.’ She would tell me. And when you serve it? There is a way to do that too.

When her son and I divorced, I know she was sad about it. We had developed a bond and she’d put in a lot of time into my training. I don’t imagine she wanted to start over.

When I met Jeff many years later, he was a Hamburger Helper kind of guy. It’s how he had been raised. Over the years, we’ve had to compromise on culinary tastes. His palette has expanded, so I have to give credit where credit is due. But we served Lebanese food at our wedding. I insisted. And he learned how to make me coffee in a turkish coffee pot and his coffee is the best! Everybody knows.😉

Moving to Spain has required Jeff to stretch even further. Since we’ve lived here we’ve collected a list of restaurants we like and we order from them regularly. But lock down had presented challenges from a culinary perspective. And for weeks I didn’t feel up to cooking. But all that changed this week and I decided that since I have my appetite back and energy enough to cook a meal, I would go all out and make Lebanese food from scratch.

Hummus. Saffron rice. Shish Tawook. I made yogurt with mint and crushed garlic and a pinch of sea salt and let it sit overnight. And I ordered a cheese cloth to make my own Lebne. And Tabbouli – the real way – not how you buy it in a Safeway. I got the ingredients from 3 different stores and two produce stands. I feel sure Claire would have been proud I didn’t let quality slip, even in a pandemic. I still have my pride.

I couldn’t get fresh warm pita bread but we do what we can. Still, I roasted my own pine nuts and let the chicken marinate until it surrendered. And then I started cooking. Jeff came into the kitchen and took a deep breath.

‘That smells really good.’ He lifted lids and I shoo’ed him away.

‘I’m busy. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.’ I hit his hand with a potholder so he knew I was serious. Channeling Claire.

At long last, I plated the dishes, just like I remember. Presentation matters in Middle Eastern cooking. Almost, but not quite as much as the cooking itself. The plates looked lovely and a little thrill ran through me. Jeff waited until I sat down before he dug in.

We ate in silence. And then we ate some more. We were stuffed and had a fridge full of leftovers. I only know how to make Lebanese food for a family of 10. Oh well. But it was the best Mother’s Day meal I’ve had in a long time. And it’s nice to know, I still got it!

NOTE: If you ever want to learn to make authentic Lebanese food you might check out this cookbook by Madelain Farah. I went to college with her nephew, Adel, and I actually ate at her house for a family celebration before she died. It was delicious so I can attest to the authenticity of her recipes.

2 thoughts on “Culinary Alchemy

  • Great story. Our son married a Palestinian girl whom we love dearly. Her great grandparents grew up in Jerusalem and were forced from their house in the ’50s and made to walk. Half of the family traveled to other parts of Isreal but her side walked to Jordan. Her grandfather had 7 brothers. The youngest traveled to America in 1956. He ended up in Detroit as many Arabs do but realized that the snow was not for him. He moved to San Francisco and committed to bringing the rest of his brothers all to America. My daughter-in-law’s grandparents were the last of the 8 siblings. Her father traveled back to Jordan to find a wife and within two weeks they were introduced and married and are still 36 years later. We are blessed that they all live close. I have grown to adore middle eastern food. The flavors and the spices are so different and delicious.

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