What I chiefly remember
about my grandmother’s Los Angeles
that she was always in it. Lebanese cooking is labor intensive. There’s lamb to
be freshly ground for kibbe, all those grape leaves to be stuffed and rolled,
bread to be kneaded and baked, vegetables to be pickled, meat pies to be
shaped. Grandma had a big scary looking meat grinder, but no food processor, no
blender. Almost everything she did, she did by hand.
I’ve got all her recipes,
because in the mid-sixties, her orthodox church in LA published a cookbook. Magic
Cookery is half Lebanese treasures and half American classics like “Red and
Green Salad Mold,” “Spicy Tuna Casserole,” and “Pot Roast Vinaigrette.” My copy
is well loved – stained and spattered, at least on the Lebanese half.
Even with my collection of
appliances, though, Lebanese food takes a huge amount of work and I don’t have
time. While I love the stuff I haven’t cooked it in ages, not since before my
dad died several years ago. I wish Bloomington had a great
Middle Eastern restaurant. I’d eat there every day. But it doesn’t and I crave
it like I do no other food.
Then last Tuesday a friend
of mine from grad school was in town. I’ve probably seen him three times in the
last 20 years, but when we were at school here we bonded quickly over the fact
that we both had a parent of Lebanese descent – my father and his mother. So
when I invited him for dinner, I didn’t spend much time puzzling over what to
cook. I did, however, spend the entire day in the kitchen.
And a very good day it was.
The painstaking nature of the cooking forced me to slow down what has been the
frantic pace of my life lately. My fingers remembered the motions as if I’d
been doing it daily. Arrange a grape leaf on the cutting board, spoon on the
filling, roll, tuck, roll and finish. Repeat, and repeat again. Almost
hypnotized by the repetitive rhythm of my tasks, my mind wandered among long
forgotten memories. My grandmother died in 1969, but without looking up I
couldn’t have said whether I was in my kitchen, or hers.
I had made pickled turnips
a few days before, fresh beautiful little turnips from the Farmers
Market, hot pink from beet juice, full of crunch and vinegar bite. I
stuffed grape leaves – some with lamb and rice, fragrant with allspice and
cinnamon, and some vegetarian, stuffed with chick peas, rice, parsley and mint.
My blender made short work
of hoomos, and baba ganooj, (idiosyncratic spellings, but that’s how Magic
Cookery has them, so that’s the way it is in my house) and because I bought
6 eggplants in case some of them were bitter and none of them was, I made
another roasted eggplant dip, with mint and garlic and tomato. Looking for a
use for the last two eggplants, I found a recipe in the book that was a kind of
Middle Eastern ratatouille – chickpeas, tomatoes, garlic, mint and good, grassy
olive oil, all stewed together.
My husband, who cooks most
of the things in our house that use wheat, made the tabooley and a big batch of
bread dough, from which I made sfeehas (triangular meat pies filled with ground
lamb, onion, and cream cheese) and some wonderful fresh Syrian bread.
We feasted that
night, old friends around the table. I’ve been living on leftovers ever since
and trying to remember what’s so all-fired important that I don’t have time to
do this more often.