Revisiting The Language of Baklava

This was previously posted at Life in the Slow Lane at Squirrel Head Manor. I wanted to include the review and inspired dish here.

I am very happy to have stumbled onto this book and discovered Diana Abu-Jabar. She writes so descriptively that I can almost feel and smell the foods and sights of which she writes. Food and memories of home are conjoined for most of us; a definite connection of good and bad memories. Like Diana, I also grew up in a home where there were family gatherings, love, hugs and story telling. The smell of a food from childhood evokes powerful memories and takes me to a downy comfort zone.

1. In the memoir, Abu-Jaber’s father Bud, constantly uses food to reassure himself that his connection to his origins and family are not lost, and to attempt to connect his children to that heritage. Why, do you believe, does food hold power to forge such connections? What foods remind you of such connections?

Surely Bud embraced familiar foods for the very reason mentioned in the question above. It was perhaps his only connection with the heritage to which he clung so proudly. His comfort zone. I find myself sharing childhood comfort foods with my own son. He may enjoy the taste and the accompanying story but the memories obviously do not transfer, therefore it is important to make new memories with foods from our background.

When I read of Diana’s childhood experiences in Jordan and the descriptive way she conjures the foreign images yet familiar comforts, I think of my mother’s beef vegetable soup. The strong memory, that is inseparable from my childhood home and my mother, brings smell and taste that becomes a tangible sense of family, if such a thing can exist.

While I did copy down many of the recipes in this book, I opted to cook something from my my mother’s recipe box. The box is in itself a treasured memento from childhood. Particularly since the cards are written out by my mother in longhand. No typing. I can see her head bent over the cards, scribbling away.

Making the soup was an all day affair. First the marrow bones needed to steep and simmer in herbed water and bit of saved beef broth. While the bones simmered over the blue yellow flame on the stove, Mom was out in the garden, picking tomatoes, peppers and string beans. She was totally at home in the garden, plunging her hands into the soft soil and never thinking twice about dirt under the fingernails or in her hair. Most her wavy brown hair was contained under a blue or white kerchief when she gardened. Stray strands escaped now and then to blow lazily back and forth across her cheek.

I think this was one of the places where she was happiest. Immersed in the life she created in her garden; gently harvesting the fruits of her labor, surrounded by ripening vegetables that had so many possibilities in her kitchen. The cancer that was slowly sapping her life had no place in this garden. The garden was for life, for fun and the unlimited potential for special and distinctive dishes.

One small corner of the garden was mine. I had permission to plant whatever I liked, as long as it was contained in my corner. How important I felt knowing I had licence and authority to plant anything I desired. One year, with great deliberation I chose powder blue morning glories, zucchini and corn. Mom wondered how my trailing vines of flower and zucchini would work without choking out the veggies she was tending. Simple. Dad rigged up a chicken wire bridge and some vines went over, spilling out onto the grassy lawn. The corn never produced or got very high. Still, I had licence to grow and choices.

The basket with fresh beans, tomatoes, scallions and colorful vegetables filled and Mom would haul it inside, sort the vegetables into candidates for soup. Back outside and drag the green and white striped hose to the rectangular patch of of garden, the water erupting from a pulsing sprinkler head to sluice over the plot with whoosh whoosh sounds.

Back inside the slicing and measuring would begin. The heat would seep through the kitchen and roll out the backdoor as a steamy invisible fog. Contentment was palpable and the aromas of the simmering soup made you hungry. That was a moment captured like a frozen image in my memory. One that no one can touch or share. It was home.

Here is my mother’s recipe:
Put meat, carrots, onions, celery, marrow bones, tomatoes and one can of tomatoes, string beans, cabbage and corn in water. Add last Lima beans, peas and potatoes. Salt and pepper. Sprinkle with pot herbs. One and half to two hours.

No measuring. I love it.

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