Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Fatoush: A Love Story
Michel and Me--my wedding luncheon--don't say a word about our enormous glasses! We were wearing them to check out the ring!
We all have intense olfactory, aural, and gustatory memories of those we've loved and lost--more than pictures and stories, a smell, a taste, or even the sound of a key in a lock or a jingle of dog collar can bring them back to us with stunning clarity.
Food is a great trigger for us all I'm sure--we can remember through food--nothing taps all our senses like it does--
My father-in-law, Michel, was a wonderful cook; you might even call him a natural born cook. I loved him very much, and am so sorry that I had the pleasure of his company here on earth for only a mere ten years, such a short time to get to know someone. In that time, though, he introduced me to his life, his culture, his personal history, through the meals he made for us. When I met Sarge and his family, I was already accustomed to Arabic food, growing up as I did right around the corner from a thriving Arab community on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. We shopped at Sahadi's for hummus and olives and pita bread, stopped in often at a little place for exotic fruit ice cream, and for a treat ate dinner sometimes at Tripoli, a very grand local Lebanese restaurant. But until I met Michel, I'd never had real home-cooked meals of this sort.
Michel appreciated my interest, and would school me in the ways of the Lebanese kitchen as much as possible, he would lay out a little dish of feta and olives, olive oil and "Arabic bread" at the breakfast table, and the two of us would share these treats before we made our way to the regular old eggs. He showed me how to make thick, rich lebneh by draining whole milk yogurt overnight in a colander lined with paper towel, then seasoning with garlic and mint and salt and pepper. He introduced me to the addition of fragrant orange flower water to lemonade, and I've always thought that it was as close to a magical fairy drink as anything could be. He made tender, falling-off-the-bone chicken in a tagine placed in their fireplace, and when I was pregnant with Hedgie and food tasted strange, his stewed chicken and moggrabiyeh became something of an obsession with me.
But nothing reminds me of Michel more than the fresh, wonderful fatoush salad he would prepare every time we visited. I can see him clearly standing at the little wooden butcher-block island, carefully cutting vegetables with his little paring-knife, in the Middle-Eastern way, even and precise, so pretty and unlike the rough, lazy salads of my own kitchen. Cucumbers, lettuce, sweet good tomatoes, maybe some cauliflower bits if they were around the house, a dressing so light and rich at the same time: crushed garlic, olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt, pepper. And on top of this would be the small, even, toasted Arabic bread squares, waiting to soak up the delicious garlicky lemony juices. Michel told me that no Lebanese household could ever tolerate wasted food, and so the stale bread would find its place in this way. Even leftover, soggy, the salad would be the most sought-after tupperware in the fridge, when Sarge and I made a late-night snacking foray.
For Sarge, these foods are the taste, scent, and texture of his childhood in Beirut. For me, they're the essence of Michel, and the kind way he welcomed me into his family, my real introduction to a culture once foreign, but now a true part of who I am: the Lebanese blood of my daughter, the memories that are now mine too, a very real vestige of a world that might have been lost but not for our meeting in the kitchen!