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!


Candie Bracci said...

Great post and memories here.
Yes who doesn't have great memories of food?I have plenty.In my family we are mediterranean,all sorts of food I have memories with:italian,spanish,greek,algerian,maroccan and even Armenian food they would cook.My grandfather's Bouillabaisse!My grandmother's couscous!Hummmmmmmm!

Brian Miller said...

Great post. i can see Michael there taking time to prepare a beautiful salad. good things come to those that wait (and take their time) i guess. my salads seem rather torn as well.

so true about the things that bring back the memories.

mouse (aka kimy) said...

yum fatoush......

another lovely story....

Lisa said...

What a wonderful and loving post. The mental images that came to me as I read the post are amazing. I can almost taste the foods as well. As always, thank you so much for sharing with us....

Jimmy Bastard said...

At last.. someone else who realises how we assign the taste and smell of food to many wonderful memories of our past.

The breaking of bread together is a truly family thing and these days seems to be a thing of the past.

So many takeaway's have destroyed the traditional family meal and thus contributed to destroying the inner closeness of large families.

And here was me thinking I was a bit of an oul dinosaur.

Anonymous said...

Leah, no worries. My glasses are even worse! Everything you's almost as if I can smell and taste it! 'Tis a wonderful post :)

Dakota Bear said...

That salad sounds divine. There is nothing like a well made salad with a light dressing and good bread.

The nicest memories can come while in the kitchen.

Auntie, aka cagny said...

ooooooh, I loved Sahadi's! Their food is the greatest.

And I miss my Lebanese boyfriend from college days. He was a sweetheart. His family was wonderful.
Nice post.
Now get back to your studies!

Roy said...

Oh, I so love Lebanese food! Fatoush, shawarma, fuul, baba ganouj... And the way Lebanese and Syrians like to serve the meal on a plate that's had some labneh poured on it first. I had some friends about 25 years ago or so who were Iraqi political refugees who had family ties all through the Middle Eastern Arab community in the US and Canada. I used to have some fabulous meals in their company. And there's a large Lebanese/Syrian community here in Rhode Island and in SE Massachusetts, so I can still get all that food.

It's great to have such memories associated with the food you love!

MJ said...

Cripes, will ya look at those enormous glasses!

Baino said...

Lovely that you had Michael to teach you the ways of the Lebanese kitchen and you're right the subtle strength of Lebanese flavours is magical and properly prepared Lebanese food is indeed very pretty. My fondest memories are usually around Christmas preparations when there's always one woman too many in the kitchen but much laughter and fun and of course fab food! Loved this!

Anonymous said...

The Swiss of the Near East it was once called, before it drowned in bloody anarchy.
Preparing food is an essential cultural task - and depends on so much factors. Has a lot of functions besides the obvious of feeding persons, it's all about social interaction, relations and communication.
And of course our personal memories, things we connect, triggers ... can sent one way back in time, we all carry our histories with us. And a simple salad can bridge fifty years. Time is not cruel, we all change everything, all floats at different speeds. TAke care.

Megan said...

Said it before and I'll say it again - you sure do have a way with words, Brooklyn.

Thank you.

Leah said...

Candie--Sarge has Lebanese relatives living in Paris, and the food they create in their kitchens is SO wonderful, an incredible melange of deliciousness! I love Armenian food too.

Brian--I am still learning that lesson of patience and care taken with things--I'm bad at waiting on either end! Hence the torn salads!

Hello Mouse!--and by the way, I really like your avatar.

Lisa--thank you! I'm always happy when you drop in!

Leah said...

Jimmy--I'm glad you could relate to this. I've really tried hard to resist the temptations of take-out every night! It's so hard here in Brooklyn, where there is an amazing plethora of delights to be had...but the home-cooked meal, and even more of a challenge, sitting down at table together, definitely has its rewards--one of which is to be able to keep alive cooking traditions--

I can happily report that we've only had take-out food once in the past...hmm...six weeks? But that's a heck of a lot of cooking...

And you, a dinosaur? Never.

sub--at least my more recent glasses are of more modest size. My eyesight is awful, and my eye doctor told me that, actually, small frames are better for strong prescriptions. I've taken it to heart!

Dakota Bear--it's true about a lovely salad, isn't it? I appreciate them more and more with every passing year.

Auntie!--how cool that you've been to Sahadi's. I go there at least once a week, and also to Damascus bakery next door. If you're ever back at Sahadi's, you absolutely must check out Damascus for the freshest pita bread anywhere, and also amazing fresh pastries of all sorts. I also prefer their hummus to Sahadi's...I'm making myself hungry!!!!

Leah said...

Roy--thanks for the interesting comment! There is absolutely nothing like Middle Eastern home cooking--and I'm glad you can still get those foods! I love fuul--I make a fuul (or foule--I guess, since it's transliterated, it doesn't matter how it's spelled!) salad all the time, and we eat it rolled in pita with tomato slices! Yum! Another recipe from Michel.

MJ--you always make me LOLoutloud and I thank you for that!

Baino--I love the relative simplicity and repetition of certain constants in Lebanese cooking--the lemon, the mint, the garlic--although many dishes are difficult to prepare. I still haven't tackled proper mujeddera. My MIL makes it amazingly well, but she spends like an hour hulling all the lentils so that it's creamy!

mago--Thank you for your lovely comment. It is so sad about what's happened, over and over, in Lebanon, isn't it?

Megan!--can my new nickname be Brooklyn? Pretty please?!

Cece said...

It is our memories of our loved ones that keep them alive inside our hearts. I am honored that you have chosen to share all of this about yourself with all of us. I have enjoyed these last few posts very much, even though I haven't commented much. As far as Hedgie's "love affair", I understand. I'm going though the same thing with Forrest. He is even talking about marriage, at age 7. So just embrace it. Tell her that what she is feeling is perfectly normal, but she must keep limits on the public display of affections.

Suzanne said...

Wow, you look so young and innocent. Hummmmmmmmmmm. Do I need glasses?

All the foods you describe, I love. Every single one. You know me. Ugh! Although American, I'm very European. The oils, the olives, the veggies, etc. You know me. I'd fit right into your middles eastern family as well because I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE feta, oils and herbs. I'm a simple woman!!!

Lovely post. I'm hungry. Gotta go!

XO Suze ;)

California Girl said...

That is a memorable portrait. The description of the food and your reaction to it makes it real. I love this piece. Food preparation is a great way to show love. Thank you.

kylie said...

my mouth is watering as i try to remember the recommendation someone recently made for a lebanese restaurant!

beautiful post leah

Mrsupole said...

I still have memories of my Grandpa making Octopus Salad, he always kept an octopus in a bucket outside his back door until he moved to an apartment. A pan of rice on the stove. We did not ever see much of him because he was in Chicago and we were in California. We went to visit a few times a year. But when I was 19, I got to spend a few months with him. Every other day I had to cook a piece of liver for his poodle. Liver and lettuce is what his dog Fifi ate. A little tub of liver, even today will bring back those memories.

Yes, they say the smell of certain foods can bring back memories and it is true. What wonderful memories you have. I have never really eaten Lebonese food that I know of. I like to eat different kinds of food, so if I ever get a chance I would try some. It sounds really yummy.

Thank you for the great story.

Robyn said...

Just wonderful Leah...very touching!

Karen ^..^ said...

What an absolutely wonderful post!

How great to be able to share all of that with your father in law. Food brings us together in ways nothing else can.

Thank you for this beautiful story.

Donn Coppens said...

Very touching. I never understand why smell is said to be the memory sense..maybe it's because I can't smell anything..other than Bullsh*t! I think that sound is my trigger.

A loving tribute to a gentle soul. You are lucky to have met such a man.

Anonymous said...

'Taboulleh' is our absolutely favourite food- is that Lebanese?

My Grandmother used to make it and now it is a treat for every family occasion- as you say, it is the combination of parsley, mint and finely chopped spring onions, with lemon and olive oil- all in exactly the right balance - which makes the dish so special.

Don't get me going on Middle Eastern food- falafel- yum!

A lovely tribute to your father-in-law :)

savannah said...

lovely, sugar, absolutely lovely! xoxox

(and thank you for your kindness and support!)

Skeeter said...

Wow, those dishes all sound so tasty and good. Makes me hungry again. Very nice.

Best wishes,