'Day Of Honey': The Unifying Sweetness Of Food
'Day Of Honey': The Unifying Sweetness Of Food
Over the years, legions of journalist have come to the Middle East looking for the big story. Most bring back tales of war, political intrigue, religious conflict and human suffering, but journalist Annia Ciezadlo brought back something else as well: recipes. Ciezadlo covered the wars in Lebanon and Iraq for the Christian Science Monitor and The New Republic, and also used her time in the region to gather recipes and the stories behind them.
The title of her book, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War, refers to an Arabic phrase, youm aasl, youm basl, meaning "day of onion, day of honey."
"In Arabic, it rhymes," she tells Liane Hansen on Weekend Edition Sunday. "It means some days will be good, and some days will be bad on the most simple level." People use it to comfort each other, or in a more subtle way to say that even though someone may be on top of it all now, their day may soon come.
Learning another language attuned Ciezadlo to the fact that, like Arabic, English employs many food-related phrases that slip under our own radar. Especially in the context of war, we tend to use food metaphors, she says, "because they're very concrete and they're very material." Buildings are "pancaked," people are "sardined," the word "slaughterhouse" surfaces.
In A Tumultuous Time, 'You Still Have To Eat'
Behind the scenes of every country at war, there's a lesser-seen battle that people live through every day — that of the ordinary rhythm of their lives unraveling. In a passage from the book, Ciezadlo crystallizes the way that within this chaos, food plays a vital role:
In every war zone, there is another battle, a shadow conflict that rages quietly behind the scenes. You don't see much of it on television or in the movies. This hidden war consists of the slow but relentless destruction of everyday civilian life. The children can't go to school. The pregnant women can't give birth at a hospital. The farmer can't plow his fields. The musician can't play his guitar. The professor can't teach her class. For civilians, war becomes a relentless accumulation of can'ts. But no matter what else you can't do, you still have to eat.
Day of Honey
By Annia Ciezadlo
Hardcover, 400 pages
List Price: $26
Read An Excerpt
But faced with these can'ts, people often develop a determined, can-do attitude when it comes to food. Ciezadlo tells the story of a young Iraqi girl about to celebrate her 11th birthday in 2003. She had been out of school for a week because of a bombing that occurred on the first day of Ramadan that year, and her mother decided she wanted to get her a cake, because she was beginning to go "utterly stir-crazy" at home.
"This would seem like a simple thing, right?" Ciezadlo asks. But in Baghdad at that point in time, conditions had begun to deteriorate. Driving around town looking for just the right birthday cake was not only an act of bravery, but also a tremendous act of love, because it was so dangerous.
"It became this odyssey for her mother," Ciezadlo explains. The cake, she says, became a symbol of everything they couldn't have — like normalcy.
Coming Together Over Bread And A 'Pudding Belt'
When she arrived in Iraq, Ciezadlo herself looked for familiar sights in neighborhood markets. Finding markets filled an emotional need for her, but also served a practical purpose — she got to know a place very quickly through that scene.
Later, in 2005, Ciezadlo went to Lebanon to cover the war between Israel and Hezbollah. One of the most important things during that conflict, she recalls, was the role of the neighborhood bakeries.
"Not everybody has an oven," she says. "People would make the dough ... and then they would take it to the neighborhood bakery and have the baker bake it, because it's more efficient to have a communal oven."
It's also socially important. One of Ciazadlo's friends, cookbook writer Barbara Abdeni Massaad, pointed out to her that because of the civil war, the bakery assumed a role similar to that of the neighborhood pub. People can hang out there, gossip and talk politics; sometimes, it's a place where they can suspend hostilities toward each other.
Similarly, a Greek dish made when somebody dies brings people together, even if they aren't close relatives or don't share the same beliefs.
"It's a beautiful tradition. People make this thing called kolyva ... it's seeds and grains, it's very symbolic of fertility and sort of the cycle of life."
She describes kolyva as sort of a mush, or pudding, that you have to pass out to passers-by no matter who they are; the important part is to share it outside your normal social circle.
Similar traditions exist in Beirut, where a pudding called mighli is made when a baby is born, and one called ashura, made in Turkey which must be given out to 40 people (10 servings each to neighbors in each of the four cardinal directions). This led Ciazadlo to coin the term "pudding belt," referring to the geographical swath across which traditional puddings are made and shared with strangers from the Middle East into the Balkans and Eastern Europe. The pudding has a fundamental social purpose:
"[It] helps people share across sects and religion and ethnic differences," she says.
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Excerpt: 'Day of Honey'
Day of Honey
By Annia Ciezadlo
Hardcover, 400 pages
List Price: $26
There's a saying in Arabic: Fi khibz wa meleh bainetna—there is bread and salt between us. It means that once we've eaten together, sharing bread and salt, the ancient symbols of hospitality, we cannot fight. It's a lovely idea, that you can counter conflict with cuisine. And I don't swallow it for a second.
Just look at any civil war. Or at our own dinner tables, groaning with evidence to the contrary.
After September 11, liberal New Yorkers flocked to Arabic restaurants, Afghan, even Indian—anything that seemed vaguely Muslim, as if to say, "Hey, we know you're not the bad guys. Look, we trust you, we're eating your food." New York newspapers ran stories about foreigners and their food, most of which followed much the same formula: the warmhearted émigré alludes mournfully to troubles in his homeland; assures the readers that not all Arabs/Afghans/Muslims are bad; and then shares his recipe for something involving eggplants. They were everywhere after September 11, photos of immigrants holding out plates of food, their eyes beseeching, "Don't deport me! Have some hummus!" But a lot of them did get deported, and American soldiers got sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. A decade later, the lesson seems clear: You can eat eggplant until your toes turn purple, and it won't stop governments from going to war.
But then again, there is something about food. Even the most ordinary dinner tells manifold stories of history, economics, and culture. You can experience a country and a people through its food in a way that you can't through, say, its news broadcasts.
Food connects. In biblical times, people sealed contracts with salt, because it preserves, protects, and heals—an idea that goes back to the ancient Assyrians, who called a friend "a man of my salt." Like Persephone's pomegranate seeds, the alchemy of eating binds you to a place and a people. This bond is fragile; people who eat together one day can kill each other the next. All the more reason we should preserve it.
Many books narrate history as a series of wars: who won, who lost, who was to blame (usually the ones who lost). I look at history as a series of meals. War is part of our ongoing struggle to get food—most wars are over resources, after all, even when the parties pretend otherwise.
But food is also part of a deeper conflict, one that we all carry inside us: whether to stay in one place and settle down, or whether to stay on the move. The struggle between these two tendencies, whether it takes the form of war or not, shapes the story of human civilization. And so this is a book about war, but it is also about travel and migration, and how food helps people find or re-create their homes.
One of my old journalism professors, a man with the unforgettable name of Dick Blood, used to roar that if you want to write the story, you have to eat the meal. He was talking about Thanksgiving, when reporters visit homeless shelters, collect a few quotes, and head back to the newsroom to pump out heartwarming little features without ever tasting the turkey. But
I've found that this command—"You have to eat the meal"— is a good rule for life in general. And so whenever I visit a new place, I pursue a private ritual: I never let myself leave without eating at least one local thing.
We all carry maps of the world in our heads. Mine, if you could see it, would resemble a gigantic dinner table, full of dishes from every place I've been. Spanish Harlem is a cubano. Tucson is avocado chicken. Chicago is yaprakis; Beirut is makdous; and Baghdad—well, Baghdad is another story.
In the fall of 2003, I spent my honeymoon in Baghdad. I'd married the boyfriend, who was also a reporter, and his newspaper had posted him to Iraq. So I moved to Beirut, with my brand-new husband and a few suitcases, and then to Baghdad.
For the next year, we tried to act like normal newlyweds. We did our laundry, went grocery shopping, and argued about what to have for dinner like any young couple, while reporting on the war. And throughout all of it, I cooked.
Some people construct work spaces when they travel, lining up their papers with care, stacking their books on the table, taping family pictures to the mirror. When I'm in a strange new city and feeling rootless, I cook. No matter how inhospitable the room or the streets outside, I construct a little field kitchen. In Baghdad, it was a hot plate plugged into a dubious electrical socket in the hallway outside the bathroom. I haunt the local markets and cook whatever I find: fresh green almonds, fleshy black figs, just-killed chickens with their heads still on. I cook to comprehend the place I've landed in, to touch and feel and take in the raw materials of my new surroundings.
I cook foods that seem familiar and foods that seem strange. I cook because eating has always been my most reliable way of understanding the world. I cook because I am always, always hungry. And I cook for that oldest of reasons: to banish loneliness, homesickness, the persistent feeling that I don't belong in a place. If you can conjure something of substance from the flux of your life—if you can anchor yourself in the earth, like Antaeus, the mythical giant who grew stronger every time his feet touched the ground— you are at home in the world, at least for that meal.
Excerpted from Day of Honey by Annia Ciazadlo. Copyright 2011 by Annia Ciazadlo. Excerpted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Recipe: 'Abu Hadi's Fattet Hummus'
Abu Hadi's Fattet Hummus
Serves 2 generously
The key to this deceptively simple dish is getting all the elements ready as quickly as possible. Abu Hadi's version of this popular Levantine dish is a little different from the typical Beirut one, reflecting his Damascus upbringing. I have taken some liberties with his recipe, such as heating the cumin and paprika in the butter, and adding olive oil. I'm sure Abu Hadi would forgive me; he likes to experiment with new flavors.
1 3/4 cups cooked chickpeas or one 15-ounce can*
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
2 teaspoons lemon juice (about 1/4 lemon)
1 1/2 tablespoons tahini
2 1/2 cups whole milk yogurt
1 large or 2 medium (six-inch) day-old pitas, two halves separated
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried mint
* Approximately 2/3 cup dried.
Small cooking pot
2 small bowls
1 or 2 serving bowls (I recommend glass)
1. Rinse the chickpeas and rub them very lightly between your hands to remove as many of the skins as possible. Warm them in a small cooking pot with 1/4 inch water over very low heat. Add more water if necessary.
2. In a small bowl, mash the garlic and salt together with a pestle until they make a smooth paste. Add the lemon juice and stir until you have a loose slurry. Set aside.
3. Take half of the lemon-garlic mixture and put it in a second bowl. Add the tahini and mix until smooth. Add the yogurt and whisk until fully combined. Set aside.
4. Toast or fry the pita halves until just golden brown (for a step-by-step explanation, see the recipe for fattoush, page 329). When they are cool enough to handle, break them into bite-sized pieces—roughly ½-inch squares or triangles. Set aside half of them. Layer the other half on the bottom of a serving bowl.
5. Pour the chickpeas with their cooking liquid into the bowl with the remaining lemon-garlic slurry. Mix them until coated thoroughly, mashing about half the beans with the pestle. Dump them in your serving bowl on top of the toasted bread. Top with the yogurt mixture.
6. Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat with the olive oil. Add the pine nuts and toast, shaking the pan so they cook evenly, until golden brown. Add the paprika and cumin and stir gently to coat. Dump the nuts on top of the yogurt and top with the remaining toasted bread. Garnish with dried mint, and if desired, dust with more cumin and paprika.
Recipe: Lebanese Mighli
Serves 8 (small servings)
This recipe is adapted from two spectacular cooks—Georges Naassan's mother, who shared her recipe with me at Tango Night, and Rawda Mroue of Côte de Veau (a.k.a. Beiti, which means "my house"), a tiny hole-in-the-wall that offers some of the best home cooking in Beirut.
2 cups sugar
1 cup rice powder, sifted
8 cups cold water
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons ground caraway seeds
2 tablespoons ground anise or fennel seeds
1/4 cup walnut halves
1/4 cup slivered or blanched almonds
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup pistachios (shelled and unsalted)
1/2 cup coconut flakes
Medium cooking pot
Eight small ramekins
MAKING THE PUDDING
1. Mix the sugar, rice powder, and water in a medium pot. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Let it cool.
2. Add the spices and simmer, whisking often, until it thickens, about 1 hour. Pour into 8 small ramekins and chill, covered, overnight.
3. Mix the nuts and coconut flakes together (you can lightly toast the coconut flakes if you like). Divide into 8 portions (roughly 2 tablespoons each), and top the puddings with them.