'Day Of Honey': The Unifying Sweetness Of Food Journalist Annia Ciezadlo covered the Iraq War and the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict for major newspapers. While abroad, she absorbed local recipes and the culture of food, and stories like the bravery of a mother driving across Baghdad for her 11-year-old daughter's birthday cake.
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'Day Of Honey': The Unifying Sweetness Of Food

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'Day Of Honey': The Unifying Sweetness Of Food

'Day Of Honey': The Unifying Sweetness Of Food

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Over the years, the Middle East has seen legions of journalists who come to the region all looking for the big story. Most of them bring back tales of war, political intrigue, religious conflict and human suffering. 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. She also used her time in the region to gather recipes and the stories behind them. These are woven in her new memoir, "Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War." And Annia Ciezadlo is in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Ms. ANNIA CIEZADLO (Author, "Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War"): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: Tell us about the phrase: A day of honey, which is contrasted to another phrase: Day of onion.

Ms. CIEZADLO: In Arabic it rhymes, (Foreign language spoken), and so it's got this sort of beautiful rhythm. It means that some days will be good and some days will be bad on the most simple level. I've heard people use it to comfort each other when something bad happens. I've heard people in a kind of subtle way to say, hey, you know, this guy's on top now but his day's going to come.

HANSEN: Yeah. The Arab language is, I mean, just rippled with references to food. I mean, what role does food play in the language, especially in times of war?

Ms. CIEZADLO: It's funny, you know, learning a different language makes you realize that actually your own language is full of these things as well. And one thing that I realized was that in English we use a lot of food metaphors. We just don't really think of them. And there's a passage in the book where I talk about how in wartime we tend to use food metaphors because they're very concrete and they're very material. You know, buildings are pancaked, sardined. War can be a slaughterhouse, things like this. We use them without even thinking that they have this connection to food.

HANSEN: Can you turn your book to page eight because it really crystalizes what you're saying about food.


(Reading) In every war zone there's 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.

HANSEN: You tell a story, the first story you wrote in Iraq, and it was about a birthday party. And you talk about the faced with can'ts - there tends to be a can-do attitude in terms of food.

Ms. CIEZADLO: Um-hum. This was a case where there was a young Iraqi girl and it was her 11th birthday. And she had been kept out of school for a week because there had been a huge bombing on the first day of Ramadan that year - 2003. And she was beginning to go just utterly stir crazy, so her mother decided to get her a birthday cake. And this would seem like a simple thing, right, like, go to the bakery, get a birthday cake.

But in Baghdad at that time things are beginning to deteriorate so it became this odyssey for her mother. And to drive all over town looking for just the right birthday cake was not only just an act of bravery, because it was dangerous at that time, but also this tremendous act of love. The cake became a symbol of everything they couldn't have. And to me, that kind of story is the real story of a war - the heroic act of a mother trying to get a cake for her daughter.

HANSEN: When you arrived in Iraq, you immediately started searching for markets and local dishes to try and make. Was that a coping strategy for you?

Ms. CIEZADLO: Definitely for me. It's something that almost like an emotional need, but at the same time it's also very practical. It helps me get to know a place very quickly.

HANSEN: Your husband is originally from Lebanon. He's also a journalist. You were both in Iraq. He was covering the war there. And you eventually left Iraq and went to Beirut. You were there during the war between Israel and the Hezbollah in 2005. And one of the things that stood out in your mind was the role of the neighborhood bakeries. Tell us why they were so important during this terrible time.

Ms. CIEZADLO: I think part of it has to do with tradition. There's such a long tradition of having neighborhood bakeries. In fact, not everybody has an oven. People would make the dough or make the filling for a dish 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 also is very important socially.

My friend, Myra Adini Massad(ph), who is a Lebanese cookbook writer, she put it really beautifully. She pointed out that in Lebanon, partly because of the civil war, the bakery has come to assume this role that's very similar to the role of the neighborhood pub. It's where people can hang out, where they can gossip, where they can talk politics, and it's also where they can sometimes suspend hostilities.

HANSEN: What's the Pudding Belt?

Ms. CIEZADLO: This is something I made up.

HANSEN: No, you did not.

Ms. CIEZADLO: It's like the Bible Belt. Because I'm Greek, I knew about this particular kind of - you could call it a pudding; you could call it a sort of mush - but the people make in Greece. There's this beautiful tradition. People make this thing called kaliva when somebody dies. It's seeds and grains. It's very symbolic of fertility and sort of cycle of life.

And the idea is that you have to pass it out to passersby, no matter who they are. So, it's not something that you make just for people you know. It's important that you share it with people outside your family circle and your social circle.

In Beirut, there's a similar tradition when a baby is born and people make this pudding called muesli, which, again, is a symbol of fertility and of life beginning and things like that. And so I was particularly interested in this because I saw it as the mirror image of kaliva, you know. One is made when somebody dies and one is made when a baby is born.

And so I started researching and I found that these kinds of puddings are made in this belt from the Middle East all the way to the Balkans and even into Eastern Europe. In Turkey, there is an example called ashura. You give it to 40 people - 10 neighbors in each of the four directions. This helps people share across sects and religion and ethnic differences.

HANSEN: Annia Ciezadlo covered the wars in Iraq and Lebanon for the Christian Science Monitor and the New Republic. Her new book is called "Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War." She is in NPR's New York bureau. Thanks so much.

Ms. CIEZADLO: Thanks so much for having me.

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