Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Memories and Legacy

How many of your fondest memories are tied to taste and smell? The taste of a perfectly seasoned corn muffin sends me back to summer family trips to Sea Island. A rare and perfect Christmas tree sugar cookie conjures handmade Christmas stockings made for each of us every year by my grandmother. And buttered elbow macaroni with salt and pepper resurrects my great-aunt’s voice in my head and the smell and feel of her home.

A few weeks ago it was my privilege to spend the day in the kitchen of my dear friend Lina. She and her husband moved to my hometown when I was child and soon became friends of my parents. She was the first person I remember befriending who was of a different culture and nationality than my family. To me she was the exciting wonders of the world personified.

I remember the first time we had dinner at their house. She had prepared some favorite dishes from their home country of Syria. At every bite my suspicion of new flavors fought with the burst of spices that filled my mouth. I think this was the moment that ignited my interest in international cooking.

When I first started my Cooking Priest Project I thought of the many times Lina and I had promised each other we would get together to cook. This was the push I needed to call in that promise and beg to spend a day in her kitchen.

But it would be misleading to recommend this was the only reason. The crisis in Syria has made my heart ache for my friends. Lina, her husband, and their family have been in my heart and prayers since it all began and I felt a need to spend time with her. It’s impossible to imagine what it would be like to watch your home torn apart by war and to see people from your native country streaming from your homeland seeking refuge wherever they may find it.

I wanted to know how cooking the foods from home may have changed for her since the war in Syria began. Food and memory are inextricably linked because food activates all of our senses, helping to lock away memories for future recall.

Lina chose our focus for the day: wheat and dairy. We talked about yoghurt making, how bread always should be perfectly round, and the boiling of wheat for various dishes. Of course there was strong coffee spiced with cardamom as well as tea tempered with milk and sugar.

An added treat were the nuts and seeds she had purchased from a roaster in Atlanta. She had two varieties of roasted chickpeas that were the best I’ve ever had in my life. One kind popped and powdered under the crunch of the teeth the way puffball mushrooms explode under foot in the summertime.

At one point Lina picked one of the pumpkin seeds and showed me how to crack open the shell for the nut inside. As she held the seed in her hand and gently broke the shell in her teeth, her beautiful face changed ever so slightly so that it glowed with memory. A smile glinted in her eyes as she told me she and her girlfriends as teenagers would sit in her hometown and crack these seeds as they talked about the things that occupy the minds of young women.

For a moment we both were there with her teenage self. For a moment there was no turmoil; there was only sun and laughter and the cracking of seeds.

I asked Lina if cooking the foods from home had changed for her since the crisis began. At first she didn’t think it had but then she said she felt more of an urgency to cook the food now. Cooking the foods from her youth and home was a way of keeping that past alive, preserving the Syria she had known and loved.

Showing others how to prepare the dishes we love and then enjoying them together is a way of passing on the legacy of our identity. Repeating the steps and readying a meal more than feeds us, it shows us and others who we are. Through it we invite others into our world, our reality. We share with them a time and place that means so much to us and also impart a bit of that identity in them so it may be carried on in some small way.

I spent over seven hours in Lina’s kitchen and ate as much of the delicacies of her home as I possibly could. We ended our day with a promise for more to come and have another scheduled already. I look forward to it, not just for what I will learn and for all the fantastic dishes I’m sure to sample, but for the invitation into Lina’s self to learn more about the home she holds in her heart.

Preparing Milk for Yoghurt Making

Fresh Cheese made from Yoghurt

A Third-Stage Cheese from Yoghurt

The Three Coffee Pots for the Three Stages

A Traditional Easter Morning Breakfast

Lina Tests the Milk for the Perfect Temperature for Making Yoghurt

A Proper Syrian Breakfast: Delicious!

Beautiful Linens from Damascus

While the City has Its Linens, the Country has Amazing Woven Baskets

Our Ethereal Bread with Breakfast!

My Lovely Teacher!

Glowing Golden Boiled Wheat

A Proper Snack for a Syrian Teenage Girl

The BEST Roasted Chickpeas

My Teacher Showing How It's Done

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