I grew up in a home where my grandmother and my mother were renowned for their Lebanese cuisine. People, hundreds, many Lebanese immigrants still finding their feet in a new country which didn’t speak their language, would come from far afield for a Sunday lunch.
Sunday lunches would consist of all delicacies such as kibbe (crushed wheat with raw meat, all put through the mincer, accompanied with chillies, mint, onion and the best olive oil all wrapped in flat, thin bread), vine leaves and cabbage rolls. It never ceased to amaze me how a lowly vine leaf could be transformed into an epic food adventure when left to my mother.
One of my earliest memories is watching my mother cut up chunky pieces of turnips to pickle with beetroot. I would watch daily until the stark white turnips turned a shocking pink colour – and then I knew we would soon be opening the heavy glass jars and biting on the sour delights.
I was doubly lucky in that my dad owned a small fruit shop in which I would often play amongst the purple aubergines, the different shades of greens seen in the fresh mint, parsley and coriander or the sunset-coloured pineapples. The colours and fragrances always caused a trickle of delight and from a young age I knew how to tell when a watermelon was just right for eating and a granadilla past its sell-by date.
I watched as my mom and gran made their own cheese which hung out in muslin cloths on our laundry line outside, knowing that tomorrow we would have crumbly white cheese, unlike any I had tried at the stores. And the bur’ghul (crushed wheat) – unable to get it as conveniently as we do today – would be set out on long sheets in the sun to dry and later be crushed. As for hummous – the chickpeas had to be boilt up and then crushed to a paste by hand (no tinned chickpeas and blenders).
And the chickens we had running around, many whom I befriended, and to my horror, one day, no more than seven in age and spying on my gran, I watched in complete and utter horror as she held on to a chicken, whom I had come to call Gertrude, and ….chopped her head off!!! I never quite looked at my gran or the food on my plate the same way, once I had made the connection.
I felt lucky to miss out on the chore of defeathering the poor dead chicken, to this day my mother blames a stray wild hair on her middle finger on those defeathering days which she clearly did not like at all.
All the cooking was done on a black stove run on fire and no electricity. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that we got a proper stove with electricity.
My mom, now 80, still likes slow cooking, and preparation can take a day or two for a big feast. Even when times are tough my mom has a pot of food on the stove. I am not quite sure how she does it.
I have watched as trends have changed, always keeping an eye open so that I could give information to my mother who would adapt and adopt recipes. Soon the double thick rich yoghurt was replaced by fat free bulgarian and some of our meaty dishes got a more vegetarian twist. We delighted when our meze (tapas) became popular even among those who hadn’t ventured to our home and, when slow food – something we had lived our lives by – took over from fast food, we felt triumphant.
So much of what I strive for today – recycling, growing my own veggies, picking fruit off my own trees, chopping my own veggies from the garden, chickens who roam free – were all things the women who ruled our family’s kitchen were doing many many many years ago. As for recycling, my mother and grandmother were the queens of recycling, bottles were always reused, food waste became fodder, water used sparingly and of course for a big part of it all, we used candles at night time.
Things are so much more easier to access these days, they’re fast, even pre-cut veggies to the point that my friend’s daughter didn’t know what the cerese coloured veg I asked her to wash was (sweet potato) although she had eaten many but she had only ever seen them in cubes and peeled at the supermarket.
I get nostalgic for those days sometimes, and clinging tightly onto my mother’s dress, me being so overwhelmed at the loud and passionate existence i was born into. They were not easy days for many reasons, but there was a sense of reality of where our food came from, even if I had to watch dear Gertrude be slaughtered. Somehow it made things seem real, the connection could be made, it was conscious eating, and slow cooking. It was good.It was bad. But mostly it was real.
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