A Personal Food History

Being half-Syrian and half-Hillbilly, you could say I’ve had my share of exposure to some pretty dang good food.

On one side, my childhood palette was indulged by my mother’s parents (the Syrian ones) every Sunday for dinner. Those visits included such tasty concoctions as my grama’s grapeleaves, kibbe, sfeeha, lubi, kibbe laban, hawshwa, laban, adas, hunks of blue cheese, olives, fatoosh salad, baklawa, ruz bi halib, and ohhhh the rice. The yummy kind with pine nuts and orzo. And since my hillbilly dad didn’t touch any of it, my grama used to make him his own dish every week, which was often times the most amazing roast you will ever eat. Guaranteed. My grama was an amazing cook. We’re talking everything she touched, turned to delicious. There wasn’t anything she made that she couldn’t get me to eat and instantly love. Even raw kibbee. Mmmm.

One of my favorite things to do when in my grama’s kitchen, was opening up her spice pantry (a full-sized pantry containing well over 500 spices) sitting in front of it, playing jacks or pickup sticks, and just breathing in all the different smells and spices from that pantry while she cooked our dinner. To this day, that experience is seered into my brain. And sadly, it is something that can never be duplicated. Her secrets and spices died with her. I was nineteen when she passed away, and with her she took her secrets. It is a travesty that no one was smart enough to sit over her shoulder, and write her recipes down. My mom never learned to cook most of these things, mainly because I had an American father who despised them. The ones she does know how to duplicate, I’ve written down and placed in the vault for future generations. The others, I’ve made my mom contact siblings, aunts, and cousins trying to track down the secret hidden treasures.

The ones we’ve managed to procure never quite match my grama’s version sadly. But the ones that are close, I am pretty good at working with over and over again, making adjustments to them until I can get them as close as possible to what I remember my grama’s version tasting like.

The adas (the Syrian easter bread), is one of those lost recipes. We have a version that comes close, but it isn’t exact. After years of adjustments, I think I’ve finally come close. At least my sister and my mom told me that I’m almost there. Which makes me feel completely happy inside. It’s frustrating having to do all this trial and error for something that I was too stupid to learn when she was alive. Thinking that my mom had been paying attention, and knew all her mother’s secrets. *sigh* ah well. It’s fun being in the kitchen and sometimes, while I’m making all my adjustments, I can almost hear my grama whisper down to me “a little more salt” or “you forgot the mahleb.”

And that is my Syrian side.

Now, on the other side, I have pure hillbilly. My other grandparents were your typical American mutts made up of English, Irish, Scottish, Finnish, and Dutch. They came from the poverish depths of Missouri (or “Mahzurrah” as my Grama Dee used to say) where they bred their own rabbits and chickens to eat for dinner. My Grama Dee married my grandpa when she was 17, and moved up to Detroit so that he could work for one of the factories up here. She also was an amazing cook, that had a way with a stick of butter, some bacon grease, and a can of pet milk like no other.

From her, I was given my weekly stipend of fried just about anything (potatoes, hamburgers, bacon, sausage, ham, chicken, etc) along with a pot full of butter and creamed just about anything (corn, squash, tomatoes, beans, etc). She introduced her six grandchildren to her depression staple…ketchup spaghetti which consisted of water, ketchup, onion, sugar, butter, and spaghetti noodles. And whenever I am missing her, I will whip up a batch of this and it’s like a little piece of her (or heaven) right in my belly.

Most Sunday breakfasts during my childhood were spent eating her pancakes, eggs, sausage (patty and links), bacon, bisquits with chicken gravy, fried potatoes in bacon grease from the week before, and some sort of dessert. Maybe her rhubarb crunch. Or her layered pudding dessert which is also known as “rabbit ass“. The story goes that she was whipping up this dessert (which calls for a bunch of shaved chocolate to top the layers of whipped cream, vanilla and chocolate puddings, and shortbread crust) and she had taken one of my cousin’s Easter chocolate rabbits, and was shaving it on top of the dessert. When my cousin, Brian, walked up and asked her what she was doing…she sassily proclaimed “makin’ me a little rabbitt ass”. So the story goes…

There are times when I crave my Grama Dee’s buttered squash (quite simply a can of pet milk, a stick of butter, and sliced squash brought to a boil) so much that it’s insane. I’ve tried making her fried chicken…to no avail. There are some things that just cannot be duplicated. Her fried chicken was one of them. But thank goodness, for the most part, they can. My Grama Dee wrote down most of her recipes for us. I remember calling her up and asking her how to make one of her infamous recipes, she’d tell me on the phone and I would scrawl it down on some temporary tablet (a napkin, or old receipt) which would then get ruined by splashes and splatters and consequently then thrown away.

But then lo and behold, a few days later, in the mail, I would open up a letter from my Grama Dee along with a pristine 3×5 recipe card that I’d called about, all hand-written in her chicken-scratch handwriting. It was like she somehow knew that I was not capable of writing it down on something that would last more than one attempt. She was so smart. And knew me so well. I have many of these recipe cards from her, accumulated over the years so that I would never lose her secrets. My cousin, Brian, is guardian of most of her recipes. And if we can ever get it together, we need to put them into a family cookbook so that everybody has them. But for now, this food blog will have to suffice as a temporary solution.

So now, you have just a small idea of why I love food so much. Because to me? Food is just a bunch of memories from those people that I love and miss so much. It’s how I remember certain things. And it’s a way to be able to sometimes get a little piece of them back. If only over a hot stove.

Just for a little while.