No Nonsense/ a food essay by Penny Freel

I begin with a highly embellished Christmas anecdote but have sprinkled it with a few kernels of truth: the relatives, the eyebrow, and my father’s good-natured ways. I wish one and all Eid Milad Majid (Merry Christmas).

When I was a child, my mother’s family from out of state would visit. I always thought they actively disliked each other. Raised voices and interruptions were the norm. As I moved into my teen years, I realized that the loud voices and the dissent were all part of our family show. This was the way they loved. Every so often, though, a family member showed their claws. Love comes in many sounds and forms, especially at a Lebanese family gathering, especially at the dining table, even at Christmastime.

We were together that December Sunday to wish each other an early Merry Christmas. Yuletide cheer was in the air until we sat down to eat. My father had lowered the volume of The Best of Sinatra Christmas to a sweet croon when one of my aunts said to one of her younger brothers as he looked longingly at the food, “Haraam (You poor thing)! If you want Lebanese food, you know I will make it for you. A lovely thought but he was seated at my parents’ dining room table, and my mother had spent most of the previous two days and Sunday morning prepping and making a Lebanese feast. We were just beginning to tuck into the meze she had placed in front of her brothers and sisters, their wives and husbands: Labneh, Khubz, olives, Stuffed Grape Leaves, Baba Ghannuj and the requisite Hummus, when after a communal intake of breath, all went silent. Even Sinatra seemed to halt; platters thumped back onto the table, spoons hovered, and forks froze in mid-air (think Hogwarts dining room). A storm was brewing at the dining table.

My mother had raised her eyebrow. This was the equivalent of a red flag warning at the ocean; it was the fiery flare signaling to proceed with extreme caution. It was the sign to be quiet and to sit down. But my father managed to squelch the unrest with one of his jokes, and with his usual bonhomie and his imperfect Lebanese, he made us all laugh. He was the official bomb de-fuser. It was his gift. The relatives raised their glasses to toast the chef, and my aunt had the good grace to blush. My mother eventually smiled, her eyebrow relaxed, holiday goodwill resumed, the platters of food were passed from one to another, and Sinatra happily finished wishing us to have a merry little Christmas now. 

My mother favored a no-nonsense, highly organized and efficient approach to cooking. She was the eldest daughter in a family of seven other brothers and sisters and was obligated at an early age to cook alongside her mother. She knew how to bake bread and break down a leg of lamb by the time she was ten. Even then I suspect she could hold her own among other Lebanese cooks. As an adult she had not lost her touch. She was a knowledgeable chef, and her Hummus was par excellence. 

Hummus is a combination of earthy, nutty, garlicky, lemony intense flavors, each working in synergy to create a satisfying richness. With a piece of khubz, it is simply delicious but not pretentious.  Rustic rather than dainty. It holds its own against more complex richly dressed Lebanese food. I would declare it handsome rather than beautiful. 

If you are planning to make Hummus the old-fashioned way, then brace yourself, for the original recipe called for labor. I remember my grandmother (“situ” in Lebanese) H. making it. This was before the advent of home blenders and food processors. The chickpeas were placed in a bowl of water and soaked overnight. The next day, she would drain the beans, refill the pot with fresh water, and simmer for an hour and a half. Once finished, she would allow time for them to cool then she would place two towels, one underneath and one on top of the beans, and using a rolling pin, she would flatten the chickpeas and also remove the skins. My grandmother would blend the tahini, garlic, lemon juice, and water and add it to the chickpeas. Using a potato masher, she would mash the chickpeas to the desired consistency; it was never 100% smooth. For the finishing touch, right before serving, she would add a drizzle of olive oil, place a sprig of parsley in the middle and finish it off with a dash of paprika. 

Fast forward to the mid 60’s. My mother used canned chickpeas and a blender. She would drain the chickpeas, and one by one remove the skins. Using the blunt handle of her paring knife, she would prepare a garlic slurry in a small bowl. Next, she would add tablespoons of tahini and lemon juice. The mixture would be slack for a minute or two then would thicken up. To loosen the mixture she would add water, just enough to soften the tahini/lemon juice and place in the blender along with the chickpeas until the desired thickness was achieved, then replicate the end steps from the olive oil to the parsley to the paprika. 

Tradition and ritual are part of the brain’s muscle memory, and when I am lucky, a cooking moment comes flooding back in technicolor. I realize the essence of my Hummus is rooted in my grandmother’s and my mother’s recipe.  I see my mother in her kitchen, prepping the ingredients with an almost surgical precision and organizing her knives and spoons and bowls on the old kitchen table. As for me, I opt for a food processor and find a mortar and pestle as good as the blunt handle end of my mother’s knife. I make sure not to create a soupy mixture, and I follow in my grandmother’s and mother’s footsteps completing the recipe just as they would. 

I have inherited my situ H’s sheer joy of cooking and my mother’s appreciation for order and efficiency and for her dislike of messiness in the kitchen. All these years later, I still sense my mother’s presence, and I have a feeling she watches. I know when she has that eyebrow arched in my direction but also know when she is pleased by my daily doings and by my effort of keeping alive the tastes of our heritage. I see her smile. I feel her no-nonsense hug.  Par excellence! 

//////////

Penny Freel, staff writer

Penny Freel is a staff writer for Lightwood magazine. She writes essays and memoirs about food and travel and lives in New York and Florida.

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