My friends Susan and David are wedded, wonderful and Jewish. Manna from heaven is mezze at 7, and that means 7 o’clock prompt, which is dinnertime. I’m responsible for the champagne and the salty snacks meant to accompany it: grilled halloumi and matzah brei fried in shmaltz.
A year ago, Susan had never tasted the former, nor I the latter. In exchange for Itzhak Perlman’s In the Fiddler’s House, I gave her Fairuz. She turned me, a confirmed dog person, onto the magic of cats, and I got her hooked—and subsequently cooked—on cocktails. It’s friendship: Scores of traded traditions later, we no longer notice which one of us is on the receiving end.
Not surprisingly, Susan passes on the market’s Manischewitz in favor of a Kathryn Hall Diamond Mountain cab that we know and love. She makes brisket, at once humble and proud, from an old recipe. The resulting gravy, with which she serves it, is a silky puree made from the onions that sat caramelizing alongside the meat for the better part of a day.
“Oh jeez, no,” she snorts, when I ask if she learned the recipe from a family elder. “I think I got it from a magazine.”
Later, when the shredded potatoes destined for latkes turn gray because we’ve stopped too often to laugh over my baby pictures—or were they hers?—my grievances tumble out in Arabic while she kvetches in broken Russian.
Though secular to varying degrees, our combined backgrounds of Muslim and Jewish, Ohioan and Arab, suburban and itinerant, have led us here, to her hot little Santa Fe kitchen; our shared ideals are as numerous as our shared dining
“How do you say ‘l’chaim’ in Arabic?” Susan asks, but I can’t hear her. I’m too busy singing, “A spoonful of hummus helps the medicine go down” in the pantry. Later, over cheeseburgers (that are neither kosher nor halal) at Bobcat Bite, we reminisce about old Lebanon, which David has seen and I have not. We blithely decide to open a restaurant there together someday. As Arab-Muslim comedian Ahmed Ahmed said while on tour with Rabbi Robert Alper, Jews and Muslims are similar in a number of ways.
“Both Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork…[and] we both yell on the phone when there’s no emergency,” he joked. “The major difference is that Jews don’t like to spend any money and Muslims never have any money to spend…So let’s all get along and share, people.”
My comfort zone in the kitchen would best be defined as Levantine cuisine, the traditional cuisine of Ottoman Syria or the Levant. One of my reference guides is Claudia Roden’s trusty Book of Middle Eastern Food. Roden herself is an Egyptian Jew. When I examine the dishes in my own arsenal, I realize that I have little idea as to their origins and a few dark hours lost to Wikipedia tell me I don’t really care.
When I start to think about food as exclusive, as property, as a self-limiting experience, my heart is tweaked. What would I have eaten in high school in the Middle East without Greek feta cheese and Turkish coffee? I’ve had local versions of stuffed cabbage and grape leaves as far west as the Balkans, and though ‘arrack’ and even ‘alcohol’ are Arabic words, my preference for Italian liqueurs does not make me any less authentic of an Arab. Oh, and while we’re confessing: I like Romanian and Indian versions of halwa just as much as I like the ones made closer to home.
In Arabic, the word for ‘Bethlehem,’ Bayt Lahm, means “house of meat.” In Hebrew, the same word means “house of bread.” My first name, in Arabic, means mountain peak; its closest approximation, in Hebrew, means “panorama.” I know that things are always and never simple, but I find the paradox a poignant analogy for the endless conflict that arises from looking at the same thing from two different angles.
Indeed, many Palestinians believe that Israelis have stolen falafel, a common street food that’s been marketed successfully as the national snack of Israel. On the one hand, it’s easy for me to understand the need for cultural identity and to see food as one language used to communicate that. On the other hand, what is adopting and what is stealing? I ask myself this again as I sit down to a plate of pasta at an Italian café on the Baltic Sea: egg ravioli filled with smoked salmon and tossed with sour cream and caviar. Authentic? No. Offensive? To purists, maybe. Delicious? Quite.