Becoming Lebanese

Last summer a group of friends at the SMI was staying up way, way too late drinking wine and unloading after a long day of teaching and learning.  They invited me to join, but no sooner had I settled in than one friend decided it was time for bed. He began saying goodbyes, and I began laying on the guilt: 

"You're leaving? I just got here!" (It was after midnight.)

"We never have any time to talk!" (Patently false.)

 "Why do you hate me?" (If your Middle Eastern do not habitually play this histrionic trump card, you must not really be friends. It's a staple of the culture, as common as "keep a stiff upper lip" to the British.)

This last line prompted an outburst of laughter from all the Arabs present, which was just about everyone but me; one of them dubbed me an honorary Lebanese on the spot.  Defeated, my tired friend stayed another half an hour and then asked for my permission to retire.

Of course my real attraction to the Lebanese culture is not the guilt but the food. Last Pascha Rob surprised* me with the gift of this incredible book, which contains over 500 (!) traditional recipes and modern updates. It's a work of art, full of gorgeous photographs, and I enjoyed leafing through it for several weeks until the summer began. Then we hit a whirlwind of travel: we were gone 6 weeks out of 8, with mere days at home between trips. We finally arrived home on the cusp of the Dormition Fast, ready to stay put for awhile, and I was itching to start cooking for myself again after gracing the interior of far too many good and bad restaurants.

Here's the thing about fasting: it should be simple. Eat less, give more -- to God, to the church, to others. That's it. Instead, it becomes a chore. Reading labels. Planning exit strategies for social events. Trying to think of an allowed meal that sounds appetizing and contains something healthful. I hit Fasting Fatigue early and often during Lent and Advent, and this usually leads to breaking the fast or resenting the fast, or both.

So on July 31, I picked out a few traditional Lebanese recipes I wanted to try. All were fast-friendly (vegan) and fairly easy to make, if a little time-consuming: the fresh ingredients meant that a lot of chopping and pureeing was involved, though each dish was elemental in its simplicity. 

I was overjoyed, as I finished each one, to find it tasted exactly as it did at the best Middle Eastern restaurants (of which none exists in this area, and believe me, I have tried them all.)  At the end of two days I had a fridge full of healthy meals that were easy to prepare and so delicious I wouldn't even think of straying. We ate dips made from eggplant, chickpeas and walnuts; salad with lemony garlic dressing and pita croutons; and olives and pickled turnips, twice a day for a week. Then it was gone and we had to make more, only this time we added falafel, fried cauliflower, tahini sauce, tabbouli, preserved-lemon dressing and semolina almond cake, and doubled everything in honor of my mother's birthday. Over a dozen people crowded my house, each one effusive in praise of the amazing food, and the recipes were so straightforward I couldn't even try to take credit.

I didn't miss meat, not once. As much as I wanted to try the grape leaves with cinnamon-laced beef, raw lamb with spices and thick, creamy yogurt dip, I was perfectly happy with what I had made, the other 80% of the Lebanese canon. And it got me thinking about fasting and community. Saydeh touched on this in her comments about Holy Week (buried midway through this piece -- good luck!) When everyone is eating the same things, there are no pins and needles about cooking for guests or choosing what to eat at a host's table. And when the food is naturally, wonderfully simple, fasting becomes the norm; days when meat or dairy is allowed seem like a luxury.

We noticed this about our friend who is a priest in Southeast Asia and also a fabulous cook; most of his favorite recipes are based on vegetables and tofu, seasoned with a wide variety of aromatics and spicy sauces. When he's eating meat, he might throw in some chicken or beef, but tofu alone is delicious because it's allowed to be tofu -- it's not trying to be a hamburger. American food is just stubbornly unadaptable: all our traditional favorites (hot dogs, sandwiches, ice cream, pizza) are not only generally unhealthy, but also unpalatable without cheese and meat. Ever tried a veggie sub? Bread and sliced raw vegetables. As asetic and pitiful as it sounds.

Last year I fell into the habit of grabbing something small to eat during the school day -- yogurt, fruit, a boiled egg -- and eating my main meal of the day in the afternoon when I returned home and had access to my whole kitchen and pantry. So on Friday I had some nuts and fruit at school and came home to fattoush, hummus and mahamra. Then Rob mixed up ground beef, rice and spices and we rolled over a hundred grape leaves. We brought a few to the house of some close friends to enjoy, nightfall bringing the start of a non-fasting day, and in our conversation they pointed out the crux of what I'm getting at here. Not that the whole world should convert to a Middle Eastern diet (I wish!) but that being part of a traditional community makes fasting not only doable but enjoyable. 

Next on my journey to becoming Lebanese: discovering what magic they can work with chicken. And a very pleasant Advent fast.

*I may have ordered and paid for it myself, but I promised to give him credit. That counts, right?