March 21, 2009
Today I am making sfiha, a meat pie of Middle Eastern origin. I don’t know what a regulation sfiha consists of. I have seen many recipes in our cookbooks and on line. No two of them are the same, and none of them are like the ones I make. I learned to make sfiha from my mother, and she learned it from her mother. If my mother and grandmother made it this way, this way must be legitimate, I figure. Even if that weren’t true, I wouldn’t change anything. I make them this way partly because we like them this way, but also because it is a means of perpetuating the palpable presence in this world of my Lebanese grandmother – whom I did not know – and my mother. Perhaps it’s part of a larger neurosis, but I am very conscious of things like that. In order to make sfiha – the way I make it and they made it – I have to cut a whole bunch of celery into thin slices. Before I do, I remove the leaves. My mother said the leaves have a taste – not unpleasant but a little bitter – that the stalks do not have, and that taste has no place in sfiha. Not the way we make it. It’s just as well, because my Italian grandmother taught me to save celery leaves and eat them with olive oil and a little salt. A simple thing, but a great delicacy. I eat celery leaves that way because I like them, but also because the taste of them makes my grandmother’s influence on me and her care for me alive again in a material way. For the same reason, I eat cold, sliced, boiled potatoes with olive oil and a little salt. Grandma taught me that. There’s nothing quite like it because, as she told me, the neutral taste of the potatoes is a perfect medium for the subtle tastes – plural – in virgin olive oil. For a similar reason, I prepare hard-boiled eggs by mashing them with a fork until they are the consistency of powder, and then eat them – lightly salted – with a spoon. I learned that from my Lebanese grandfather, who sits with me whenever I have hard-boiled eggs. And I learned from my Italian grandfather to baste a grilling steak with a mixture of vinegar and olive oil. He stands there a step or two behind me while the aroma of the drops hitting the flame take me back to summer afternoons long gone and a man never forgotten.