An executive at my former company once told me that his wife kept a list posted in their kitchen entitled “People Mark is going to call some day.” This subject came up because I had written a column about my dissatisfaction about the way Nabisco packages graham crackers. I called the 800 number on the box, and talked to a sympathetic woman who — it seemed clear — wouldn’t do anything about my complaint. If Mark ever called anyone on that list, I hope he got better results than I did.
As for the list itself, I guess it represents an almost universal tendency in us humans to intend to do more things than we actually do. That certainly is a tendency of mine, but last night I did scratch one off the list — which in our household is figurative.
Specifically, I made stuffed zucchini for dinner – or, as we of Lebanese ancestry call it – stuffed koosa — koosa being an Arabic term for “squash.” I’ve been talking about making that dish since well before my mother died, which was more than 10 years ago. We even went so far as to buy the type of knife that is made specifically to hollow out the zucchini before stuffing it with a mixture of meat, rice, onions, and garlic. That knife lay in a drawer in our kitchen since at least 2002 — maybe longer. Whenever I’d reach for something else and impale my hand on that knife, I would repeat my intention: “One of these days . . . .”
This had become a joke between Pat and me, but for some reason — in the past week or ten days — procrastination morphed into a real plan. Pat brought home some zucchini, as she often does in the summer, and I said I should stuff them — not the hypothetical zucchini of the past decade, but those particular zucchini — and that I should do it on Thursday. Conflicts arose, Thursday became Friday, and then Friday became Saturday. Saturday, as it turned out, was not some day, but the day. I followed a simple recipe I found at THIS LINK, and I was a success — which in this case means that I turned out stuffed koosa the way I remember it from home.
Since it was my first attempt at this enterprise, I conceded a point to the author of the recipe and used allspice. Normally, when I cook Lebanese food, I use cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg, and I monkey around with the proportions as I go until I’m satisfied with the taste. Next time.
I have mentioned here before that I maintain my intimacy with departed family members through certain kinds of food that I associate with them. With respect to my paternal grandmother and my mother, this is especially effective because they both were excellent cooks and they both loved to cook and to feed other people. I’m not one to moon over the people I miss – and I do miss my mother. I’d rather get up to my wrists in onions, garlic and zucchini, knowing how she would laugh at the sight, how she would nudge me if my hand got too heavy with the salt, how she would call me a “crazy kid,” even at this age, and how she would tell me — even if it weren’t true — that I had done well.
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.