It’s been a while, but here I am. It feels like an especially dark solstice amidst a dark plague year, but I’m hoping to return to regular posting to share some spots of brightness. First up: a book that I helped co-edit, which has just been published: Making Levantine Cuisine.
It’s my first foray into academic book publishing, and I’m particularly excited to share it here because this book is not just an academic book: nope. Nope nope nope! Alongside history and ethnography, archival evidence and close readings, there are personal essays and poetry. One of those poems, Zeina Azzam’s “Nafas in the Kitchen,” was written in part because of a conversation at the conference where this book started to come together. You should read that poem now!
And then come back here to read the rest of this post which is about the final and perhaps most exciting element of the book: the recipes.
The book has my name on the cover (along with my two co-editors) but it represents the work of many, many more people than that. In academic speak, it’s an “edited volume” –– each chapter was written by a different person. Collectively they offer a range of perspectives on the history and culture of modern Levantine cuisine: the food of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan.
As we put together the conference that eventually led to the book project, we sought to include not just multiple disciplines, topics, and languages, but culinary knowledge from beyond the academy altogether. Alongside scholarly food anthropology and cookbook histories, the book includes essays and recipes by culinary professionals and experts. These chapters, written by Reem Kassis, Antonio Tahhan, and Suzanne Zeidy, reflect perspectives on the Levant that are both personal and rooted in practical culinary experience. To understand the “making of Levantine cuisine,” our book insists on the importance of lived experience and culinary know-how. These, to us, are as important as ethnographic richness and archival inquiry.
Including recipes also means that you can cook your way through the book and give some sensory shape to the culinary worlds it describes. In some small way, it’s my hope that these recipes lend our book a different kind of readability.
In 2018 Krishnendu Ray called on food scholars to “thread joy, pleasure, and sociability into the weave of our critical theories” as a way to confront the “revanchist ethno-nationalisms” that face us around the world today. The ways that food has been a tool of ethno-nationalist projects, from the Israeli appropriation of Palestinian dishes to the erasure of Armenian contributions to Turkish foodways, is a recurring theme of our book. So what does it mean to cook the recipes that root Palestinian identity across its diverse landscapes or mark the persistence of cultural practices in diaspora?
The goal is not, to borrow again from Ray, to fall into “the gourmand’s trap of pure apolitical pleasure or easy cross-cultural sentimentality.” Making good food does not elide inequality or stand as a substitute for political action. As bell hooks wrote, intercultural exchange –– consuming the culture of the “other” –– does nothing in and of itself to erase structures of domination that frame those encounters.* But recipes, as well as being invitations to cook and eat, can also remind and instruct. We all exist in bodies, and all human efforts –– including protesting, educating, learning, and organizing –– are fueled by eating. Eating depends on culinary knowledge and culinary labor. Learning from that knowledge and labor in a practical way re-orients us to the details of how cultural resistance, steadfastness, and care have been or might be sustained, in others’ kitchens and in our own.
Having cooked the book’s recipes myself, I am here to tell you that they are reliable and they are delicious; you will learn something from them, and they will very likely bring you joy and sustenance too. If you need a reason to buy a copy of the book, or to ask your local library to buy one, I am here to tell you that the recipes (eleven in all) are a very good reason indeed. (Right now the fastest, cheapest way to get a copy is to order from the University of Texas press directly using a promotional discount good through the end of 2021; details here. The proceeds will fund scholarships, and all contributors were paid for their writing.) Without further ado, a brief taste of the contents:
Sweetness, Syria, and Sitto’s rice pudding. Antonio Tahhan shares his grandmother’s rice pudding recipe, including some sitto-level cooking tips. The recipe––and the essay that accompanies it––pair well with Sara Pekow’s article on the transformation of sugar in Syria from luxury good to commodity in the early twentieth century. That transformation meant that the elaborate confections for which Syria’s elite kitchens had long been famous gradually became accessible to ordinary Syrians.
This semester one of my students built her final research project around this dish, comparing her own mother’s Palestinian version of the recipe to Tahhan’s version as well as a Turkish one. She drew on Pekow’s work to present a new historical context for this family favorite, and also discussed the question of what unites a dish with wide regional variations. In this case it was not only a matter of ingredients (rice, milk, sugar, aromatics) but the crucial dimension of texture and starchiness. Pictured here: a serving suggestion inspired by my student’s project!
On place and national cuisine. Reem Kassis follows an essay titled “Even in a Small Country Like Palestine, Cuisine is Regional” with a medley of Palestinian recipes from Gaza, Hebron, Jerusalem, and the Galilee. The recipes are an apt illustration of her argument, which simultaneously celebrates the wide range of factors underpinning Palestinian cuisine’s regional diversity while demonstrating the significance of the category of Palestinian cuisine as an essential touchpoint for Palestinians at home and in the diaspora.
The essay was the most-referenced work on my syllabus in students’ final papers and projects, likely because of the way Kassis deftly captures the salience of culinary nationalism, particularly for Palestinians, while maintaining a critical stance towards the concept –– pushing back on the notion that national (or any) culinary traditions are pure, unchanging, or beholden to some timeless essence. Pictured here is a recipe from Gaza: shrimp stewed in a delectable blend of tomatoes, hot peppers, and dill. It is pitch-perfect; I am going to make a point of preparing it for my family this Christmas.
Mezze as traveling (culinary) theory. Suzanne Zeidy’s chapter about the shifting place of mezze in Egyptian restaurant culture concludes a section of the book devoted to the stories of Levantine cuisine as they traverse the geographical borders of the Levant itself. Other chapters in that section include Noam Sienna’s account of what a Tunisian Judeo-Arabic cookbook can teach us about shakshuka and Harry Kashdan’s analysis of how our global food culture renders the region’s food more commercially and politically marketable under the denaturing label of “Mediterranean.” The section concludes with a return to the Mashriq, if not quite the Levant itself, with Zeidy’s essay and recipes.
Pictured here is her modern twist on a mezze staple: a carrot and tahini dip that is a delightful, earthy complement to a tart and lemony hummus on your mezze spread. I made this with both purple and orange carrots for maximum effect. (You can also make a beet version to the same end; a recipe is here).
For those of you who teach, I also want to make a pitch for using recipes, including these recipes, as primary sources in the classroom. In the near future (though after winter break) I am hoping to put together some basic lesson plans and suggested activities for doing so––watch this space!
* From bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 21–39.