Editor's Note: We met Joe through his book, Gourmet Getaways: 50 Top Spots to Cook and Learn. The book reflects his enthusiasm for life as well as cooking. Getting to know him has been a pleasure, and this story shows the beginnings of a food-lover as well as Joe's overall joie de vivre. It was that zest that motivated Joe to travel the country in search of cooking schools and the wonderful people who teach us how to make life more flavorful. read the review of Gourmet Getaways. This is his story of learning to cook his mother's Middle Eastern Bread and Cereal, the legacy that started him on his journey. Joe tells us that, "she always remained remarkably gifted when it came to preparing certain Assyrian dishes. It was her way of clinging to a comfortable past, which she knew growing up in the Middle East."
Middle Eastern Bread and Cereal - Mother's Culinary Legacy
My mother who was born in the Middle East maintained the charmed belief that Americans – with the exception of Californians - were starving, especially those like me - then a young man who had just left home to live in Washington, D.C. For this reason, when she first visited me in the East some years ago, she arrived with more food than the Red Cross would send to disaster areas.
Without taking time to remove her coat, she began to unpack. She pulled out a dress and out rolled oranges and grapefruits packed securely in the folds. Protected by her soft nightdress were the tomatoes and peaches. Inside her slippers were bags of rice. Her make-up bag was converted into a deep freeze of meats and other such perishables with an ice pack to keep them cold.
Startled, I asked: “What are you going to do with all that food?”
“Don’t you worry yourself, Joey,” she said, hurrying into the kitchen with an armload. “I’m going to cook everything you love.”
“But mother,” I protested, remembering her many failures in the kitchen, “I didn’t invite you here to cook.”
She placed the food on the counter, then turned toward me, hurt. “Don’t you want me to fix your favorite food?”
“You don’t understand. I can cook for myself.” And I almost added, “steaks and baked potatoes.”
She looked at me suspiciously, then opened the refrigerator door. Turning pale, she slammed it shut. “It’s empty,” she said, the color slowly returning to her cheeks.
“So?” I said casually. “The grocery store is just around the corner. When I need something, I just buy it.”
“I knew things were bad in Washington, son, but never nothing like this.”
“Just because my refrigerator isn’t stuffed with food like yours doesn’t mean I don’t eat.”
“Now son, don’t argue with me.” She shook her finger at me as though I were still a child, not a twenty-something adult. “I taught you better manners than that.” She then made some notes on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “Here, take this list and buy some groceries.”
That evening my dinette tabled was converted into a colorful extravaganza of spectacularly arranged and ready-to-eat Assyrian food. There was a tureen of soup (made of yogurt, sprinkled with raisins and mint leaves) next to a bowl of picked tomatoes and cucumbers. On a large serving plate, there were stuffed tomatoes, green peppers and dolma arranged around white fluffy rice baked with noodles, and a huge bowl of garden-fresh lettuce. My memory of her culinary mishaps faded at the sight of all this wonderful food. I greedily grabbed for a dolma.
Slapping my hand, she said: “You wait until I finish.”
“Sure. I want to put meat on those bones.”
She then hurried into the kitchen. When she returned, she whisked a plate of freshly made bread past me. For the next twenty minutes, I just ate as she sat across from me, smiling serenely.
Each morning she weighed me on the scale, then muttered something disapproving in Assyrian, while hurrying into the kitchen to prepare another big meal. It didn’t take long before my storage space in my refrigerator vanished.
Despite all the food she had left behind during her brief visit, she still returned to California believing I was starving. A week later, obviously burdened by concern, she airmailed me a hundred-pound care package. That was over thirty years ago. The care packages continued to arrive until her death, each one weighing more than the preceding. Besides her Assyrian specialties, there were oranges, peaches, grapefruits, pomegranates, all freshly plucked from the orchard, as well as raisins, nuts, and canned food of every kind.
These packages were scheduled to Washington regularly throughout the year Sometimes a careless melon crushed some grapes or a peach spread a little rot, but usually the packages arrived safely without any serious casualties – with her divine motherly blessings.
Disposing of the food, though, without wasting it became a major problem. I solved the problem by having dinner parties. As soon as I learned the plane was touching down, I hurried to the airport, loaded the car with packages, and returned home to prepare dinner for my guests.
All went well for several years. My friends and I were hooked on mother’s cooking. Then one evening while we were feasting on stuffed green peppers and dolma, and the compliments were flowing generously, I remembered something my mother once said: “Son, what if something should happen to me, who’s going to cook all this for you?”
She was right. These were her recipes. Who could ever prepare them like mother? Certainly not I. I was probably the only son with a Continental Divide between him and his mother who had his meals flown to him directly from her kitchen. Could a man, accustomed to reheating mother’s cooking ever dream of achieving success in the kitchen?
I convinced myself that he could. All it would take would be her recipes, and a little this and that. What I didn’t realize was how difficult it was going to be to obtain the correct measurements from her.
“How much flour?” I asked insistently to her casual “a bag or two.”
“That depends on how much bread you want,” she said over the phone.
“Just a few loaves.”
“I always make more.”
“I know you do, but I only want to make a few loaves. So how much flour should I use?”
“Oh, a few pounds should be enough.”
“How much exactly.”
“Let me see.” She thought for a moment. “Maybe about four pounds. Now tell, are you eating well? How much weight have you gained?”
“I eat fine, mother. Now what else do I need?”
“A little sugar.”
“But how much sugar?”
“A few handfuls.”
Annoyed, I wrote down, a few handfuls. “What about the wet ingredients/”
“Of course some milk.”
“How much milk?”
“Oh, about a half-carton.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure. You listen to me and you’ll make good bread.”
I listened to her without realizing once how much bread all the flour would make. I was too happy to have the recipe to care about such triviality. It wasn’t until I began to sift the flour into a bowl that I realized that I hadn’t a container large enough to hold all the flour. Then I had an idea (from my childhood or imagination?) Why not sift the flour onto my dinette table and in the center put the wet ingredients?
But as quickly as I mixed the dry with the wet, the wet disappeared without making an impression.
“How much milk did you use?” my mother asked when I called home again.
“Who said a half-quart? You know I always buy half-gallon cartons.”
“Now you tell me.”
She didn’t say anything. She merely laughed gently. But I knew what she was thinking. I knew also what my grocer was thinking ten minutes later when I ran into the store covered with flour, muttering incoherently.
I poured the remainder of the milk into the center of the flour. But when I tried to mix the two, I found the milk started running across the table. In order to stop it before it all dripped to the floor, I built a wall around the milk with flour and then tried to work the flour and the milk together slowly.
I soon had piles of dough stuck everywhere, on my fingers, the table, the rug, and with mountains here and there, which refused to release its grip from the table. A vision of my mother so easily kneading dough while singing to the music on the radio flashed to mind, and I wondered how she did it. A cookbook explained it to me simply: when kneading dough sprinkle flour on the work area.
My mother said it would take eight hours for the dough to double in size; and I remembered, as a child, how she would cover the dough with towels and let it grow in a warm place. The following morning, she would remove it, form the dough into orange-size balls, and roll it out. It looked so damn simple.
But it didn’t happen that way for me, because my mother didn’t tell me about the temperament of yeast.
For twelve hours my dough sat in a warm place, covered with towels, without majestically rising. The food editor of the local newspaper explained the reason, “a draft or too much heat could kill the yeast.”
My second attempt at making bread was a little more successful. My dough began to rise in just a few hours, and since I didn’t have a large enough pot to keep it in, it overflowed under the blanket of towels like some monstrous organism.
The following morning, I began to bake. The bread came out of the oven looking and smelling just like my mother’s. Excited, I worked faster, eating bread while baking more loaves. Two, four and still more loaves to bake. What was I going to do with all this bread?
A few days later, true to character, my mother airmailed me another care package. This one contained only bread. I had no doubts she expected mine to turn out so badly that I would be delighted to receive hers. But I must admit, even if it sounds vain, that I rather prefer mine to hers. Perhaps that’s because I made it, not because of any measurable difference in quality.
Here is her recipe for the butter-filled flat bread, and her recipe for a very nutritious cereal. Both I make often and share with friends:
middle Eastern cereal
Joe David has written for magazine, newspapers, journals, and authored five books including his latest Gourmet Getaways, 50 top spots to cook and learn. Some of his credits include U.S. Airways, Go, Chile Pepper, Family, Hemispheres, and more. He covered about five stories for NPR’s “The Best of Our Knowledge.”
Joe's web site is: www.gourmetgetaways.us/