Food memoirs can be hit or miss. No matter how many times a writer spins a tale of eating in a foreign land or following a grandmother around the kitchen, it’s often an awkward dance between good writing and good food. But Annia Ciezadlo’s “Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War” is astonishing in what it achieves.
As a journalist and foodie, Ciezadlo accomplishes the impossible. Not only does it illuminate the wondrous flavors of Middle Eastern home cooking, but also details the conflicts in Beirut and Baghdad from 2003 through 2010. She explains the regional conflicts with detailed historical references (she spent three years researching food and Middle Eastern history) while leaving the reader with the urge to leap in the kitchen and prepare kafta, kibbeh, and fattoush and stock the pantry with pomegranate molasses. While at times the history can be a bit dry, it’s critical to understanding the region’s modern-day politics and current state of affairs.
In addition to posting as a foreign correspondent, Ciezadlo marries Mohamad Bazzi, a Lebanese journalist who works as the Middle East bureau chief for Newsday. This leaves her navigating her way through a new marriage, a new language and two foreign cities (she honeymoons in Baghdad; enough said).
“Day of Honey” is an extremely thoughtful, personal look at the wars and how food is part of the strife. You practically smell the sizzling kebabs on the grill and taste the hot, strong tea while turning the pages, immediately understanding how food fits in to the lives of people constantly in crisis. As Ciezadlo puts it, “People find ways to reconstruct their daily lives from the shambles of war; like my friend Leena, who once held a dinner party in her Beirut bomb shelter, they work with what they have.” Ciezadlo describes the food she eats but also what she cooks. She turns to cooking for comfort, and her tales of cooking in a tiny hotel kitchen and of rescuing spaghetti during sniper fire are astounding.
Lost in translation
Ciezadlo writes with such detail and accuracy that it feels less like personal narrative than a collective history of Beirut and Baghdad and their people who must carry on with their everyday lives despite these bloody, destructive conflicts. She avoids overt judgment about American foreign policy but discusses the results of some of those policies. And while it’s a serious look at the Middle East, many pages are laugh-out-loud funny. As someone married to a Lebanese man, it gave me true insight into my in-laws — their social norms, customs and habits. Even my husband howled with laughter at how accurate the descriptions were of Ciezadlo’s aging, opinionated Lebanese mother-in-law, who cannot understand why Ciezadlo wants to measure the ingredients for each dish. This is not a quick read; rather, the details require focus and a kitchen nearby should you work up an appetite from reading about the ingredients, methods and dishes of Iraq and Lebanon.
What I appreciated almost as much as the poignant writing were the authentic recipes Ciezadlo included. They are far from an afterthought. These are Lebanese recipes from Ciezadlo’s relatives found in homes throughout the country (and they were given a stamp of approval from my husband, raised in a household of cooks). Most of the dishes are those my husband learned from his father — and delicacies my father-in-law still cooks when he visits. These are not quick, go-to recipes; they are weekend recipes that take time and patience.
For most Americans, the politics, history and conflicts in the Middle East are confusing and often forgotten. But this should be mandatory reading; not only does it break down the complicated web of politics of the regions, it brings the everyday people to life while showing that the cuisine is so much more than pita bread and hummus.
This recipe is what Ciezadlo calls “classic home cooking, the quintessential comfort food — Lebanon’s moral equivalent of macaroni and cheese.”
Batata wa Bayd Mfarakeh (Crumbled Potatoes and Eggs)
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
3 pounds russet or Idaho potatoes (about 4 medium-large), peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
1-2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more for salting potatoes and to taste
Optional: 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs such as oregano, rosemary and/or thyme
- Saute the onions in the oil in a heavy or nonstick pot over medium heat. Stir frequently and do not let them burn. Once the onions begin to soften, after 2 to 3 minutes, cover the pot and turn the heat down to medium-low. Check the onions and stir every 10 minutes or so to keep them from sticking and burning. Do not let them brown at this point; you want them to caramelize very slowly. When they start expelling a lot of liquid and are turning translucent, turn the heat down as low as possible.
- While the onions are cooking, sprinkle the potato cubes generously with salt, toss, and let them sit for about 5 minutes. Rinse very well under cold water.
- After about 30 minutes, the onions should be starting to turn dark gold. Increase the heat to medium and remove the lid to evaporate as much of the liquid as possible. Add the tablespoon of salt and the potatoes and mix. If you’re using fresh herbs, add them now.
- Turn the heat to very low and cover. Sweat the potatoes until they are soft — usually 10 to 15 minutes — stirring gently and tasting every so often. If you like the potatoes crispy, turn the heat up, add a bit more oil, and let them crisp for a few minutes between stirs. The potatoes are done when they just begin to disintegrate around the edges and you can pierce them easily with a fork. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
- Crack the eggs directly into the pot. Stir until they just begin separating into creamy curds. Take the pot off the heat and keep stirring until the eggs are done (they will continue to cook for a minute or two in the pot). Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper, or whatever else you like.
Umm Hassane strongly recommends that you serve batata wa bayd with salad. It also goes remarkably well with salted tomatoes drizzled with olive oil.
Recipe courtesy Annia Ciezadlo/Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster
Zester Daily contributor Laura Holmes Haddad lives with her husband, daughter and son in Northern California, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, gourmetgrrl.com. Her latest collaboration is “Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country” with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., released in November 2011.
Top photo composite:
Book jacket of “Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War” and author Annia Ciezadlo. Credit: Mohamad Bazzi