Stories of generations

As a young bride of 21 in the nineties, I was not prepared for the “kitchen education” I was about to receive. A day after returning from my honeymoon, my mother-in-law, a lifetime housewife and mother of six, took on the role of mentor. She wanted to pass down the knowledge she accumulated over sixty years as head chef in her family.

Growing up in my family home, I knew the kitchen as a room in the house that was the source of the meals arriving at our dinning table. While my mother insisted I learn to cook as it may come in handy one day, my contributions were limited to “kitchen support staff”. When mother hosted dinner parties for fifty people, my role was to fold napkins, lay table settings, clean and polish dinnerware after the meal.

My first assignment as a new house-wife was to host a dinner party for my new extended family. You can imagine my shock at being told that entailed kneading 100 fatayer bi sabanekh (spinach pies), rolling two jars of grape-leaves, cooking three main courses, making four side dishes and a few deserts. I had recently graduated from a reputable university and worked as an computer engineer. Spending days on end in the kitchen was not my idea of work, or fun! Despite how I felt, my eagerness to set out on the right foot with my new family, I took pen and paper, and shadowed my mentor in my little kitchen. We cooked for what seemed like eternity!

My mother-in-law, a 5 ft 3 women age 65 was spinning magic. She hovered over five pots, took a pinch of this and bit of that and turned solid flavorless ingredient into aromatic mouth watering dishes. While I watched her with amazement, I became frustrated at the fact that she made it seem so easy, and didn’t have accurate measurements for anything. After pouring out of a flour bag, I would ask “how much”? her answer, “enough to make the stew thicken”!

It took me twenty years to get to her level of proficiency, and the lessons she taught me proved invaluable. She cooked with her mind body and soul. She entered the kitchen with excitement, she worked tirelessly and forgot her ailing back and knees. She blessed the food and mumbled words of baraka and love as she stirred, kneaded and chopped away. She used fresh ingredients and warned me against the lack of nutrients in canned and frozen foods. She insisted on going to the little markets to buy the real fresh fruits and vegetables and often times, got behind the counter to show the butcher how to chop the meat; “it has to be clean, and chopped just right for the meal”. She taught me that a good meal, like any other project required patience, good raw material , practice and a good attitude.

Yet the most valuable lesson I learned, extended beyond the kitchen; through cooking you learn stories of generations; as I watched her cook I listened to her tell tails of a beautiful rich life in Palestine. An uncle travels on foot from his farm to their house carrying fresh zaatar in season; the aunt cooking for her younger siblings when her mom passed, showing love extends even when loved ones pass away; the gardener bringing the sweetest plums and figs from their garden in Ramallah, the garden flourished in spite of the terrible occupation circumstances. Hundreds of her friends volunteering with the Family Support Cooperative sat around baking Kaak el-Eid (eid date cookies) for the orphans and refugees, a community brought together at time of need.

Today, I find myself cherishing the time I have with my children in the kitchen, teaching them the art form they don’t want to learn, and telling stories of the time I spent with their grandmother.

Thank you Um Awni.