Several years ago, I read two novels by Diana Abu-Jaber: Arabian Jazz and Crescent. I really enjoyed both books and found them unique from other novels that were out at the time since they focused on the Arab-American experience. Both books were big hits in the book clubs that I read them in. My friend Amanda still cites Crescent as one of her all-time favorite book club books. In her memoir, The Language of Baklava, Abu-Jaber share her memories of food and family and growing up between cultures. Abu-Jaber’s father is from Jordan and her mother grew up in America and is of western European stock.
I found the book really interesting from a personal perspective since I am an American of European descent and my husband is from Pakistan. We are definitely a food-centric household. Many of our memories are built around food and we both love to cook. Our future children may face multiple culture clashes… food-related, tradition-related and definitely religion-related. Will my kid’s reject the Pakistani food in favor of burgers and fries? Will they have a healthy mix of the foods their mom & dad grew up with? Will they be embarrassed if they are sent to school with pakoras and kabob sandwiches for lunch?? Will they be unable to resist the lure of bacon and eat dirty, dirty pig? I’ve steered clear of pork products since I’ve been in a relationship with my husband, but will our kids do the same when they aren’t under the watchful eye of their father. We plan on raising our kids in America but taking them on many visits to Pakistan so they can learn the language, the traditions, and get to know their family that still lives there.
Abu-Jaber’s memoir was funny and insightful as to what it felt like to grow up in such an environment. Her observations about the influence on members of both sides of her family on her life were humourous and heart-felt.
In one chapter, Abu-Jabershares memories of making apple strudel with her Aunt and talking about marriage and children.
‘Marry, don’t marry,’ Auntie Aya says as we unfold layers of dough to make an apple strudel.
‘Just don’t have your babies unless it’s absolutely necessary.’
‘How do I know if it’s necessary?’
She stops and stares ahead, her hands gloved in flour. ‘Ask yourself, Do I want a baby or do I want to make a cake? The answer will come to you like bells ringing.’ She flickers her fingers in the air by her ear. ‘For me, almost always, the answer was cake.’
The book is riddled with lots of words of wisdom and big bites of humor. I loved Abu-Jaber’s writing and wit. It is obvious she loves her family and the food they congregated over. I tore through this book like a tear through a plate of delicious food. Abu-Jaber made my mouth water in parts and definitely made me want to cook up some Middle Eastern food.
Abu-Jaber has recipes interspersed throughout the chapters. These recipes are related to the memories relayed in the chapter. Some of the recipes are for Jordanian food and others for more American fare.
In the chapter Mixed Grill in the Snow, Diana and her family journey to their relatives’ house for a New Years Eve party.
The adults sit away from the children in the dining room, which frees us to eat as wantonly and barbarically as possible. Ed illustrates how he can fill his entire mouth with roasted zucchini. The juices stain our lips, and we slump and make loud caveman grunts as we chew. We use pieces of bread to push the meat and fire-scorched vegetables from the skewers onto a big communal platter-or right into our mouths.
This chapter seriously tempted me to drag out our grill and make some kafta kabobs. But… it was a bit too cold and slushy out for that. Instead I opted to cook an indoor meal of spice-rubbed rack of lamb and mjeddrah/muccedere (rice pilaf), followed up by baklava, of course. You will soon be able to behold my feast as the posts and recipes for what I cooked up are coming soon!
Language of Baklava was the monthly selection for the foodie book club, Cook the Books. Stop by and check out what others think of the book, what they’ve cooked up, and what the next book will be.