War. Cook. Eat. Love.

Annia Ciezadlo, author of Day of Honey* (Free Press, 2011) , isn’t the first person to cook her way through trying times. Nor will she be the last.

But the makeshift kitchens where Ms. Ciezadlo peeled purple eggplant or stirred onions caramelizing for Mjadara Hamra (Lentils with Bulgur Wheat) happened to be in a couple of war zones, neither one in a New York high-rise or a Tuscan olive grove. No, unlike the heartbroken cook in Lily Prior’s La Cucina or journalist Regina Schrambling** after 9/11, Ms. Ciezdlo used cooking as a way to cope with the daily stress of living in Baghdad and Beirut with bullets spinning by and bombs exploding at random.

In Day of Honey, comfort food takes on many new meanings.

Up for a well-deserved James Beard Award in 2012, Day of Honey offers far more than memories interlaced with food. It is not just another food memoir focusing on the inner life and stomach of some famous food person.

This complex memoir, onion-like, reveals layers and layers of meaning; food stands in as the metaphor to serve it all up. Like all good memoirs, it offers more than a “me-me” recital. The major layers include a love story and the problems and joys of inter-cultural marriage, a detailed analysis of how war affects civilian populations, a history of the Middle East conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon, and a paean to the little-known or understood food cultures of the Middle East.

Ms. Ciezadlo, a journalist, and her Lebanese husband, journalist Mohamad Bazzi, ended up honeymooning  in Baghdad, because Newsday appointed Mr. Bazzi bureau chief there in 2003. But before that, the couple spent time in Beirut, where Ms. Ciezadlo met her in-laws – Umm Hassane and Abu Ibrahim – and began learning about cooking under the watchful eye of Mr. Bazzi’s somewhat domineering mother.

Day of Honey showcases Ms. Ciezadlo’s razor-sharp observations, spun into unforgettable anecdotes and stories oozing with fresh metaphors and just plain clear language. She renders the adrenaline rushes, the food shortages, and the panic of living in uncertain circumstances into almost real, palpable sensations. Ms. Ciezadlo includes an index, a glossary, and an excellent bibliography, too.

At times, reading Day of Honey seems akin to listening in on a conversation between friends.

That morning, Mohamad and I woke up to smell, now as familiar as an old friend, of burning metal. … We went downstairs to visit our neighbor Rabih Dabbons. He was a tall, mustachioed rascal who ran a Yamaha dealership in the ground floor of our building. (p. 287)

And in other moments, when Ms. Ciezadlo writes about the history of Iraq or Lebanon or any other topic, her journalistic voice honed by assignments for The Christian Science Monitor and The New Republic, she pins down her subject with great precision. No lepidopterologist ever did better. Here’s how she summed up the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, long before the American pre-emptive strike:

In 1980, alarmed by the ripples among Iraq’s Shiite majority, Saddam invaded neighboring Iran. Western countries, including the United States and their Arab allies, lavished him with aid, weapons, and intelligence support throughout the Iran-Iraq War. (p. 77 -78)

What about the food? After all, there’s a sliced-open pomegranate and a bottle of pomegranate molasses on the cover of Day of Honey. The subtitle reads: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War.”

She landed in Baghdad, regaled with stories from fellow journalists about the terrible food in Iraq. Intrigued and skeptical that Iraq possessed no culinary gems, she set out to find out why that was so. What she discovered was that “an entire universe of food … that you never tasted if you only ate out.” (p. 154) Ciezadlo treats the reader to detailed descriptions of foods, like the grilled fish masquf, that represent a merging of historical cuisines. She adds,

A map of modern-day Iraq will not tell you this history, but its food will. … To this day, the boundaries defined by food and language often reflect the differences between people more accurately than the lines drawn arbitrarily on maps. (p. 156)

And Ms. Ciezadlo makes her theme clear in the “Introduction: The Siege”:

This is the story of that other war, the one that takes place in the moments between bombings: the baker keeps the communal oven going so his neighborhood can have bread; … There are many ways to save civilization. One of the simplest is with food. (p. 319)

From the Damascene tomatoes, mouthwatering fried ground meat that’s soaked up spices and fat, to the Taglich (Cilantro-Garlic Paste) used in Umm Hassane’s Zucchini Stew, the nineteen recipes at the end of Day of Honey will tempt even the most die-hard and finicky meat-and-potatoes eater.

Day of Honey bursts with insights into why food habits change slowly. Exile – and I believe that war creates a sort of exile from the routine and comfort of normal daily life – cements the desire for the taste memories of happier times. Food is one way to provide a sense, albeit brief, of belonging.

More than the food, though, Day of Honey rips away the remnants of propaganda and allows a glimpse of the lives of the many brave and stoic people who befriended Ms. Ciezadlo and Mr. Bazzi as they navigated through very trying times in recent history. As Ms. Ciezadlo sums up:

When I thought of Baghdad, I thought of the way people treasured books; their sense of humor, of history; the way someone would always bring up the Epic of Gilgamesh. The old-fashioned cafés. The smell of masquf. The way everyone was constantly breaking into poetry, or relating the same stories they had been telling since before the Abbasids.

As far as memoirs go, Day of Honey is one of the best to come along in years.

Don’t miss it.

(Garlic-Cilantro Paste)
Makes about 6 tablespoons

From Day of Honey, p. 341

1 head garlic, peeled and smashed (about 3 tablespoons mashed)
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 bunch cilantro, thick stems removed, roughly chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)

Pound the garlic and salt in a mortar with a pestle into a paste. Add the cilantro and mash them together until you get a chunky, fragrant pesto.

Taglich freezes beautifully. I usually make a double recipe, scrape the extra into small containers, and pour enough olive oil to cover (this seals in the flavor). In a good freezer, it can keep for up to 6 months.

*The title comes from an Arab proverb, “Day of honey, day of onions,” alluding to both the sweetness and tears that invariably season daily life.

** “When the Path to Serenity Wends Past the Stove”: “Cooking is almost always a mood-altering experience, for good or for bad, and at its best it is do-it-yourself therapy: more calming than yoga, less risky than drugs.” New York Times, 9/19/01

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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