War and food

2011-04-08 00:00

AS a journalist writing about the war in Iraq and sectarian fighting in Lebanon since 2003, Annia Ciezadlo preserved her sanity preparing meals — much like the women in the places she covered.

Her book, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War, is a food memoir with battle scenes. It also chronicles her cross-cultural marriage to a Lebanese-born journalist, whom she followed from New York to the Middle East after the September 11 attacks in the United States.

Ciezadlo spoke about her childhood, food and the inspiration for the book.

The stereotype is that war is for men and women own the kitchen. How did this book come to be?

There is an old, old feminist slogan that the personal is political, and really that was a huge inspiration for the book, to say: “Hey, wait a minute, what we eat is extremely political and all of these things that we think of as being quintessentially political are actually tied to issues like what we eat.”

Wars have to do with commodities, with food, with everyday life and everyday issues. I wanted to take down this gender barrier and write a book that was almost half-way between the very feminised genre of culinary memoir and the very masculinised genre of war memoir.

What is your own background?

I’m a very typical kind of Chicago mixture of Greek, Polish and Scotch Irish. My last name is from the Polish side of the family.

People like to say that, unlike Lebanon, Iraq has no real cuisine. But you take issue with that.

I grew up in the Midwest, in Chicago and Bloomington, Indiana, where there’s amazing, amazing food. People always asked me if I had culture shock in moving to the Middle East. I always tell them: “I had culture shock moving from the Midwest to New York.”

One of the things that always surprised me was the way that people in New York would talk about Midwestern food: bland, and it didn’t have any spices. And I thought: “Wow, in southern Indiana we make this persimmon pudding that has five different spices in it.”

So when I got to Baghdad and there were all these foreigners in Iraq, everyone was complaining about the food and saying that there was no good food in Baghdad. I thought to myself: “This can’t be right. This must be like the myth of Midwestern food in New York. I’m sure there’s excellent food here. I just have to find it.”

So, what was the most wonderful thing you ate in Iraq?

There’s this thing called dolma that’s very typical of feasts and home cooking. You stuff zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, green peppers and red peppers. Some people even stuff onions. Whatever vegetables you got, you stuff them with mince and rice. And you layer them in a giant pot with meat, and then stuffed vegetables, and then maybe a little more meat, and then a little more stuffed vegetables. It makes this amazing mixture. All of the flavours sort of blend together, but they’re distinct at the same time. You fill it with water and you simmer it. And then, after about an hour, you turn it out and put it on a plate. Some people can make their dolma so that when they turn it over it keeps the shape of the pot. And it’s unbelievable. It’s like a sculpture.

There is a scene from 2008 when you lived in Beirut. There is street fighting going on outside your apartment and you remember that you have pasta on the stove. You scurry into your kitchen, the most exposed part of your apartment, so as not to let the pasta over-cook. What were you thinking?

I wasn’t thinking. Making food made me feel safe and part of what I was trying to convey with this scene is that it had almost gotten to a point where it was almost pathological. I felt safe even when I wasn’t. The idea of having something to do, making pasta for my husband, gave me something to focus on, even when it was actually dangerous and making me unsafe. I didn’t figure that out until much later, by the way. — Reuters.

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