Last month, our little family of four landed in Denver, emerging from the airport to cold weather, excited to see snow. (I was filming a series of baking video classes with Craftsy. It was an extraordinary experience. And the class will be live next month.) We emerged into the cold air with our suitcases and met Ismael, our driver. He settled all our belongings into the back of his car and smiled at us.
I always talk to anyone kind enough to drive me where I need to go. When I moved to New York, I talked to every cab driver I met. Several of them proposed. (I said no, politely, each time.) The stories. Oh, the stories! Most of the drivers told me that 95% of the time, passengers never look them in the eye, much less strike up a conversation. And that was before the invention of smartphones. Ask a simple question — where are you from, originally? — and the stories come tumbling out. When we took our road trip around New England a few years ago, the Lebanese driver who took us to the car rental place told us all about his family, the feasts they make together, and the sense of joy in the kitchen. By the end of the conversation, he gave us his card and told us to call him when we were going to be in town next. He wanted to have us over for a feast in his home.
(Sadly, and to my perpetual frustration, I lost that card somewhere, or I would have called him already.)
So of course, I asked Ismael about himself. He was kind, funny, and literate. He pointed out a shortcut from DIA to downtown Denver, a route Danny didn’t know. He chatted about driving other instructors for Craftsy and what a good company it is. We traded snow stories and traffic jam stories. He told us about his son, who rarely sleeps because he’s up late at night telling stories and solving math problems. (We have one of those. We commiserated.)
I listened to his faint accent, trying to pick up the inflections and figure out where he came from. A little stumped, I finally asked. “Morocco,” he said, with some pride. Danny and I both started talking fast, since Morocco is one of the places we most want to go someday. Ismael talked about tagine pots and the way meats fall apart softly after all that cooking. We talked about spices and flavors and family meals.
This was only a week or so after the Paris attacks. We didn’t talk of it. It was too sad and too much in the air. But it was still there. At one point he looked back at me. I met his eyes in the rearview mirror. And he said, “You know, my country is a Muslim country. But we are not terrorists.” I assured him I knew this, that the perception of the general American public is woefully misinformed. And he said, “I am a Muslim. But I’m a bad Muslim. I drink alcohol sometimes. I’m part of this modern world. The Muslims I know, they are like this. They embrace the ideas of Islam, but they are not fanatics. They know the world bends. They know that the most important thing is to live, to treat people as they want to be treated. I wish that Americans knew that if a man does another person harm, he is not a true follower of Islam.”
A few days later, I emerged from the studio after an exhilarating day of baking and filming, collaborating with some of the most interesting creative people I have met. The director got me a car through his Uber app. (As you might imagine, we don’t have Uber on Vashon, so I’m fascinated by it.) I moved through the cold air to the car. My driver smiled wide and waited until I had my seat belt on. There was talk of snow. The blizzard promised a few days before had not arrived. I asked him where he was from. Ethiopia. He began talking about his home with longing, telling me about the people, the food. “Oh, I love Ethiopian food!” I told him. He seemed amazed. Really? I knew lamb kitfo, doro wat, and niter kibbeh? Yes, I assured him. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I ate at my favorite Ethiopian restaurant at least once a week, often more. We talked about the communal eating experience of an Ethiopian meal, no forks or knives or individual servings, just hands and injera. I told him that I love injera and can’t eat it in the US, since most Ethiopian cooks here add wheat to the teff flour. “That’s right,” he said. “And it doesn’t taste right to us, either.” He had recently attended a wedding in Washington D.C. where the couple, as a treat for their guests, had packages of injera from Ethiopia flown in for the feast. His face gleamed in the street lights. He was so happy talking about home.
On the last day of filming, thrilled with the experience of the week and sad to be leaving the Craftsy people I now adored, I climbed into another car for the final ride to the hotel. That night’s driver, also from Ethiopia, had been a refugee in Sudan for years. “That’s where I learned to cook, because we had such a tiny house to live in and so little money. We had nothing, really. But we had to do the best we had with what we had. Cooking fresh food saved us a lot of money. And then I found I love cooking.” After being moved from one refugee camp to the next, in several countries, and after years of waiting and paperwork, he landed in Denver. Now, he has three children, and he buys everything he can from a local farm. The only meat they eat comes from part of a share of a cow they buy every year. Everything they eat is organic. He cooks everything for his kids from scratch. “I don’t want them ever to go hungry. I make sure of that.” We talked, but mostly I listened.
At the end, as I was grabbing my bag to leave the car, I told him that he has clearly been through a lot. “I’m glad you found your home here,” I told him. He had tears in his eyes. After that week in America, it’s probably not hard to guess why.
As we left the cab, he told me, “You are good people.”
Taken aback by his kindness, I paused, then said, “You’re good people too. Thank you.”
* * *
A friend of mine, a fellow teacher, told me years ago that his only protest against the hatred and violence of the world is learning. When the Gulf War began, he took on the challenge of learning Arabic. He felt it was the only protest that could mean something to him. In the face of ignorant fear, he wanted to understand more of the world.
I’m probably not going to teach myself Arabic at the moment. Life is rather full. However, I can start cooking more of the world’s food.
It’s very easy to get in a rut, to fall back on the same dishes. Here we generally reach for salmon and quinoa, kale and potatoes, soups and stews and simple pleasures like latkes with sour cream and applesauce. We use sea salt and rosemary, fresh thyme, smoked paprika, ginger, and garlic. We have plenty of other spices in the cupboard but they mostly sit there. Instead, without noticing or intending it, we have created a family cuisine, rooted in the Pacific Northwest, with a lot of Asian and French influences.
Lately, however, Danny and I have been challenging each other to reach for Aleppo pepper and pomegranate molasses. We’ve been looking up the family dishes of Syria and making a list of foods we want to make for our family. We have Aromas of Aleppo on hold at the library and we’re encouraged to see that we’re not the only ones who requested a hold. We’re learning new flavors and new ways to feed our family.
I’m not going to talk about politics. This isn’t about politics or what specific politicians are saying, not to me. Instead, this is about our humanness. About mothers and fathers putting their children onto leaking rubber boats and heading into dark icy waters becuase they feel in their bones that the water is safer than the land they have always called home. This is about losing home and making a new one.
Food is one of the ways we know home.
I agree with my friend. In the face of ignorant fear, I want to understand more of the world. And here, we do that by talking to everyone we meet about their lives and where they are from. We do that through food.
Through the wild and wonders of the world, I want to show my kids that we can love better. We can stay soft and open instead of spewing bitterness. We can still believe that this world is beautiful. And we can make the table bigger — a bunch of card tables with wobbly legs, cobbled together, covered with a tablecloth, all the chairs clustered around them from the thrift store — so we can invite more people to join us.
At that first meal, I’m serving muhammara.
p.s. If you would like to give a little light in the midst of this dark time, I’d like to suggest a small donation to the Compassion Collective. This group of some of my creative minds — Brené Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Glennon Melton, and Rob Bell — banded together with the purpose of raising $1 million in 48 hours. Why? They’re raising money for tangible relief for Syrian refugees. (If you want to know more about the very specific relief efforts, see this post on Momastery.) We gave. And then I shared it. And I’m sharing again. Because, frankly, I don’t need to spend $25 on presents no one will remember a year from now because I worry I don’t have enough to make those st0ckings bulging full. I have enough. Probably, so do you. Give, if you can.
This dip and spread is said to have originated in Aleppo, Syria, then moved to Turkey and the rest of the Middle East. It’s an utterly wonderful combination of sweet from pomegranate molasses and sour from lemon juice, vegetal depth from roasted red peppers, sharp heat from garlic, mild with nuts like walnuts or cashews, and just different enough from typical American dips to make you eat more and more, chasing all those flavors around in your mouth. As is true with traditional dishes, there are many, many ways to make this. We riffed on a recipe originally from Gourmet, as offered by Tastespace. This one from the New York Times looks great too.
3 red peppers
1/2 cup gluten-free bread crumbs
1/3 cup toasted nuts, chopped fine (traditionally it is walnuts. we used cashews here.)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried hot pepper flakes (Aleppo pepper is best)
1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Roast the peppers. Turn the oven onto broil. Cut the peppers in half and remove the seeds. Lightly oil the outside of the peppers with olive oil. Put the peppers, skin side up, into a large cast-iron pan or roasting pan. Make sure the broiler is fully hot. Roast the peppers until the skins start to blister, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the peppers from the oven and put them in a bowl. Cover the bowl in plastic wrap.
Let the peppers sit until they have cooled to room temperature, about 1 hour. Peel off the blistered skins, which should happen quite easily. If you have a stubborn piece, try again. Don’t be tempted to run the peppers under water, as that will remove the oils and flavor.
Make the dip. Put the roasted peppers in the bowl of a food processor, along with the bread crumbs, chopped nuts, garlic, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, cumin, pepper flakes, and salt. Run the food processor until everything is broken down and combined. With the motor still running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the dip is coherent and somewhat smooth. (It’s okay for the dip to be a little chunky. You’re not going for the smoothness of hummus.)
Put the dip in a bowl. Drizzle with more olive oil, if you wish. Serve with raw red peppers or a good crusty bread.
Makes 2 cups.