Food As Love in Any Language

Book review: The Language of Baklava, by Diana Abu-Jaber

I’m falling in love with “foodoirs” lately. Those are food-themed memoirs, in case you’re late to the genre, like I was.

This one moved me more than I unexpected. Novelist Diana Abu-Jaber was born in America to a Jordanian immigrant father and an American mother. Her family, including two younger sisters, lived in upstate Syracuse, New York, with occasional forays to her father’s homeland that included an actual move at one point, plus plenty more threatened moves.

Like many immigrants, her father found himself constantly caught between the two cultures and homes. It’s a common dilemma for anyone who’s made a home in two places, and little does Diana know when she’s dealing with her lovable but impulsive father’s wishes to shuttle back and forth that someday the restlessness plaguing him will afflict her too.

“The immigrant compresses time and space-starting out in one country and then very deliberately starting again, a little later, in another. It’s a sort of fantasy-to have the chance to re-create yourself. But it’s also a nightmare, because so much is lost.”

But before she gets to that, she’s figuring out herself and her kin and the whole bunch’s place in the world, which is certainly hard to do considering how varied her big, multicultural family is, and how they always seem a bit different regardless of which country or neighborhood they find themselves settling in.

“Though I am only eight, I too have already had to leave behind entire countries and lifetimes.”

The book is structured in vignettes from her childhood and teen years in America and Jordan, then fast forwards through college and her return on a grant to Amman, Jordan, after publishing her first novel. After each significant, or hilarious, or humiliating experience, Diana includes a corresponding recipe, because there always seems to be a special food acquainted with the memory.

I’m not the biggest fan of recipes as parts of non-cookbooks. Although I like to cook, I find they’re usually far beyond any level of cooking I’m apt to do. But most of Abu-Jaber’s are on the simpler side and sound pretty delicious. And they just fit so well to her stories, it would’ve seemed wrong not to include them.

Her father, called by his Americanized nickname Bud, is a dominant character throughout her stories, though her portrayals of her other relatives are nothing short of wonderful. Bud influenced her love of food and cooking, and helped strengthen the connections she creates between cuisine and identity, cuisine and culture, cuisine and emotion and so forth.

This exchange with her aunt was so wonderful:

“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.”

I am silent as I stare hard at the cup glittering with sugar. This is advice, but it feels more like pressing my ear to the wall. I don’t want her to notice how closely I listen, or she might stop talking. What she says rings inside me like a spoon in a crystal glass. After years of assuming that the purpose of all this cooking and working-the purpose of everything, really-was to produce and grow babies, this is the first intimation I have heard of another way through life. It is the first time I’ve really understood that my aunt, with her houses filled with friends and siblings and servants and lovers, does not have children of her own.

I wish she’d write a whole memoir trailing Auntie Aya around, gleaning this kind of wisdom!

And of course, there’s the constant reckoning between two vastly different cultures. This plays out in her family interactions, but of course, it’s a foodoir, so the contrast is strong between the culinary elements as well. During their time in Jordan, she’s often jolted back to an American corner of her mind, and torn between her two homes.

“When these reminders occur, I stop and think: Am I still an American? And it confuses me, because it seems like a kind of unbecoming or rebecoming – to turn into this other Diana – pronounced Dee-ahna, a Jordanian girl who has forgotten the taste of fluffernutter sandwiches or Hershey’s bars. But sometimes there are hints of other places. For example, there is a swanky hotel in the middle of town where we go to buy the American newspapers. In their carpeted lobby with the wrought-iron tables and chars, they serve tea in china cups, alongside blue-and-white plates filled with hard cookies that taste of a million miles away.”

Despite being a woman’s coming of age stories, there’s nothing chick-lit about it, which was my fear when I started. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Even when describing her father’s hilarious reaction to a boy from her high school English class who drops by their home unannounced, and her mortification at her dad’s strict traditionalism in terms of Arab girls and American customs, there’s nothing fluffy about it. The ever-present sense of humor was smart and refreshing.

Why must there be only one home! Surely there is no one as bad, as heartbroken, as hopeless at saying good-bye as I am.

She’s not alone, and others are just as bad as she is. It’s nice to read a reminder from someone else’s life, that we’re not alone in this.

The Language of Baklava: A Memoir
by Diana Abu-Jaber
published March 15, 2005 by Pantheon

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