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December 16, 2011

Born To Love Food?

My first birthday cake

Almost 40 years ago to the day I was born as a poor black child to sharecroppers in Mississippi.  When I was 18 I found out I was white and I moved to St. Louis.  Okay so that’s obviously not true but for some reason I couldn’t resist a joke from The Jerk which as it turns out was released on my birthday in 1979.  What a hilarious movie. So anyway I just turned 40 and was talking with my family about when I was born.

It was a December Monday night in 1971 and my dad was downstairs watching Monday Night Football.  Washington beat Los Angeles 38, 24 if you are wondering.  My mother was upstairs in the kitchen attempting to cook a Lebanese dish, malfoof mehshee, which is stuffed cabbage rolls.  Wow how does that sound for gender roles in the 70’s?  Pregnant in the kitchen while dad watches football.  If she was barefoot we’d have the whole stereotype nailed.  They really weren’t like that though.  My mom worked, had kids, went back to school and cooked real food for us just about every day. I remember on nights she would have school she would cook dinner in the morning before going to work and put it in the refrigerator for us to still have a real meal.

So back to cabbage rolls and Monday Night Football.  Even though my mother is one hundred percent Lebanese she had never made cabbage rolls.  She never made any Lebanese dishes actually as my grandmother always handled that department.  So to make the cabbage rolls you stuff them with a filling, roll them, layer them in a pot of water and crushed tomatoes, bring to a boil then lower heat and cook slowly for about an hour.  I would never eat them as a kid but I love them now!  (I see a future post here.) But the first step is to boil the cabbage a bit to soften the leaves for rolling.  Here is where we start to laugh a little at mom’s expense.  To do this you core the cabbage before placing core side down in a pot of water to cook for a few minutes.  Then you remove the head from the pot and gently separate the leaves. Mom was trying to peel the cabbage leaves from the raw head and place them one by one in the water.  If you have ever prepared this dish you know that just won’t work.  So while mom was fumbling with the cabbage upstairs dad was downstairs hoping his team didn’t suffer the same fate.

Soon mom called down to my dad to come upstairs.  As most dads would do when involved in watching a sporting event on TV or really anything on TV, he answered back, “What?  I’m watching football.”  She said, “Just come up here”.  “Why?” was the answer.  “Just get up here!”  When my dad went upstairs he saw my mom sitting down looking confused.  She said, “Every time I stand up I pee my pants.”  Now I have an older sister so my mother had a child prior to this but when she went into labor with her they broke her water at the hospital.  Well of course that is what was happening now which my dad quickly figured out so off to the hospital they went to have me.  Right out of his recliner and into action and a step ahead of the game.  There was already boiling water on the stove.  It’s been 40 years and my mother has yet to attempt making cabbage rolls again.  I’m not so sure what that says about my birth?

As I grew to enjoy food and cooking I wanted to learn how to make some Lebanese dishes and thought it would be fun to cook with and learn from my grandma.  The first thing we did was mjaddara which is lentils and rice.  I still remember her showing me how to sauté the onions just right so they would get nice and brown without burning.  It’s a big part of developing the flavor and color of the dish.  I love scooping it up with a nice piece of Lebanese bread.  She also taught me how to do stuffed grape leaves making sure to tell me about placing some leaves in the bottom of the pot to protect the rolls on bottom from scorching and how you place a small saucer on top of the rolls while cooking to keep them submerged.  And don’t forget to use lots of lemon juice in the water!  I’d watch her painstakingly prepare the best baklava I have ever or will ever have.  The way she did individual sheet after sheet of phyllo dough and syrup created a top that baked into what seemed like two-inches of sweet flaky heaven.  You feel so special when grandma shows you her method for getting something just right or the “secret” ingredient she never tells anyone.  It’s those special touches that make people’s dishes theirs and leave an imprint on your mind’s palate that you crave.  Without them it would just be another piece of phyllo with sugar and nuts.  It’s no wonder food companies use names like Grandma’s Muffins or Dad’s Cookies.  It’s gotta be special if grandma made it!  Cooking recipes that are handed down from generation to generation is a fun way to spend time with and learn about your family.  It’s also one of the best ways to keep the spirit of a loved one alive.  I wish I would have taken the time to cook more with my grandma while I had the chance.

Over the years my mom has learned to make some Lebanese dishes and we even took a class together at our church, St. Raymond’s, which has a large Lebanese following and offers authentic Lebanese food for lunch on Wednesdays.   The class was great and mom and I had a lot of fun but it wasn’t the same as cooking with grandma.  We learned a lot but we still had not made cabbage rolls.  Working in the same church kitchen that my grandma and many other relatives spent hours in volunteering every week to prepare the Wednesday lunches I could feel their presence and once again they made me feel warm, happy and full.

On my recent birthday we were talking about mom and the cabbage rolls and my mom says to my sister, “It’s no wonder Tony loves food.  I was cooking when I went into labor with him.”  My sister then asked what she was doing when she went into labor with her and my mom said they were getting ready to go to bed.  My sister says that theory makes a lot of sense because she loves to sleep.

I think mom was right as moms always are.  I was born to love food!

P.S. – Hey mom, let’s make some cabbage rolls.  I promise you won’t have a baby although I think the last time things worked out pretty great 🙂


What memories do you have about cooking with family?

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