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Boiling Rose Petals


Sitto’s Kitchen:
 A Treasury of Syrian Family Recipes Taught from Mother to Daughter for Over 100 Years

Jance Jweid Reed
Independent, pp.194, $28.95

I’ve never seen my mom use a recipe. She tells me she learned from watching her mom, and like osmosis, she inherited the family’s panoply of Syrian cooking techniques, deftly adding ingredients without measuring them and referring only to her memory. I didn’t begin watching her intently until I was in my twenties and realized I would have no recipe book handed to me to have as a keepsake of my family’s dishes.

My parents assimilated easily to American life, in culture, language, and religion. My mom’s grandfather was an Orthodox priest, a fact she haphazardly mentioned in my many attempts to dust off my family’s lineage. My dad is from a village not far from the Lebanese border on the periphery of a Crusader fortress, where an enclave of Christians live. They go to church on Easter and Christmas most years, and speak to my brother and me in mixed English and Arabic (although we understand both), not for our convenience but reflexively.

It became a Sisyphean task, trying to recreate a semblance of our heritage. The Pennsylvania dirt is hostile to the citrus, figs, and persimmons they have tried growing to quell homesickness. Although I visited Syria in 2017 with my dad, a pandemic and the political precariousness in Lebanon (a thoroughfare for many diaspora Syrians) make returning in the near future impossible.

For the American-born children of Syrian immigrants, the memories they hold most dear from their visits to their grandparents’ during the summer are so often of what they smelled and ate. Much of what I remembered about my mom’s village in Syria—vineyards of crisp grapes coated in dew, my grandfather killing a chicken in front of me before we cooked it, a farm burgeoning with life—was lost in time, collateral damage amid the war and economic strife that upended the livelihoods of much of their Christian town.

While my drawers and desks are filled with enough knickknacks and sentimental junk to fill a Goodwill, things I purposefully collect for posterity, my parents are not as materialistic, and I’m unsure how they’d answer the hypothetical question about what items they’d save from a burning house. Beyond food, there are few other modes of rootedness to pass along to children, especially as first-generation American immigrants.

My experience isn’t unique. Sitto’s Kitchen: A Treasury Of Syrian Family Recipes Taught From Mother To Daughter For Over 100 Years, written by Janice Jweid Reed, the descendent of Syrians from Aleppo and also a Catholic, captures some of the same wistful feelings of the immigrant children hoping that the melting pot does not melt them completely.

At the beginning of her collection Jweid Reed offers an author’s note that she added in December 2016, lamenting the destruction of Aleppo after years of war. “Are centuries of culture and family traditions soon to be lost? Will a once great culinary light in the Middle East shine no more?”

Perhaps it is providential that her book ended up in my hands. I am another Syrian-American Christian distressed by the prospect of being unable to produce the dishes that had facilitated countless conversations with my otherwise reticent parents about my family history. The most treasured vessel of memory, impervious to change, and, most important, shareable, is food.

My first attempt at cooking Syrian food was at age twenty-two, while living away from my parents in New York City, where I began with dough to make sfiha, or lahh ajin, which means “meat and dough,” and includes staples of Levantine cooking such as allspice and mint. My mom would never measure the amount of yeast she’d bloom, and every time she made bread, she’d add yogurt or eggs on a whim. Although her recipes were rarely precise, she’d never forget to indent a cross into the dough before leaving it to proof, something she says my grandmother would do when she made bread, and the finishing touch I added on my first, imperfect attempt.

While working with rose water, cardamom, and pistachios, vibrant with color and a floral sweetness, I begin to understand my parents’ longing. The descriptions they give to those who have never visited the Middle East, especially its lush Mediterranean coast, sound biblical. The promised land, according to Deuteronomy, is a land of “vines, fig trees, and pomegranates.” My dad, who dreams of the glistening, jewel-like red arils of pomegranates, agrees.

And for a Proustian moment, the scents that waft through the house when a teaspoon of rose water is added to tea or a dessert remind my mom of her own mother boiling rose petals to make the aromatic water herself. The fragrant landscape of citrus and jasmine is captured in the nostalgia for Fairuz and in the writings of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. So, too, are the themes of dispossession and returning home, especially to one’s mother.

Marlo Safi is a contributor to the Spectator, National Review, and other publications.

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