Book: Day of Honey:A Memoir of Food, Love and War (Org. Feb. 2011, New in paperback 2012) by Annia Ciezadlo
“Day of honey, Day of onions.” Arab proverb.
Other books dissect the causes and results of war in the Middle East. Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War focuses on something more basic–the everyday life of people caught in a war zone and the way that food becomes a survival tool in more ways than simply nutrition.
Most civilians experience war not as the fighters and victims that parade across television screens, but as tired housewives peeling potatoes and wondering, all the while, at the stupidity of it. Being trapped in the house with Umm Hassane [in Beirut with her Lebanese mother-in-law] forced me to experience the awful, humiliating tedium of war without the anesthetic of danger or the narcotic self-importance of risk–to go through it not as a witness, not as a journalist, but as a human being.
Annia Ciezaldo, an American writer married to a Lebanese man who is also a journalist, spent her honeymoon in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2003 and also lived in Beirut between then and 2009. She felt at home in Beirut, Lebanon, even when her husband wanted to return to New York where he was raised and felt more at home than in his ancestral land. After they moved to Beirut and then Baghdad, she says,
For the next year, we tried to act like normal newlyweds. We did our laundry, went grocery shopping, and argued about what to have for dinner like any young couple, while reporting on the war. And throughout all of it, I cooked.
Some people construct work spaces when they travel, lining up their papers with care, stacking their books on the table, taping family pictures to the mirror. When I’m in a strange new city and feeling rootless, I cook.
She digs into the history of food in the region, including clay tablets from Babylonia in 1600 B.C., which she compares to her mother’s trusty Fanny Farmer cookbook.
The most appealing, complex recipe is for an elaborate poultry dish seasoned with onions and herbs and served in a two-part bread crust with a top and a bottom: 3,600-year-old chicken pot pie.
Just as she finds connections through time with people through the food they prepare, she makes connections with her new home in the mid-East through food and cooking. But although food provides the theme, Ciezadlo provides plenty of history and political coverage of Lebanon and Iraq at war. And her description of culture includes much more than food. I was particularly drawn to one street in Baghdad that she described, Mutanabbi Street.
...an entire street with no cars, just books and cafes. Every Friday, book and paper merchants laid down blankets and sheets of plaster, covered them with books and magazines and newspapers and hawked the written word as if it was potatoes and watermelon.
While she studies the Arabic language, Ciezadlo learns the language of mid-eastern food from everyone she meets–friends, restaurant owners and her grouchy mother-in-law. Umm Hassane never understands Annia’s need to write down amounts and instructions while cooking. Instead, she teaches her American daughter-in-law to trust her own taste buds while cooking.
I can think of many reasons to add Day of Honey to your travel library–travel ideas, tempting recipes, and delicious writing. I could go on all day talking about this skillfully presented book, which tempts you to travel and taste the Mid-East, but I’m off to the local mid-eastern market to pick up some ingredients so I can try one of the many recipes included in the book. Since I don’t care for raw meat, kibbeh nayeh (pictured at the top of the page) will not be on my menu. However, I could make kibbeh with tomatoes or tomatoes, and I love the sound of the Lebanese kamunch (cumin mix). And Ali Shamkhi’s Tebsi Baitinjan (eggplant casserole, seasoned with an exotic Iraqui spice mix called Bharat) would be right down my alley. As I cook, I’ll ponder the lives and customs of these countries I would like to travel to and wish them long-awaited peace.
We talk frequently at A Traveler’s Library about food that takes you to a place. Have you thought about the ways that food provides survival beyond just physical sustenance? Preserving and melding culture. Influencing trade routes and commerce. Providing a focus when your world is unstable. Providing a non-verbal means of communication.
Credits and disclaimers: The publisher provided me with a copy of Day of Honey for this review. If you want to buy one for yourself, you can follow the Amazon link in the article. Magically, although you do not pay any more, A Traveler’s Library makes a few cents every time you buy something at Amazon through one of our links. THANKS! We needed that.
The photo of the old bookseller is by Samar Muscati, who kindly gave me permission to use his picture–however he owns the copyright and it is NOT available under Creative Commons–so please do not copy. I found the other wonderfully appropriate photos in this article on Flickr, and they are used by permission of the photographers. Click on each photo to learn more.