A dinner with my father circa 1998
| “Let’s go to the kitchen, see if we can make ourselves something worth eating.” My father suggested, throwing away my hopes for a delivered meal and making sure he still had my attention. Being the youngest boy in the family, I usually got my way to whatever I wanted. Today was the exception.
My father had a knack for using the time we spent together to connect with me. It was a rare chance for both us; he would explain the origins of the delicious food as he would cook the meal. Most of the food he managed to make had an origin in his peasant upbringing. Like many masters of oratory I met after him, he interspersed his tales with jokes, stories of simpler times and many a folk sayings from the Middle East.
He told me that he would cook us his favourite meal, “A’alayeh was meant to be cooked for a maximum of four people. Your mother makes the mistake of cooking it for seven or eight people at dinner,” he said. “The taste is less forgiving when done for a larger family, but you and I don’t have that problem.” He said with a wink.
We didn’t have that problem because my brothers were either abroad for university or with my sister and mother summering in Jordan. My father had work to attend to so he cut his vacation short and went back to Abu Dhabi. I followed him a few days later.
“A’alayeh was the peasant’s staple in Palestine, but I can never have enough of it!” my father insisted, while pulling the olive oil dispenser from the cupboard next to the sink. “This thing is mentioned in the Quran,” My father said proudly about the olives he pulled from the pickling jar, then popping a pickled olive into his mouth. I followed suit. “God swore by it, and your namesake lived past a hundred because of it”
“Did he really? I heard grandpa say he drank a teacup-full before breakfast, there is no way that actually happened, is there?” I wondered aloud, the story was a family legend about Radi, the man whom the family and I were named after; my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather.
“That’s what I hear, and the doctors at Mayo Clinic say it lowers your cholesterol.” He beamed. “That’s why our farm at Mubis is mostly olive trees, the season this year is expected to be great!”
“Did you register at school today?” He queried me. I couldn’t understand why he would ask that, since I was at his office this morning. He had given me my tuition for half of the year, he sent the driver with me to take me to school. He would have known if I failed to register.
I nodded while looking at him cutting a couple of cloves of garlic. “You know what the secret to our cooking is?” He asked. I couldn’t have been passed an easier question. “The ingredients,” I retorted. The tomatoes looked mouthwatering; I could have sprayed some salt on them and simply had my dinner ready.
“The secret to our dishes is in the ”breath“. I have a ”breath“ in cooking.” He raised his eyebrows while pouring some olive oil in the frying pan. “You could video tape me, use the same ingredients, copy my every move to the last detail, even the exact temperature of the stove, yet without the ”breath“ you will end up with a lousy dish.” My father’s tone hinted at teasing, but his voice was so far gone in grandeur. My thirteen-year-old self almost believed he was a master chef letting me on a little secret.
I was on tip toes around the kitchen staring with fascination; he had that power over me, over everyone that knew him.
“So you paid the tuition, and got the books?” He asked again, knowing that I couldn’t deny him an answer at this point. “Yes, they were so heavy, Ibrahim had to carry one bag and Samood the other,” denoting my older cousin and our driver respectively.
Tomatoes followed the sautéed oil and garlic as if on cue. “What subjects did you settle on?” He asked pinching a bit of spice and salt and spraying the pan. I told him and he replied, “Put some bread in the microwave, dinner is almost ready!” The sprinkle of thyme made anything Palestinian to my dad; I think I saw a bit of nostalgia in his eyes. I wondered if they put thyme on everything back home.
I always envied the way my father talked. The inflection in his voice told me he was pleased with my choice of subjects, but not once did he make me feel like I was seeking his approval. I never even knew his preferences, but I knew I always made him proud.
“The Italians call it ’Pommodoro Sauce’ but to the peasants of our old village, this is no sauce, it’s a whole meal.” He now looked me in the eye and said, “Every little bit of it would have been grown in your land if we were back home. It would have replenished us after a long day in the fields.” I had to laugh, I couldn’t think of myself as a farmer or a peasant.
“Garlic is good for the blood-flow, it’s good for your heart, its a blood thinner and it even helps cure a cold.” It was one of those things that failed to register in my head. Why he would think about something like that was beyond me. Even the cholesterol lowering properties of the extra virgin olive oil. What was that about? He was not even fifty yet, and had a long life ahead of him. He was the rock that was my father.
We told some stories as we ate labaneh, hummus and the a’layeh he cooked us. A platter of pickled olives, some sliced cucumber and tomatoes completed the typical dinner table. We must have went through four or five pita-like Arabic khubz. As we scooped mouthfuls of food with the bread, we continued talking on the kitchen table. He told me about some issues at work, which he usually amazed me by his solutions to those issues. That was usually my favourite part of the conversation. Tonight he didn’t have much of that, not even a little. I knew something was different. Tomorrow's dinner will uncover the solutions to those issues, I hoped. They currently seem impenetrable.
My father ate up the remaining bread dry; there was nothing left to scoop. He said “Dry bread makes the shoulders grow wider.” Another folk-saying that can get you out of yet another curious situation.