Book Review: The Language of Baklava
The Language of Baklava: A Memoir
Penguin Random House
Just a few pages in, I could tell I was going to love this book. And I did. Family memories, especially a larger-than-life father, recipes and lovingly described family meals, trying to figure out a sense of identity and belonging, between America and Jordan, and just the stuff of growing up and capturing the interior life. All beautifully rendered in the kind of well-constructed, lovely prose where I kept wanting to read sentences aloud.
I continued to love reading this book, all the way through.
The only flaw was that I wasn’t eating the foods I was reading about. I want Bud, Diana’s father, to cook for me.
The story is organized and interwoven around food, using food as a focal point for emotions, for creating a sense of home and foreignness, anchor for family memory. Bud, Diana Abu-Jaber’s father, is focal as well: the recipes are his and his family’s, and he is always in the kitchen… Reading about all the food made me so hungry. Both to eat the foods themselves (kebabs, grape leaves, meze spreads, hummus and on and on) and to have someone like Bud and his family, plying me with dishes lovingly created. There are recipes for most of the foods, and I’m going to have to work up my courage (and conquer a bit of inherent culinary laziness, I admit) before I tackle these.
Maybe I’ll just take myself out to a restaurant…Or go shopping for bits and pieces to make myself my own meze feast.
I got The Language of Baklava from the library, and I can tell it’s going to be a book I need to own. And to give copies to others, for the lovingly rendered descriptions of food, the warmth that comes through even in the midst of family upheaval, Diana’s interior life. Any number of reasons that I want to put this book in the hands of as many people as possible, because they’re going to love it.
All of which I was already thinking about, when I read this passage right here:
“Who am I?” she snaps. “I am America, Israel, England! What am I doing?” She waits another long moment, her eyes shining. “I’m shutting up and listening.” She draws the last word out so it hisses through the air. “I am the presidents, the kings, the prime ministers, the highs and the mighties—L-I-S-T-E-N!” She spells the word in the air. “The woman who made the baklava has something to say to you! Voilà! You see? Now what am I doing?” She picks up an imaginary plate, lifts something from it, and takes an invisible bite. Then she closes her eyes and says, “Mmm… That is such delicious Arabic-Jordanian-Lebanese-Palestinian baklawa. Thank you so much for sharing it with us! Please will you come to our home now and have some of our food?” She puts down the plate and brushes imaginary crumbs from her fingers. “So now what did I just do?
“You ate some baklawa?”
She curls her hand as if making a point so essential, it can be held only in the tips of the fingers. “I looked, I tasted, I spoke kindly and truthfully. I invited. You know what else? I keep doing it. I don’t stop if it doesn’t work on the first or the second or the third try. And like that!” She snaps the apron from the chair into the air, leaving a poof of flour like a wish. “There is your peace.”
Yes! That, right there!
I want as many people as possible to read this scene in particular, to think about it. Especially:
“I looked, I tasted, I spoke kindly and truthfully. I invited. You know what else? I keep doing it. I don’t stop if it doesn’t work on the first or the second or the third try. And like that!” She snaps the apron from the chair into the air, leaving a poof of flour like a wish. “There is your peace.”
Words to live by: Look, taste, speak kindly and truthfully. Keep doing it. There is your peace.
One shared meal at a time.