My mother may not have been the best of cooks, but there was never a night or a Sunday afternoon when she didn’t put a home cooked meal on the table in spite of working every day. She had some specialties, like a mean macaroni salad and an awesome salad dressing which still gets me rave reviews when I make it for family or friends. But when it came to making meatballs, she should have taken lessons from her sister, my dear Aunt Ginny.
Aunt Ginny’s meatballs were robust and tender, full of spices and homemade bread crumbs, and it seemed she always had a pot full of meatballs and sauce on the stove when my cousins and I came to visit. On the other hand, my mother’s were small and hard and, I discovered by accident, made a loud thud if they fell on the floor.
My mom never mastered the art of making shankleesh like my Aunt JuJu and Aunt Jeanette, so I always relished the Sundays when a mound of this (mold ripened) cheese, covered with spices and drizzled with olive oil, was sitting on the kitchen table with warm Syrian bread when we came to visit after Mass. In spite of the fact that my five cousins were almost always there, along with any number of adult family members visiting from downstairs or down the street, there was always enough.
And who didn’t love when my Aunt Evelyn came to family gatherings at our house carrying a pot of stuffed grape leaves or a bowl of tabouleh? I swear I remember someone taking a good number of those stuffed rolls and hiding them in a separate container in the back of the refrigerator “for later” when most of the guests had gone home and the immediate family was left to clean up…and eat leftovers.
But I also learned from my mom how to make some of my favorite Syrian food: riz and lubee (rice and green beans), mamool (dough stuffed with chopped nuts and sugar), and pita bread.
I especially loved the days when she made bread. The anticipation of warm round loaves coming out of the oven, of pulling off a piece and spreading the inside with real butter and then having a good strong cup of tea was heavenly. But sharing it with family seemed to make everything taste better, and, certainly, the animated conversations of a house full of Syrian women, and the occasional courageous male of the family, was always memorable.
But I didn’t realize how much work went into the bread making until I went through the whole process by myself as a young married woman – the measuring the kneading, the rolling, and then the waiting. The experience was a lesson that helped me see the truth in a lovely quote by writer Ursula K. Le Guin:
“Love doesn't sit there like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all of the time, made new.”
In looking back, I've realized her words are a beautiful description of the most important work of a family - love ... made, shared and made new all over again.