War and Feasts

Scene: the kitchen table in Diana Abu-Jaber’s grad-school apartment. It’s 1986 and she’s making pad thai as she and her friend Liza discuss a) the militant women’s-studies reading group that recently invited Abu-Jaber to a meeting only to disparage both the story she just published in a literary magazine and the food she brought along; and b) Abu-Jaber’s newfound and financially expedient side gig as an author of “adult” novels.

“What’re you going to do when women’s studies finds out about Wee Willie and his adventures?” Liza asks. And then, offering the kind of unsolicited advice that so often comes across a kitchen table, she gives Abu-Jaber “a dead-eye glance” and comes right out with it: “You should decide if you want to be a writer or what the hell.”

What the hell, indeed. This is the central dilemma in most young writers’ lives: There is the life of the word and then, on the other side of that tiny, pivotal or, there is everything else. Or so it seems.

Reconciliation—of porn and literature, work and home, savory and sweet, romantic ideals and reality—is the true subject of Abu-Jaber’s new book, Life Without a Recipe:
A Memoir of Food and Family
(Norton, $27)
. Like many food memoirists, from Julie Powell in Julie & Julia way back in 2005 through Gabrielle Hamilton in Blood, Bones and Butter (2011), and including authors of more recent books like Molly Wizenberg in Delancey (2014; reviewed in an earlier column) and Andie Mitchell in It Was Me All Along (2015), Abu-Jaber writes about food as a way of writing about the messy business of life. In her case, though, food writing’s main function is to make sense of the warring factions within her own family.

Toasted halloumi with tomato relish.
Toasted halloumi with tomato relish. Lamerie/Flickr

Most notably, there are the culinary battles between Abu-Jaber’s Jordanian father, Bud, and her German American grandmother, Grace, which kicked off at their very first meeting: “At the time, the fanciest dish Grace knew of was shrimp poached in wine and butter sauce. My father, most recently of the semiarid village of Yahdoudeh, studied the pale, curling bodies on the plate and saw a combination of cockroach and scorpion.” Once little Diana, the eldest of three girls, comes into the world, she gets cooking lessons from both sides, and it doesn’t take long for her to discover she’s a pawn in her family’s own kitchen wars. At the age of nine, eager to play peacemaker, she makes a leg of lamb for her grandmother, who’s known to love the dish. It does not go as planned: “She lowers her fork after a few bites, her mouth wilting. ‘What’s wrong?’ I’d crushed each garlic clove—a whole head—with salt, pepper, snips of rosemary, and had slipped the paste into slits in the meat, just the way I’d seen my father do. . . . Finally she says, ‘I like my lamb rare. With mint jelly.’” So much for that whole misty idea that food brings people together.

What does appear to unite them in Abu-Jaber’s world, and not in a good way, is where they stand on the question of that all-important or. As she grows up, Abu-Jaber is constantly reminded that she can’t have it all, at least not if she wants to write. Her aunt Rachel, a professor and mother of two, tells her, “Don’t have kids. . . . They wreck everything.” A male writer who visits her college reads one of her short stories then offers this by way of backhanded encouragement: “You better choose—because you’re a woman—between writing and having a family.” Then there’s Grace, who says, point-blank, “The worst thing you can do to your life. . . . Is to get married.” As for having a family, she says, “Babies are fine. Babies are for women who can’t do much else.” This tidy little summation is delivered, naturally, while Grace is frosting a cake. So is its implication: Succumbing to the relentless tasks of cooking and cleaning—but especially cooking—for others is the fastest way to kill your soul. “Children are a luxury women can’t afford,” Aunt Rachel tells her niece. When Abu-Jaber asks the obvious question—“But men can?”—she simply says, “That’s why they have wives.”

Abu-Jaber doesn’t heed any of this advice, but neither does she come to any kind of coherent alternative conclusion about how to live. She gets married and divorced, twice. She wonders constantly about having children but can’t quite commit. Like her fractious elders, she marks out her place in the world with food. “When I lived alone,” she confesses, “I mostly wanted to give dinner parties.” She gets married for the third time, to the right man at last, still trying to work out how to fit everything in, and she can no more square her conflicting desires than align the two cooking traditions handed down to her. “I know there’s some kind of protocol: grow up, fall in love, get married, have babies. . . . But I’ve fallen out of step.” At her wedding reception, she asks her new grandmother-in-law about the four children she raised, longing to be set right after years of being told not to succumb to domestication. The conversation is far from reassuring. “‘I mean, here we are. I’m forty! . . . I’m just so unsure. I mean I think I do—want them. The babies. . . . I’ll bet you never regretted any of it, did you?’ Her smile is a stroke that curls up at the ends. ‘It’s all heartache, my dear,’ she says. ‘Heartache and regret, every bit of it.’”

But when has a little heartache and regret ever stopped anyone? It takes only one more probing question from an audience member during a public talk to push Abu-Jaber firmly into the opposing camp. “I tell them the process of becoming a writer has been a long, hard form of private combat—the struggle to become a truth-teller, to find the private places where there is clarity and energy,” she writes. “I hear murmurs of recognition. A young woman asks if I have children; when I say no, she nods significantly, as though jotting mental notes.” That very day, Abu-Jaber and her husband decide to pursue adoption. They eventually become the parents of a newborn baby girl, whom they name after Abu-Jaber’s grandmother.

Grace, like all first babies, comes into the house like a tidal wave; everything is engulfed. “I miss simple thought,” Abu-Jaber despairs. “Three, four, five months pass and I’ve barely written a word . . . . My old office contains a crib, a changing table, and perhaps thirty-three stuffed animals.”Help arrives in the form of a babysitter named Janet (the “Cuban Mary Poppins,” according to a recommendation), and with her comes a new kind of culinary tête-à-tête. After learning far too much about the dramas and intricacies of Janet’s perilous family life, Abu-Jaber wants to offer assistance. “Because I can’t think what else to do to help, I begin making big pots of food in the afternoon and sending Janet home with bowls of pasta carbonara, meatballs, spicy chili, lentil soup.” Things escalate as Janet asks for dishes Abu-Jaber has never made before and then feels free to critique them. “One night, I hand her a cooling loaf of sweet Cuban bread. The next day, she tells me that they’d eaten it but I hadn’t used the right flour.The “gift” of a Caribbean cookbook follows. Wherever the members of that long-ago women’s-studies reading group are now, I suspect they would not approve.

There is also a surprise fringe benefit to those long hours in the kitchen—a dash of hope alongside the resentment.“The minute actions of slipping skin from the garlic, washing lettuce, and stirring a roux or risotto steady the mind, release imagination,” Abu-Jaber realizes. “I jot book notes on the backs of recipe cards—details, plot points, fragments of metaphors, images. Gradually, a writing life reassembles itself within the form of this new life.” Domesticity, that so-called scourge of the creative impulse, turns out to be the very thing that brings Abu-Jaber back to herself by forcing her to focus. The writing and the “what-the-hell” aren’t quite as diametrically opposed as she’s been led to believe.

There are other minor miracles of rapprochement as well. In telling his granddaughter the story of his misguided first dinner with her namesake, now dead, Bud puts a new spin on the ending: “‘First, on the table—these shrimps, I never seen anything like. Huge like soursour. . . . ’ Cockroaches. . . . Bud shook his head. . . . ‘I miss her. She was a good fighter. Grace loved to fight. To this day I miss her.’” In her place, he showers affection, and food, on his new Grace, also with a revised final act: “He gives her bites of lebaneh, falafel, grilled shish kabobs, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, grilled halloumi cheese. . . . Then he settles her on his lap . . . and feeds her cookies.” What started as a battle of cuisines has become a seamless progression from Bud’s food to Grace’s, a sweet acknowledgment of that dual heritage from the person who seemed least likely to ever offer it up.

It’s always worth remembering that people change in ways you can’t envision until it’s happened. “The Qur’an says, We are one human family, make peace with your brothers and sisters,” Abu-Jaber tells us. “Another way of saying, I think, put out more plates.”

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).