Cabbage Rolls and Za'atar
Even though I never met her, Alexandra Mansour taught me how to cook the food of Lebanon. In fact, when I first found a copy of her book, Alexandra's Lebanese Cooking, I barely knew how to cook, let alone Lebanese food.
I found my copy at a Salvation Army store in the south end of Halifax in 1999. It was just sitting there in a bin full of random books. It wasn't the title itself which caught my eye, but rather the subtitle of the book: Authentic Recipes from a Nova Scotian Home.
Lebanese food was the first food I ever cooked with someone. His name was Andrew, and his family was from outside Beirut. He came over to my house and we made fattoush, and he made fun of me for making hummus with a mortar and pestle, rather than a food processor. By making and eating this food with him, and the rest of our friends, I learned about Lebanon, the people, the culture, the habits, the music. I wouldn't have even met Andrew if we hadn't started talking about food.
Years later, I met Valerie Mansour, a Halifax-based writer who has been the food critic for the now defunct Halifax Daily News. We started talking about food, and I mentioned Alexandra's Lebanese Cooking. Her face lit up. "That's my mom," she beamed.
(You can read a piece that Valerie wrote about her mother, here in The Globe and Mail. )
Valerie would later tell me stories about her mom, about what it was like growing up in Amherst, and how her mom's cabbage rolls became famous in the small town. It was a story that stuck with me, and reminded me of The Kitchen Sisters and their Hidden Kitchens. (Check out their podcast, Fugitive Waves. Go. I'll be right here.) And so I'd like to dedicate this episode of Assis Toi - as well as Have A Seat, which you can listen to below - to the Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson, and Nikki Silva, for helping me understand the significance of hidden kitchens, no matter what is being cooked in them. And thanks to Alexandra, who showed me how to eat, not only what to eat.