14 Feb LABOUR OF LOVE
This article was written in loving memory of my grandmother, Pamela Nahas. Though you won’t get the chance to read this article, I love you and miss you so much. I hope that one day I’ll be able to share experiences with my own children and their kids the way that you’ve imparted these memories onto me.
When I was 15 years old, I lost someone I thought would be around for years. My maternal grandmother, my teta Pam, had passed away due to complications arising from breast cancer. As a kid, I never really thought about death. I never really thought that I would lose the people who surrounded me and raised me throughout my childhood. It took a weepy wakeup from my mother on February 14th of 2015 to shock me into understanding that death was around us, and no matter how much we might avoid talking about it, we have to face it eventually.
My teta was the definition of the term “matriarch” as she always tried to rally her family around her, hosting lavish dinner parties in her ground-floor apartment or encouraging her grandkids to come together and play cards with her. I was always shy around her despite how gentle and soft-spoken she was because she carried herself with a confidence that set the tone for powerful women in my life. The way I connected to her best was through our shared love of food, though I didn’t come to understand this until later on in my life.
Some of my fondest memories of our time together are centred around food that she made or feasts that she would organize for her immediate family. Despite having been raised in Jamaica for most of her life before moving back to Lebanon in the 1960s, Pam was a fantastic cosmopolitan cook. She seemed to know a little bit from every type of cuisine, making boudin noir , sauerkraut , patés , traditional stuffed turkeys, éclair and lamb roasts. And I haven’t even touched on her Lebanese cooking! My god, her Lebanese cuisine, how ridiculously delicious! My grandmother might not have travelled all over the world in her life, but just one look at what she put on the table would leave the impression of the exact opposite.
Even outside of the kitchen, the memories I have of my grandmother are centred around edible delights. Her garden used to be filled with fruits and vegetables that she would let us walk around and pick for her as kids:
- Scotch bonnets from which she made pepper jelly (a trace of her Jamaican upbringing);
- Lemons from the giant tree in the middle of her property from which she made her signature lemonade;
- Tomatoes and cucumbers and leafy herbs such as parsley or cilantro from her more traditional Lebanese cuisine.
I keep thinking about walking through Pam’s garden when we visit my jiddo George, my widowed grandfather, but I often choose not to for fear of bringing up sad memories. I would instead opt to look back on the dishes she used to make for us when we saw her and how we would go straight to the kitchen to find her and greet her with a kiss. She would look down at us with her slightly crooked smile and, with her signature Jamaican accent, say, “Well, hello, loves!” The mixed smell of sharp spices and mothballs would always be around her, but we didn’t mind. Teta Pam was a chef who left us a legacy of cookbooks and memories, both the culmination of years of love and experience.
I could probably argue that going to university has taught me a wide variety of things, but one of the practices I learnt that meant the most to me was how to cook. I don’t mean merely spicing up a bowl of ramen by topping it with a fried egg; I mean rolling up my sleeves and putting together a meal. I started by talking to my mother, who is one of my favourite chefs in the world. She’s currently working on a cookbook based on everything her mother, my teta , taught her called My Lebanese Memories in 84 Family Recipes (sorry for the shameless plug). I have spent the last few years growing as a cook, and I can confidently say today that my siblings and I have proved ourselves on that end. Our latest feat included putting together a feast featuring Drunken Lobster and a crown of lamb on rice pilaf among many other dishes over the winter holidays. I found that I had an affinity and an aptitude for cooking, so my mother asked me to help look over her cookbook and maybe even try out some recipes to test out some ingredient measurements with her.
I’ve never thought of myself as an emotionally self-aware person, but the time I spent poring over my grandmother’s recipes and finding pictures of her left me heartbroken. Whenever my mother and I stopped to debate how teta would have followed a recipe or reminisce about how delicious her chicken escalope was, I would tear up. I would think of my grandmother and how I wished I had more time to talk to her or be around her. If she were around today, I thought, I would be able to ask her some of these questions myself or tell her how much I appreciated her. Sometimes I’d look up at my mother, and I’d see the same thoughts in her eyes from which tears brimmed, just like mine. I’ll always remember when I called my mother to tell her how I wanted to write this article, and how she replied, “Sometimes we would talk about things just like this on the phone… I wish I could still talk to her now.” Instead, we are both left with her elegant, cursive writing outlining how to skillfully and neatly prepare sfeeha dough.
Cooking has left me feeling more connected to my grandmother, but I’m not sure why. Is it about getting people to have that feeling of being cared for, the way that my teta cared for me? Maybe it’s because I often associated time in the kitchen with my grandmother. We used to run around her house, in-and-out of the kitchen, but I never really stuck around to watch my teta work her magic. I just knew that she could make something beautiful out of thin air.
Having followed the same family recipes passed down from her mother to mine, I realize that she and I finally had that piece in common that I desperately wished we had before. It wasn’t until after her passing that I began to realize how similar we were, and I regret that all the time. Though she has moved on, I’m happy that I have that link with her through cooking. I miss her so damn much; it’s crazy. But I like to think that if she were still around today, we’d be making jokes in the kitchen together or talking about techniques to use in whatever recipe she wanted to try out.
In my life, and maybe that of others, grief can go untouched for so long before it comes out unexpectedly. Sometimes we choose not to touch those memories because they bring us sadness. Sometimes, thinking about the time lost with a loved one can bring pain or regret. But we cannot let mourning stop us from celebrating the life – and the love – of those dear to our hearts. Upon feeling that connection with my grandmother when I started cooking, I understood the meaning of a ‘labour of love.’ I’ve used my teta's recipes and the memories of comfort she provided to celebrate who she was to me with my mother. I go through the steps she went through in cooking to keep her close to my heart, as trivial as it may seem, because this is one of the few ways I get to live an experience with her.
My mother has this corny, cliché saying printed on a card resting on a shelf in our living room at home. It reads, “Saltwater cures all wounds; be it tears, sweat, or the sea.” It’s one of those things that you don’t try to remember, but it gets stuck in your head anyway. I figured I’m done letting tears wash away my grief, so I decided instead that I would work to celebrate my teta in a way that she’d appreciate: through my cooking.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: PHILLIPPE HADDAD
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