Day of Honey: A memoir of food, love, and war

Annia Ciezodlo, Day of Honey: A memoir of food, love, and war

In 2003, Annia Ciezodlo married a Lebanese Muslim man, and for the next six years divided her time between Baghdad and Beirut, her husband’s home town. As journalists, over these years they spent their work lives witnessing and recording the descent into violence and sectarian conflict in both Iraq and Lebanon. But as she says, “if you want to understand war, you have to understand everyday life first.” In Day of Honey, Ciezodlo tells us the parallel story of finding the heart of her new everyday life in its language, friends and family, and food.

She befriends any number of shopkeepers and restauranteurs, and lets them tell us, eloquently, why food matters so much to them. For instance, after one shattering outbreak of violence in Beirut, when she visited her regular cheese shop she asked the proprietor, “Why did you stay open that Friday, during all the shooting? . . .  ‘Because people want cheese.’ Why? Why, in the middle of a firefight, do people decide that they must have cheese? He smiled with everything he had this time. ‘Because they think they will never be able to taste it again.'”

Her experience of the sectarian passions that fed that firefight was personal in the worst way. Her husband’s last name identified him as Shiite, and one night they were forced to walk home, threading their way through the dark streets to avoid armed gangs of warring Sunni and Shiite men. An encounter with the wrong group could have been the last for her husband. Shortly afterwards, for many reasons, they returned to New York.

In the course of her memoir, Ciezodlo gives us a vivid portrait of the personalities of her new family (especially her formidable mother-in-law, Umm Hassane), of her husband, and of her many friends, but also of herself. She’s warm, difficult, tough-minded, kind of a mess. At one point, a friend warns her, “simplicity is a virtue.” Yes, she says, “but it’s not one of mine.” She longs for home and family, but “home was a moveable feast; you strapped it to your back, stuffed it in a jar, dried it in the sun, dug it from the ground. Home was wherever you broke bread with people you loved.”

Back in New York adjusting to another everyday life, she concludes that “there was no point to staying in Baghdad or even Beirut. No point to being there simply because our friends could not or would not leave. . . But there is something to be said for memory, and for raising what small flag you can, even a tattered one, against forgetting.” When she misses Beirut or Baghdad, she heads to a farmers’ market to buy food and make something good to share with people she loves.

Note: The book ends with a chapter of recipes for the traditional dishes and family favorites that appear and re-appear throughout her story. I’m going to make some of them soon.

Free Press, 2011

What I’m reading: Audubon mag for March/April 2011

Audubon Magazine, March/April Special Issue:
The Cycle of Food

Thanks to my friend Ginny for bringing this to my attention! This is a comprehensive look at the whole food cycle from source to cleanup, with fascinating snapshots of practices across the country! (News flash for my friends and family back in Texas: mesquite beans are edible. Check it out!)

What I’m reading: Grand Central Baking Book

Piper Davis and Ellen Jackson, The Grand Central Baking Book: Breakfast Pastries, Cookies, Pies, and Satisfying Savories from the Pacific Northwest’s Celebrated Bakery

Baking, to this beginner, has always been the equivalent of the big white space on old maps of China–never been there, never going. But because my friend Gwen Bassetti was the founder of the Grand Central Bakery, I decided (as much out of loyalty as anything else) to get her daughter Piper’s cookbook. It’s terrific!–Well-laid-out recipes that are easy to follow, beautiful photos, and head-notes with personal and family memories that give you the feeling that an old friend has dropped by to get you going.  Did I mention the extensive, well-illustrated how-to sections? A must-have!

Ten Speed Press, 2009

What I’m reading: American Wasteland

Jonathan Bloom, American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Its Food (and what we can do about it)

Jonathan Bloom knows everything about food waste!

At the University Book Store on March 9th, Jonathan gave us a sampling of the fruits of his many months of research tracking down the journey of perfectly good food from field to landfill (an itinerary that did not include stops with hungry people). He has talked to farmers, restaurant owners, grocery store managers, food bank operators, and pretty much everybody else who populates our American food supply chain. He has read, apparently, every word ever written on the subject of food waste (his book ends with about 30 pages of citations, notes, and resources). The bottom line: he documents in horrifying detail the fact that America throws away almost half the food it produces.

Along the way to producing his book, he also engaged in some immersion journalism (what in my field we might call participant observation) by for instance working as a stock boy in the produce section of a grocery store, pulling and trashing produce with small blemishes or approaching “sell-by” dates. He is eloquent on the tyranny of the sell-by date and its near cousins “best by” and “use by,” which we learn are rough guesses by packagers of how long the food will look picture-perfect–nothing to do with food safety, let alone taste or nutrition. (And in an informal aside, he gave us a disarming picture of his encounter, decked out in his stock-boy apron, with a former college classmate on his way up.)

He knows it doesn’t have to be this way! He documents numerous grass-roots efforts to recover food for healthy uses, from restaurants and grocery stores taking advantage of Good Samaritan laws to donate to food banks to individual home gardeners sharing their bounty. And he ends with a slate of suggestions about how we as individuals can do our part to change our culture of waste.

(Da Capo Books, 2010)

What I’m reading: Omnivore’s Dilemma

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

My friend and former student Margaret Schultz reminded me of this seminal book! (Thanks, Margaret!) Back in 2008 when I set out on my sabbatical, I knew that I wanted to begin to learn about food, so I dragged this book along with me across Europe, reading and eating as I went. (The appalling state of some of the pages testifies to my skill at reading while eating!) This is the definitive book about where food comes from; Pollan traces out the origins of the key ingredients of four meals, and in the process writes a social history of American eating.  It is fascinating, in places stomach-turning, and utterly persuasive that we do indeed have a national eating disorder. He argues that eating is an agricultural act, “an ecological act, and a political act, too.” And finally, he says, “this is a book about the pleasures of eating, the kinds of pleasure that are only deepened by knowing.” If you have a five-foot bookshelf, be sure to reserve a spot for this book!

(Penguin Books, 2006)

What I’m reading: Growing a Farmer

Kurt Timmermeister, Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off The Land

Growing a Farmer is an heartening book for beginners in any field! Kurt Timmermeister’s journey from accomplished restauranteur to beginning farmer to respected maker of artisanal cheeses was marked by numerous setbacks, both hilarious and heart-breaking. He is eloquent on beginner’s cluelessness; here he is undertaking to buy a tractor:  “ I thought I would walk up to a salesman and engage him, but all that I had planned to ask was, ‘How much is that big green metal thing with the spikes on the bottom that rotate on the back side of it for mixing dirt or something?’” After all his travails, he ends on the perfect note: “The animals are content in the field, the gardens lush with vegetables, the orchards ever more prolific . . .”
(WW Norton & Co., hardcover, 2011)

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What I’m reading: Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest

Tami Parr, Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest

Organized by state and region, this handy compendium showcases twenty cheesemakers from across the Pacific Northwest–the styles of cheese they produce, their visiting hours and address, even what their label looks like. The brief writeup (usually only two pages) gives you a snapshot of the history of each business and introduces you to the cheesemakers themselves–the artisans and their families whose labor and skill create these beautiful products. The book ends with several very useful appendices about cheese.

(The Countryman Press, 2009)

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