Opinion | Preserving Food, Preserving Myself

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — I forced the last mini cucumber in a jar and poured brine over it: My mother’s recipe calls for half a cup of coarse sea salt and half a cup of vinegar for every 12 cups of water, boiled and then cooled to room temperature. I have always relied on my cups and spoons to measure my ingredients. This time, though, I used the old floating raw egg trick to test the saltiness of the water, which I saw my grandmother use as a child.

When I was growing up in Lebanon, fall was the season my mother would transform our kitchen into an operating room of sorts: cucumber, cauliflower and carrots for pickling; beans, okra and leafy greens for freezing; olives, in two piles, green and black, to be preserved in olive oil or water; eggplants sliced and salted, sitting in large strainers, waiting to be stuffed with walnuts, garlic and red bell pepper. Fruits like strawberries, peaches and plums had already been made into jam. Apples and grapes were collected in large bottles and kept outside in the sun, to slowly turn into vinegar.

I loved all the food, but I resented the time my mother spent preparing the winter “mouneh,” as we call it in Lebanon, which translates into “food provisions.” I will not do that when I am older, I promised myself every year.

A few weeks ago, in my kitchen in Cambridge, my adopted city, I found myself performing the same ritual, albeit on a much smaller scale (I cook for a family of two, my mother for a family of five). I have preserved fruits and vegetables in the past, but in a more mechanical way, to avoid last-minute trips to the store to forage for a missing ingredient.

But this time felt different.

The food I was preparing was connecting me to something I was desperately trying to hold on to — my Lebanese-ness — in a trying year, during which I felt that the idea of my country, what it means and represents to me, is facing an existential threat. Over the past several months, I had watched from thousands of miles away the disintegration of a society I am part of, as it faced a severe economic crisis and an inept government, all of it exacerbated by a pandemic that brought life to a standstill.

I had suddenly been feeling a weak sense of belonging but I couldn’t understand why. How does Lebanon’s collapse affect my identity? Then I remembered a line I read two decades ago by a French-Lebanese author, Amin Maalouf, in his book “In the Name of Identity”: “We all have the feeling that our own identity, as we have conceived of it since we were children, is threatened.” It seems that such a sentiment is strongest among individuals whose countries are undergoing upheaval.

The list of my country’s woes is long, the legacy of successive corrupt and sectarian governments in power since the 1990s when the 15-year-long civil war ended.

A revolution that started last October in Beirut and spread across the country has failed to realize the demands of the protesters for new, competent leaders.

But then two months ago, a huge explosion in Beirut’s seaport killed more than 200 people and injured thousands more, and destroyed entire neighborhoods. The apartment I have in the city was one of many that became uninhabitable in an instant. The blast, caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, negligently left by officials for nearly seven years in a warehouse, became the final nail in the coffin of what once was a country. The government clearly had no regard for the lives or safety of its people.

As I rolled small balls of labneh, a thick strained yogurt, I remembered my mother sitting in her kitchen, a bowl of labneh on her lap, a cup of cold water and a tray placed on the table in front of her. She would lightly dip her right fingers in the water, massage her left palm in a circular motion, then take out a little bit of labneh and roll it. When done, she would cover the tray with a cloth and let it sit out until it hardened enough to be preserved in olive oil. During that fall season, everywhere I looked in the kitchen, in our breakfast and dining rooms, I saw trays, jars and bowls filled with ingredients slowly waiting to dry, to be pickled or to set before they were packaged, labeled, dated and stored. Tasting pickles for the first time every season was a ritual of sorts. “Who wants to try the pickles to see if they are ready?” my mother would call out to my siblings and me, who were eagerly waiting for that moment.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, and suck the juice. Crunch again. I smiled watching my 10-year-old son eat a pickled cucumber, and I remembered one summer morning in Beirut when I found him, a toddler then, his teeth barely in, standing at the foot of the open fridge, trying to climb up to reach a jar of pickles on the top shelf.

In his book, Mr. Maalouf says that our identity is shaped by a combination of our experiences, our skin color, our race, our ethnicity, our physical appearance, our religious affiliations or lack of, our ideological and political views, our socio-economic status and our families and countries. I have always taken that to heart. I cannot be wholly and only Lebanese, because throughout the years I have become much more than what my identity card says.

Perhaps if I saw a way out of the current crisis that would return the country to what it was, to how I remember it, I would be less anxious about my relationship to my native country. I would rest knowing that Lebanon will always be there, a plane ride away.

Preserving my fruits and vegetables in tightly sealed jars may be a way for me to preserve a crumbling identity. Lebanon’s future is ambiguous, but this produce will keep.

My husband passed away eight years ago, and his remains are buried in the garden of his ancestors’ house in a village in South Lebanon. He lies between two ancient olive trees that he imagined his grandmother had planted before her exodus to the United States in the early 19th century. They were the last thing she looked at before she left her home, he would always tell me.

The olive harvest in Lebanon takes place in the fall and the branches are usually beaten until their fruit falls off on tarps laid on the ground. My husband, though, picked them one by one. They were the best he had ever tasted; he said this every year. But I imagined it was not the taste of the olives, as good as they were, that he was craving. It was the connection to an identity long lost that he was trying to reclaim. The olives were that tangible bridge to his roots. Just as my pickles are.

Nada Bakri is a former reporter for The New York Times and a contributor to “Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting From the Arab World.”

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