Taming a Leopard in Lebanon

Leopard Print Momma

I probably ought to have been nervous. Instead I was ravenous.

I’d just arrived in Nahr Ibrahim, a small town in Lebanon’s northwestern mountain region, and I was sitting at my future in-law’s kitchen table, surrounded not just by food—welcoming bowls of tangy lebneh, smoky baba ghanouj, verdant tabbouleh, and savory triangular meatpies known as sambousek—but by my fiancé, his sisters, and his parents.

It was my inaugural visit to Lebanon, the first time I’d met anyone in Maroun’s family, and I had good reason to be intimated. I didn’t speak Arabic, his parents didn’t speak English. “She’s too blond,” had been my prospective mother-in-law’s verdict some months before, when Maroun had sent her photos of his American fiancée by way of an introduction.

But after a 20-hour journey, I wasn’t frightened. I was hungry. All I could think about was those meat pies that Maroun’s beloved mother, my future mother-in-law and the tremendous cook I’d heard about for the past three years, had made for the occasion.

From Maroun’s stories, I knew that he was “the light of her eyes,” as the Arabic expression goes. They look so much alike, people in their village called him “son of Mona” instead of the more customary “son of Joseph,” after his father. I also knew that when he was a boy, he’d spent ample time with his mother in the kitchen, talking to her as she cooked. I could only imagine that Mona might find no woman good enough for her only son.

Yet despite my impending mother-in-law’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for me, I’d clung to the notion that once we met, the two of us would get along. We’d stand side by side at the kitchen counter—I tall and fair, she short and dark—and, without words, bond through cooking as she imparted generations of culinary traditions to me. It was as simple as that, at least in my imagination.

But now here she was, standing in her red high heels, tight leather skirt, and brazen leopard print, staring at me in my Dansko clogs, L.L. Bean cords, and quiet earth tones—one hand on her hip, the other offering the platter of savory stuffed dough. Maroun’s father and three sisters watched me, too, although they were smiling. Everyone was smiling, save for Mona. She bore an inscrutable expression, seemingly sizing up this slender blonde with the transparent eyebrows and pink, freckled skin. I felt as if I’d just sat down to take a test for which I’d forgotten to prepare.

Undaunted, I bit into a meat pie, letting the cinnamon and pine nuts linger on my palate. When I asked Mona for seconds, I thought I detected something resembling the precursor to a grin, but I couldn’t be certain. After all, I was hungry—though not so hungry that I didn’t notice that the more I ate, the happier they all seemed to become, Mona included.

In the days that followed, I ate my way around Maroun’s hometown, stopping at falafel stands and friends’ homes as my fiancé introduced me to the flavors of his youth. I was charmed by the names of each of the foods I encountered. I learned that znoud el sit, which translates to “ladies’ arm fat,” is deep-fried cream-filled phyllo, and a thing of beauty to Arabic men, apparently. I learned that silken eggplant filled with tomato and ground lamb, my favorite thing, is aptly named sheik el meshe, “the sheik of all stuffed things.” I also learned that doughy manoushe breads are best when rolled up with olives, fresh mint, and tomatoes; that the sweet rice pudding meghli is an inspired Christmas tradition; and that a breakfast of k’naafeh, a sweet string pastry of sorts, is indeed the perfect restorative following a New Year’s Eve spent dancing on tabletops in spirited Lebanese fashion.

But the most memorable culinary experiences I had were those in Mona’s kitchen. In the late afternoons, Mona would return from her job as a receptionist and head straight for the kitchen. Still in office attire, she’d spend the next three or so hours in her after-work relaxation routine of chopping parsley, sautéing beef liver, and rolling dough, pausing only to step away from the food, lean against the counter, and drag deeply from her Marlboro, a remote, contented look in her eyes as she exhaled plumes of smoke out the window.

She seemed accustomed to being left alone in the kitchen, and I hesitated to intrude on her domain. But Maroun would nap for hours. And I was lonely. So each afternoon I’d slink into the kitchen, take a seat at the table, and try to lose myself in a book, only to look up now and again when I heard her knife’s staccato slicing or the sharp click as she opened a jar of tomatoes she’d canned late last summer. Sometimes Mona would abruptly call me to the counter and silently demonstrate how she stuffed sheep’s intestines with rice and chickpeas for the classic peasant dish ghammee. Or she’d beckon me to the balcony, where she’d just placed her baked version of the sambousek pies. She took pride in her creations, and surely she could tell I was interested.

After a few days of this, she began to greet me with a smile as I entered the kitchen, press her palm against my abdomen, and say in Arabic, “Hungry?”

“Yes!” I’d answer, and we’d giggle at this simple conversation, the same exchange we had every day.

I reveled in our shared routine. The bonding didn’t happen quite the way I’d thought it would, though. Instead of getting cooking lessons, I simply got fed. Frustratingly, I wasn’t attaining as much cooking prowess from my time in Mona’s kitchen as I’d hoped. Her small, ringed fingers would deftly roll grape leaves before I could note her technique, and I didn’t understand a word of the labels on the spices and jars she pulled from her cupboards. We both bemoaned the language barrier that kept us from communicating, although Maroun seemed to think that my having mastered “ana j’anaeh” (“I am hungry”) and “kteer taibeen” (“very delicious”) was sufficient.

As our days in Lebanon drew to an end, the courses at dinner seemed to grow in number and complexity. Maroun would tap my arm gently after I’d tucked into several mezze, reminding me that many more courses were still on their way. No matter. Lambs’ tongues. Sheep’s intestines. Tahini fish. Little larks with their delicate, crunchy bones. I devoured each with equal gusto as it arrived. His sisters coached me to reach far across the table to grab what I wanted, as was their way. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, though, so Mona became my protector, making sure I got whatever I wanted.

On one of our last nights in Lebanon, Mona swept in like a hawk catching prey for its young, handing me a bowl of baba ghanouj and uttering something I didn’t understand in Arabic.

“What did she say?” I asked my fiancé.

“’I love Liz because she eats!’” he translated.

She’d confirmed what I’d begun to suspect. I smiled.

Maroun’s father ignored this exchange as he continued to peel shrimp and tangerines for me and then poured me a shot of arak from his bottle. “We wish you to be married!” he toasted in practiced English.

I raised my glass, and suddenly, for the first time since I’d arrived, I realized I felt full.

Hungry for more? Chow down on these:

Elizabeth Kelsey

About Elizabeth Kelsey

Elizabeth Kelsey is a communications specialist at Dartmouth College. Her freelance work has appeared in The Miami Herald, Ode, Relish, Women’s Running, Edible Green Mountains, New Hampshire Magazine, among other publications. She's currently working on a memoir about her intercultural marriage titled From Lebanon to Lebanon (New Hampshire).

Comments
Comments
  1. That story was like watching a delicious movie.
    I couldn’t stop reading as though I couldn’t stop eating each scrumptious bite put before me.
    You made my day so much more flavorful!
    Thank you!

    • Elizabeth Kelsey says:

      Thanks so much, Virginia! I’m so glad you enjoyed the story — and what a compliment that you found it as appetizing as Mona’s cooking.

    • Mary Lou Czaplicki says:

      You are brilliant! You managed to make exotic (some could say gross) ingredients sound delicious! A beautifully written description of Mona’s kitchen with all the twists and idiosyncrasies of a devoted mother and hostess. I especially liked the cigarette smoke blowing out the window! Even that habit was presented as an indulgent and satisfying meal. I am so proud of you. Looking forward to New Hampshire in the spring.

  2. Sita Krishnaswamy says:

    I couldn’t help but smile when I read this article. My experience was the reverse of Elizabeth’s. Our daughter-in-law is a wonderful Irish Catholic girl, and we, of course, are of East Indian origin and Hindus.

    When my son was dating her, he asked to bring her home one summer. We had met her casually a couple of times before, but this was going to be much more of an intense encounter. My son had of course warned me not to put a lot of food in front of her and overwhelm her. (In the east, sharing food and almost coercing our visitors to eat runs very deeply in the culture.) So on the day of her arrival, I prepared a simple pasta with roasted salmon and salad in her honor.

    She had a quizzical look on her face and very politely enquired as to why I was not making all the curries my son was raving about. I burst out laughing and shared my son’s instructions with her. She asked that I pay no attention to him and go ahead and make my curries as she loved to eat and could she be a sous chef and write down recipes. She won my heart, and even today while we visit her, she very proudly makes an amazing Indian meal for us. We love our Katie.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Sita, this charms the soul. Perhaps you could pen a handbook on how to be a gracious mother-in-law…?

    • Elizabeth Kelsey says:

      Sita, I loved reading your story. Yes, it sounds as if your Katie is a better sous chef than I!

      • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

        Funny, I, too, loved reading Sita’s story, although I came away thinking that you, Elizabeth, are very much like Katie, and that if only you and your husband’s mother shared the same language, chances are you’d have the same sort of relationship. I don’t think it comes down to “better” at all….

      • Sita Krishnaswamy says:

        Elizabeth, thank you for your comment. I could well relate to what you went through. In India, as you know, marriages are arranged, and even though the bride is approved by the family, it is still quite a challenge to fit into the family. I know this from my experience, and the only thing that saved me in my husband’s family was my love of food. The fact that I could cook, too, was an added bonus. Loved your essay.

  3. Sarah Stanfield says:

    An amazing essay from an up-and-coming writer. Love it!

  4. I loved this essay and I really, really wanted Mona to feed me!

  5. Liza Wyles says:

    Loved this and made the mistake of reading it around lunchtime. Want to eat it all!

  6. Wendy says:

    Loved this essay! The descriptions were brilliant. More, please?!?

  7. Janis LeBaron says:

    Liz…

    Your words …just like a painter that paints the space around the final form, without touching the final form….and, in the end, there it is….A lot like you and Mona surrounding Maroun.

    Which do I find more interesting the “space” or the “form”?….. thanks to you, I am leaning towards the “space”.

  8. carlotajc says:

    Found this in a roundabout way, but had to tell you both Chuck and I absolutely love it, Liz. I felt like I was watching a movie in my mind and feeling it in my heart and stomach – similar to Under the Tuscan Sun.

    • Elizabeth Kelsey says:

      Thank you for your sweet note — it made my day! I’m so glad you enjoyed the story.

  9. G. Maroun Akiki says:

    Your stories are a refreshing look…being named Maroun myself and crossing both Lebanese and American cultures, I find it fun to read about it from your perspective. My wife is also Lebanese so it was different for us but I identify with your experiences!

  10. Elizabeth Kelsey says:

    Thank you so much for your note, Maroun. I’m so glad you enjoyed the story and can relate to it! I’ve actually just started a new newspaper column and blog about my Lebanese-American adventures. Would love to hear what you think:
    http://www.elizabethkelsey.com/blog

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