THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA
By Diana Abu-Jaber
Pantheon. 330 pp. $23
Memoirs are an emerging genre in food writing, even though one of the best -- written by M.F.K. Fisher about her years in Dijon and her discovery of French cooking -- was published very many years ago. Fisher's memoirs do not include recipes, only descriptions of meals and dishes. But Diana Abu-Jaber's The Language of Baklava (like Colette Rossant's Apricots on the Nile) is replete with recipes, mostly for Arab dishes, as the title suggests. (Baklava is actually a generic term to describe a whole range of Arab pastries drenched in sugary syrup.) Abu-Jaber's memoir is mostly about her life in America, where her Jordanian father and his brothers immigrated. She spent two short intervals in Jordan, the first when, as a child, her father took the family there to sample life in the home country, and the second when she went as a grown-up in search of her roots.
Even though Abu-Jaber père marries an American, he never gets used to the American way of life, least of all to American food. Young Diana grows up embracing all things American, except possibly the food. Not an unusual situation, but an interesting one all the same, and in the hands of a less self-conscious writer, this might have been a more engaging memoir.
The book opens with a description of young Diana and her Arab cousins, sitting in the audience in a TV studio in the mid-1960s, watching the Baron Daemon show. The joke-cracking, vampire-costumed host is struggling with her Arab last name, to the great hilarity of the children, including Diana, until Diana grabs him by his cape and announces on national television, "I'm hungry." This sets the tone for the book. Food and eating are a constant concern.
Different moments of her life are marked by meals or dishes that her father cooks for the family, and the recipes she gives are described so as to indicate what happened on each particular occasion. "Peaceful Vegetarian Lentil Soup" is for when her uncles bungle the killing of a sheep. " 'Forget me not' Sambusik Cookies" are for Hisham, her childhood friend during the short time the family lives in Jordan. And " 'Distract the Neighbors' Grilled Chicken" is for the time when they disgraced themselves by having a barbecue on their front lawn, not in the backyard like everyone else.
Abu-Jaber tells her story in the present tense, from when she is 6 years old to the present day, when she is in her mid-forties: a daunting narrative trick, which she doesn't quite pull off.
Throughout the first half of the book, the voice of the young child is hard to believe. The clear recall, the detailed descriptions of events and her reaction to them: All sound too grown-up. The problem is compounded by a surfeit of imagery. Abu-Jaber is in love with adjectives and cannot stop herself from conjuring up incongruous images at every turn of the page: The barbecue smells "dark and delicious as the aroma of gasoline," an unlit house "is watery," the sounds of a room are "whispering, watery" and "bob around" her, chocolates are "midnight-rich," salads are "tissuey," a face is "calm as pond water" and a gray dress "drifts like a shadow" over her bed. Again and again, I found myself stopping to imagine Abu-Jaber, pen in mouth or hands on keyboard, trying to think of yet more distinctive images, which often come off as peculiar. Seeing the writer at work is not what propels readers through a book.
Still, The Language of Baklava improves as Abu-Jaber becomes a teenager. She is less self-conscious in her effort to convey memories or impressions, and one is more easily transported into her world. Her voice is more natural and the tone charming instead of laboured. Moreover, her description of her friend Fattoush and his relationship with her father is very affecting.
One thing does not improve throughout the book: her recipes. Abu-Jaber is clearly not an experienced cook. In her recipe for pita bread, the ratio of water to flour is too little and the method not quite right. She mixes in the salt with the yeast water, which is a definite no-no in baking, and the rolled-out dough is allowed to rest for too long, which may cause drying. "A Perfect Glass of Araq" is far from perfect; no self-respecting araq drinker would pour araq on ice. And her "Subsistence Tabbouleh" has cucumbers in it, Western-style. In her recipe for "Mad Genius Knaffea," she describes kadayif as a kind of "shredded phyllo dough" when it is nothing of the sort; kadayif pastry is made by pouring batter through a multi-holed funnel onto a hot metal plate. The very fine threads of batter cook on contact with the heat and are then picked up in bunches, coiled and packed.
You would think that especially with her large extended Arab family, Abu-Jaber would have had no trouble double-checking her recipes and ingredients for accuracy. The same can be said of her treatment of Arabic words. She has done this phonetically, seemingly without understanding what the words actually mean. For example, she writes nawal for gypsies when the word should be nawar; as-shugal for the work when it should be al-shughul; and gamardine for apricot fruit leather when it should be qamar el-deen, which actually means moon of the religion. This is not surprising, really, as she did not learn Arabic as a child. Still, she could have made an effort for the sake of accuracy.
Nevertheless, The Language of Baklava is fascinating in parts. I liked it more than Crescent, Abu-Jaber's 2003 novel. (She is also the author of the 1993 novel Arabian Jazz.) Perhaps she will outgrow her love for florid imagery when she comes to write her next book. One last thing: I hope she doesn't ask for a mezza course in an Arab restaurant. She will instantly betray her American roots. Anissa Helou is the author of "Mediterranean Street Food."