Always the setting forth was the same, / Same sea, same dangers waiting for him, / As though he had got nowhere but older. / Behind him on the receding shore / The identical reproaches, and somewhere / Out before him, the unraveling patience / He was wedded to. There were the islands / Each with its woman and twining welcome / To be navigated, and one to call “home.” / The knowledge of all that he had betrayed / Grew till it was the same where he stayed / Or went. Therefore he went. And what wonder / If sometimes he could not remember / Which was the one who wished on his departure / Perils that he could never sail through, / And which, improbable remote, and true, / Was the one he kept sailing home to? — “Odysseus” by W.S. Merwin
You decide to shuffle a pack of cards. There was a time when you were good at this; you knew all the games and committed the suits to memory. Back then there was time, so much of it, and you passed it in the dark, when the power was shut off, again, and the squirrels ravaged through the trees and your aunt scavenged the floorboards for junk. Everyone told her to quit it with the scratching, but she was determined to claw. Bleach her world down to bone; feel a semblance of clean. You traced the words don’t leave on her arm. Needle marks — so many you lost count — and you wondered if they’d erupt, take her back from where it was that she’d come. On the television screen we saw the unimaginable: homes with two floors, a lone hula hula hoop on a verdant lawn, hyacinths in full bloom, a mother and father standing side by side. We shook our heads and laughed. White people, we said, and then paused and took inventory. We were white. You thought your aunt played her biggest hand, risking everything to climb her way into a world we always wanted. When she died she was a wreckage, a burlap of skin, lips painted blue.
Everyone was in the business of leaving, and on the fire escape you watched the leaves tremble and you almost dived right into it. You were determined to leave this. Years later when your mother had the shakes and locked herself in her bedroom with her loud television that blasted her stories, her litter of beer cans and tins of peach pie under the bed, you wanted to blowtorch the door, shake the pretty white snow out of her. You wanted to tell her that the snow was an avalanche not a window out. And there was a day that she left too. Took all her records and pictures of herself in our family album and rode away to a new man, a new life, because maybe we weren’t what the television shows promised her we’d be.
Can memory be excised? Can a face that is a photocopy of the one that came before be forgotten? You were burning so bright; people had to squint at you always. And that December in the bathroom you swore you were better than them. You would never be like them. And then there go the lines.
Ours was a generation of women determined to ruin. All this because we wanted to make ourselves a home. We felt entitled to it. We wanted our two floors and pretty lawns, and when the pain of reality became all too much to bear we stepped into a new world, swathed ourselves in it. We would be under permanent anesthesia.
Years later on a telephone line, your mother acted as if you were both victors coming home from war. Our drug addictions were our gleaming medallions, and that put your heart on pause because there was nothing poetic about to choosing to escape pain and fear instead of breathing through it. And can’t you just forget all those bad years, many of which she couldn’t remember, said you made them up, because it’s all in the past? This coming from a woman who called you by another name, Lisa, rather than the name you were given. In a low voice you said no and you kept mouthing it through her tears and the months that followed after you cut the phone line.
All this because we wanted a home to come home to. Lately, you’ve been thinking about your life, re-evaluating it, thinking about the home you want to make for yourself rather than decorating it. You’re going through your own private odyssey. Staring at the card of Eliot’s Phoenician Sailor, you always thought that the drowning was yet another end rather than what Eliot intended it to be — a symbol of baptism, the cleansing your aunt always wanted, a chrysalis — a rebirth from the material world to a spiritual one. You think about the word history and how it weighs you down with the enormity of it, and you start to realize that making a home is about making a life for yourself that you will always want to remember, never regret. A home that you would never abandon.
Enter awkward segue. Because there’s no graceful way of doing it, right?
In the bookstore today — my first trip to Manhattan in nearly a week — a stranger hands me a cookbook and tells me that he thinks I’d like it. Startled, I walked away, and then walked back and pored all over the pages of a book that is the very definition of family, of history, of life, and although it’s cuisine I’m not accustomed to making, the recipes and beautiful photographs were a siren call to home. A home worth sailing to.
Loosely translated from the Arabic, kibbeh means “the shape of a ball,” where ground meat and bulgur wheat are mixed together to form a shell, stuffed with meat flavored with sweet spices and pine nuts shaped into balls that were deliciously deep-fried to a crisp. This version (a fusion of Sephardic + Arabic flavors), the authors contest, is very unconventional. This version is akin to a layer cake that incorporates the recipe’s essential elements. Simply put, the result was EXTRAORDINARY. The sweet meat, the cool layer of tahini and the hearty bulgur base was a trifecta of splendid textures and flavors and I had to box the lot of it because I couldn’t STOP MYSELF FROM SLICING ANOTHER PIECE. Don’t be intimidated by this recipe. It’s EASY and delicious.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s + Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem: A Cookbook.
scant 1 cup (125g) fine bulgur wheat*
scant 1 cup (200ml) water
6 tbsp (90ml) olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 green chili, finely chopped
12oz (350g) minced lamb**
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground coriander
2 tbsp roughly chopped coriander
1/2 cup (60g) pine nuts
3 tbsp roughly chopped parsley
2 tbsp self-raising flour (or 2 tbsp all purpose flour + 1/8 tsp baking powder + pinch of salt)
Salt and black pepper
3 1/2 tbsp (50g) tahini paste
3 1/2 tbsp (50ml) water
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp sumac
*I used cracked bulgur wheat and it worked just fine.
**I used ground sirloin, as I have an aversion to lamb, and it was perfection.
Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 4. Line an 8inch (20cm) springform pan with parchment paper. Put the bulgur in a bowl, add tap water and set aside for 30 minutes.
Heat four tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan. Sauté the garlic, onion and chili on medium-high heat until soft, remove from the pan, return it to high heat and add the beef. Cook for five minutes, stirring, until brown. Return the onion mix to the pan, along with the spices, coriander leaves, salt, pepper and most of the pine nuts and parsley (save some for the end). Cook for a couple of minutes, remove from the heat, taste and adjust the seasoning.
Check the bulgur to see if all the water has been absorbed (strain if not). Add the flour, a tablespoon of oil, a quarter-teaspoon of salt and a pinch of black pepper and, with your hands, work into a pliable mixture that just holds together. Push firmly into the base of the tin so that it is compacted and level. Spread the beef mix evenly on top and press down. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the meat browns further and is very hot.
Whisk together the tahini, lemon juice, water and a pinch of salt – you’re after a very thick, yet pourable sauce. Remove the kibbeh from the oven, spread the sauce on top, sprinkle with pine nuts and parsley, and return to the oven. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until the tahini is just set and the pine nuts are golden. Remove and leave to cool down. Before serving, sprinkle with the sumac and a drizzle of olive oil. Remove the sides of the tin and carefully cut the kibbeh into slices.