A Lebanese Feast, and Poetry, in Motion

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This is a story by Maureen Abood! Get the Fattoush Salad recipe here.

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It wasn’t long after I started working, after graduate school studying poetry and literature, that I started to feel the gnaw. Working was great, a paycheck was even greater. But I wasn’t writing much—just a couple of correspondences that took on terrific significance for me, or my journal, which was so stream of consciousness that it pained me to read what I’d written.

After work, I’d fire up my forbidden tabletop gas grill on the porch of my third story apartment in East Lansing, pull out the lamb chops, and start making a little fattoush salad for myself. With a glass of wine in hand, I put on the tapes (not even CD’s yet. Ouch.) of Bill Moyer’s Language of Life series. He was at a poetry festival, where poets read their work in the lilting, expectant tone that is unique to poetry reading.

Among them was a voice that sounded as though she had pulled up a chair next to me, shared a glass of wine, and spoke. I remember as much the sound of her voice as what she said, and I remember stopping still in my tracks as I walked the raw lamb chops on a plate out to the fire, and just stood there, listening. The gnaw, the desire to write and to do it well and to do it every day, reached up from within me like an irritated ulcer begging to be calmed, or a young bud thirsting for a sprinkle of water.

The poet was Naomi Shihab Nye. The Middle Easterners among us will recognize part of her name as one of ours. But before I knew her name, I knew her voice. It is a voice that says things like: Before you know kindness/as the deepest thing inside,/you must know sorrow/as the other deepest thing. You’re going to want to read, and listen to, the rest of that poem; here you go.

This was a voice that called me home. Did I set down my briefcase and head straight for my writing perch on Little Traverse Bay? It’s been a far more winding path than that. Turns out that along the path, I was not to avoid knowing sorrow, deeply. It is the gift of poets to look right into your soul, pull it up by its lapels and say in its face: now you listen here!

So when my gentle cousin Cathy wrote to tell me she would be hosting a small group from the poetry center at Michigan State and their visiting writer, Naomi Shihab Nye, this week in her mother’s writerly home for a bite to eat and an intimate conversation, I couldn’t help but sound a yawp right from the rooftop. A mezze would be the thing, all vegetarian. There was plenty of cooking: the spinach fatayar, the mujadara, the fattoush, the baklawa. It’s the sort of cooking that fills one with certain purpose.

But the main thing, as I went about my kitchen this week, was remembering. Remembering all of the poetry that was once my own form, and the professor who read my poems about kibbeh and grapeleaf rolls and told me how lucky I was to have such subject matter handed to me on a platter.

Remembering that day in my apartment when I was 25, and how just after that I left my job and moved to Chicago, planning to write. And how then the years strung out onto a chain like gold balls waiting for their pearl—a year of writing, which became a couple of weeks of writing, which became a day here and there of writing, which became thinking of writing but not writing much at all—to arrive.

Remembering, as I kept reading Naomi’s poem Kindness while I toasted the pita for fattoush and boiled the milk for laban, how good it was, and is, to feel a gnaw, and to have bowed down and picked up my sorrow and held it to my chest like a toiling child. And then—now—to know kindness, as the deepest thing inside.

Get the recipe for fattoush salad here!

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20 Comments

  1. Katanahamon says:

    I’m sure everyone has their favorite variations..I like the tip of mincing a very ripe tomato and its juices and a shallot into the dressing, and a bit of pomegranate molasses. Also using plenty of green onions, and purple or red onion, red bell pepper, homegrown fat purslane, baby cucumbers. I also every now and then take the toasted pita and lightly fry in olive oil so it holds up better and is richer..the sumac powder from Penzeys is wonderful..my neighbors own a Lebanese restaurant..I’ve picked up a few recipes and tips along the way..!

    1. Maureen Abood says:

      I love your approach and tips, thank you! I understand purslane is absolutely critical to fattoush in Lebanon. We just don’t see it often in our markets here. Great that you are growing your own!

  2. Faith says:

    Hi there!
    How far in advance can I bake the pita chips? Also, I’m planning on prepping the vegetables the day before and placing it in the fridge. Do you think that’ll be fine?
    Thanks in advance!

    1. Maureen Abood says:

      Hi Faith–the pita chips will hold for a couple of days in an airtight container (longevity depends on the humidity where you are too). I often prep the components in advance and keep them chilled in the fridge; everything will be wonderful!

  3. ELEANOR A DURST says:

    MY AUNT DELIA TANOUS USED TO PREPARE A DISH CALLED “POOR MANS DINNER” CONSISTS OF MEAT EGGPLA NT ONIONS ETC. SO YOU KNOW RECIPE?

    1. Maureen Abood says:

      Hi! Sounds something like Sheik al Mehshee?

  4. Kat Jaibur says:

    Breathtakingly beautiful. No coincidences with Naomi, right? I love how the universe set you up for that…and how your cooking was a part of it. If you hadn’t been grilling the lamb chops and looking for something to listen to… My friend Michael J. Chase runs The Kindness Center in Maine. I will share this poem with him. Also, thanks for your honesty about your writing path. I can relate. 30 years of writing for others, and I still find it hard to take time to write what’s in my head and heart. But you’ve inspired me on many levels. So we’ll see.

  5. Rose Roche says:

    Now that you aunt Pat is home I hear that I missed Cathy’s call to come to Naomi Nye’s poetry reading at Pat’s house. I would have loved being there. This entry is so rich. Thank-you. Rose

  6. Stacy says:

    Hi Maureen, catching up on some of your latest postings and of course this one stopped me in my tracks…. have since printed out the poem to keep close & read often… truly deep and profound words that really touched me and caused me to pause and reflect on my own journey … thank you!

    1. Maureen Abood says:

      That’s very special, Stacy, thank you. I’m glad you like the poem as much as I do. xoxo.

  7. Shirley Dave says:

    Maureen,
    I love reading your articles. They are always so timely. Just this weekend, Friday, I fired up my little grill on my small back porch and grilled some marinated lamb chops. They were wonderful. I also loved the poem and posted it on my office door hoping that others will read it.
    Thanks for the salad recipe.

    Blessings,
    Shirley

    1. Maureen Abood says:

      How beautiful Shirley that you are sharing the poemwith others at work. And too funny about the lamb chops!! We are on the same food page!! Delicous….thanks for writing!

  8. Roger Toomey says:

    Checked on Amazon for books by Ms Nye and discovered one called “19 Varieties of Gazelle”. Looked familiar. Last time the library had their surplus book sale I had picked it up for 25 cents because it had a Middle Eastern author that I’d never heard of but figured no one else would want to buy. It’s laid in the pile awaiting for me to select but each time I looked at it the title just didn’t seem that interesting. Have read several selections and now have a reason to finish it.

    1. Maureen Abood says:

      What a great coincidence, and I’m glad you got into the book. Her writing is special indeed.

  9. Paula says:

    Such an intense and beautiful post that, like Michael, I had to go back to look at the photos and to read the recipe.

    Thank you for let me know about Naomi’s work (I didn’t know) and I surely make Fattoush Salad to use my precious sumac.

    Your writing is your soul.

    1. Maureen Abood says:

      Soul sister, thank you so much. Your sumac has been waiting for its fattoush. I will be eating it with you in spirit!

  10. Tom says:

    Maureen,

    I will be forever grateful that you introduced me to Naomi Shihab Nye, and this has now become one of my favorite poems. I’ll read this at my men’s group next week. You feed us all with your words, your photos, and your recipes–and your way of engaging life. Thank you.

    Tom

    1. Maureen Abood says:

      We had the chance to connect with some phenomenal people, didn’t we Tom. I’m not surprised that the poem resonated with you….thank you….

  11. Michael Ganz says:

    What’s going on inside of you Maureen? This was such intense writing about you,
    about your soul, about your experiences and thoughts that I hardly noticed the photos
    as i read or the recipe… I had to go back for those!

    Your story today made me pause and reflect about my own life’s passion’s and experiences
    at 25 and then come back to the recipe… I used to attend reading and poetry forums
    at SMU.

    Very nice post and great photos,

    Michael
    P.S. We didn’t do lamb chops for Easter, we decided to do lamb roast. We did it in the same style as
    You did your chops.
    With simple garlic… It was great!

    1. Maureen Abood says:

      Michael, I’m so happy to hear that this gave you time to think back on your passions, and life’s meandering road. And also about the lamb roast! A feast you must have all enjoyed immensely. Many thanks for your comment today.