Friday, January 2, 2009

The Hunger of Memory

I recently finished The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit one of the best and most moving books I have read in a long time. It is the heartbreaking story of an Egyptian Jewish family's privileged life in Cairo destroyed by strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser and turmoil in the Middle East.

Once part of the Cairo elite, the proud Lagnado family, which traced its roots to Aleppo in Syria, is forced to flee in the early 1960s along with most of that nation's 80,000 Jews. After a stop in Paris, the family ends up penniless in Brooklyn where the author's father, a one time entrepreneur extraordinaire and man about town, fails spectacularly. Ravaged by various ailments and pining for the beloved Cairo he will never see again, the father is forced to eek out a living selling neckties and earning tiny commissions on bolts of cloth.

The book, a memoir by the family's youngest member, Wall Street Journal reporter Lucette Lagnado, includes repeated luscious, loving descriptions of the food of her childhood. Indeed, food, the longing, memories and pleasures it evokes, is a source of both happiness and sadness throughout the book. Many of Lagnado's most memorable passages describe her legendary grandmother's cooking and the central, spiritual, event supernatural role that food played in the life of her family. Take this passage:

My grandmother Zarifa believed that certain foods possessed magical powers.

Bananas and raw eggs were at the top of her list, along with almonds, sour cherries, olives, and, above all, mesh-mesh, ripe, luscious apricots. Zarifa wold slip them into virtually any dish on Primus, and she was such a gifted cook that every course she prepared from simple grilled meats to elaborate stews and roasts, emitted a mysterious vaguely fruity aroma.

Anyone who came dine at Malaka Nazli could count on a transcendent experience. What was in there? they’d wonder, amazed at their sense of absolute well-being.

At one point in the 1940s, Lucette's uncle feels desperately ill and resorts to the standard family cure-all: a cappuccino at Groppi, a legendary pastry shop that makes repeated appearances in the book. When the coffee fails to revive, Uncle Salomone visits a doctor who diagnoses pleurisy and prescribes bed rest and as much much food as he can eat. The subsequent cure, administered by Lucette's grandmother, has to be read to be believed.

Later, struggling in exile in Brooklyn, the family finally lands its first apartment, owned by fellow Syrian Jews. It is a sweet that makes them feel at home for the first time since arriving in America:

Efadolou,” they cried, Arabic for welcome, and with typical Syrian hospitality, they offered us a platter of khak, salty ring-shaped biscuits covered in sesame. We hadn’t eaten them since Cairo, and biting into the delicious treats made us realize that we were both far from home and that we’d finally arrived.
This book is a pleasure and a revelation many levels, not the least of which the deep meaning that food can have in our lives, especially those who have left their homes to start a new life elsewhere. It led me to pull out an old Middle Eastern cookbook I got from God knows where and try a recipe. I will try more and report on the results.

In the meantime, if you are interested in Middle Eastern Jewish food, here is a link to a New Yorker Magazine piece on the food of King's Highway, the Brooklyn neighborhood where many Syrian Jews settled.

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