labboiULleh or not tabbotuleh Meet a 20-something who's chasing her Lebanese culinary heritage. Pinning down her mom's recipe for success has proven to be a kitchen Catch-22. BY MICHELE HATTY ITTLE BY LITTLE, it's been coming out that my J friends and I have a secret ^ desire to re-create our moms' cooking. For Stacy, it's all about her Texas mother's ultra-comforting vegetable- beef soup. For Amanda, it's her Midwestern mom's warn, eai-thy apple crisp. When they have ti-ied to get the recipes, they've been met with a motherly "It's a little of this, a pinch of that; you know, just do it" — du'ections that fall short of nostalgia-food nu-vana. My own quest to cook Uke Mom has been brewing for five years, ever since I moved 500 miles from home. Though I was born and reared in Michigan, my culinary heai-t rests with my heritage, alongside the cedars of Lebanon. I spent my childhood m the kitchen watching my mother prepare Middle Eastern delicacies. Each summer, when fresh mint Clockwise from above: Lebanese specialties tabbouleh, betlawa and stuffed grape leaves, and USA WEEKEND 'S MIchele Hatty and her mother, Eileen home, she mixes uncooked rice ("Uncle Ben's — that makes a difference"), gi'ound beef and onions, and seasons it \vith salt, pepper, dried gai'lic, allspice and cinnamon. With the leaves neatly laid out across the kitchen table, she cai'efuUy di'ops a spoonful of the stuffing onto each one. Her practiced fingers have just the right touch, molding the starts to take over her gai-- , ri. • i i den. Mom tosses it together Moiii (foesn t iiavc rccipes. Snc just knows. t whS™ te ^n How long to cook the stuffed grape leaves? onions, cucumbez^ and toma- "Jj|| they're dOfle." Hull? toes in a giant gi-een plastic bowl and dresses it with a touch of lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper and a special Lebanese 12-spice mixture. This is tabbouleh, best eaten pinched between pita bread. When the gi'ape leaves from the vine in my bi-other Louis' back yai-d have grown to the size of my hand. Mom plucks them by the dozen. Back at 14 USA WEEKEND • April 6-8,2001 stiff leaves into perfectly tight packages — dolmas — before lining them up like little green soldiers in a big pot for simmering vrith mint and lemon. "Cook them till they're done," she says mysteriously Once they're cooked, I know exactly what to do: pop them in a warni pita and eat them Uke a sandwich. Mom creates an unbelievably rich Lebanese baklava called betlawa. In a jellyi'oll pan, she layers sheet after sheet of delicate phyllo dough, gently brushing each with clarified butter. Midway thi'ough, she adds a layer of gi-ound walnuts, then tops it with more phyllo. Just before baking, she carves the whole thing into diamonds. When it's out of the oven, she covers the still- hot, crispy, gold creation with a cold homemade syrup made with bottled orange-blossom water from a Lebanese grocery. Mom's intangible combination of patience and speed "automatically" produces an exotic, positively addictive pastry. When I ti-y my hand at her food, I fail. The tabbouleh is bland. The grape leaves don't roll up tight enough. And the phyllo dough for that luscious bet lawa is overwhelmingly, defeatingly fragile. Even something as simple as roz bil shaghria, a dish of rice and bits of vennicelli, ends -ivith burned noodles. I think I've finally figured out why this happens: It's not enough to want to cook Lebanese food; I want to cook Mom's food. But how? She learned decades ago how to make Lebanese cuisine and now never stops to think about how much of what to use. She doesn't have recipes. And Lebanese cookbooks don't reproduce Mom's special touches. This desu'e to re-create Mothei''s cooking is not unique to my generation. But in an age where cultui-e is ultra- homogenized, a McDonald's is on every corner and few live in the place where they gi-ew up, we 20-somethings find one of the last ways we can concretely captui'e any heritage is by leai'ning to make the meals we grew up with. Even Generation X's poster children nod to this desii'e. Fnends devoted an episode to ditzy Phoebe's determination to replicate the cookies her gi -and- mother used to make. In an attempt to help, Monica spends hom-s testing batch after batch of chocolate chip cookies, alteiing them till she nails the heiiioom taste. (In typical sitcom style, it tui-ns out Phoebe's gi -andmother used the tried-and-ti-ue Nestle Toll House recipe.) Humor aside, the truth is there: We want to taste the past while looking to the fiitm-e. So what's the solution? My fiiends and I could ti'y to csgole om- mothers into creating family cookbooks. Or we could take a video camera on our next trip home: If you're serious about a special recipe, expei-ts recommend you tape youi* mother or gi -and- mother (or father) cooking it and ask questions every step of the way My sistei-s and I have decided that in 2001 we will Im'k at Mom's elbow and take notes while she cooks. I've ah-eady asked my mom to put tabbouleh on the Easter menu. Next weekend, I aim to ferret out exactly what "a little of this, a pinch of that" amounts to. ca MiCHELE HATTY successfully cooked a three-co^cne dinner for 120 people — and the ice cream pies didnt even melt.
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