The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey, with Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt

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Left: Laila El-Haddad, Right: Maggie Schmitt                           Photo: Ashlyn Frassinelli

I’ve never seen the authors of a cookbook less interested in talking about recipes, and thank goodness. When I sat down for Laila and Maggie’s lecture, I expected to hear about local cuisine and staple foods of the region, maybe about their own experiences preparing food. But after five minutes, Maggie told us that she initially became interested in Gaza through her humanitarian work. And Laila admitted to having little connection with the kitchen. She explained that her mother, grandmother, and aunts rather shirked traditional female roles because they viewed them as antiquated chores. She explained how confused her family was when she said she decided to write a cookbook, that it was undoing the progress they had worked so hard to achieve. Immediately I realized that this was not a presentation designed to show us how to prepare Gazan cuisine at home. This was an effort to document and preserve the ancient foodways of one of the world’s most volatile regions.

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Left: Laila El-Haddad, Center: Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Right: Maggie Schmitt                                                                     Photo: Ashlyn Frassinelli

When I think of Gaza, I think of uncertainty. Those who live there expect the sounds of gunfire and explosions the way we expect to hear car horns. The last thing that comes to mind is the kind of food I might eat if I lived there. But for the people who live in Gaza, food is a comfort the same way it is for us. Laila and Maggie spoke of conflict and impossible living conditions. They said that parts of the area could be without power for hours or even days at a time. Maggie pointed out that it was hard enough for a mother to help her children with their homework and have dinner on the table under “normal” circumstances. But what about mothers in Gaza? At a time when life there is so tumultuous, Maggie and Laila were able to show how food is in many ways, the great unifier. That despite the uncertainties of daily life, people still take the time and gather to eat.

Cuisine in Gaza is based on what’s available. Like other places in the Middle East, that means lentils, cous cous, olive oil, chickpeas, lemon, and chili pepper among others. But at one point someone asked what the defining characteristic of Gazan food was. Laila immediately responded with the word, “heat.” She said that red chili pepper was in most of the food she associated with the region.

Laila also said that sour flavors are found in many dishes. Tamarind, sour plum, and pomegranate are used along with sumac to achieve what she called, “a gripping tartness.” These flavors combined with seasonings like za’atar, clove, cinnamon, sesame, dill, and garlic, aren’t exactly subtle. And while I know that heavily seasoned food isn’t uncommon in the regions surrounding Gaza, as I listened to Laila answer more questions, something occurred to me. The tone with which she spoke, her conviction, they were exactly like the ingredients she was talking about. These weren’t delicate, restrained flavors. They were purposeful, delightfully in your face. Certainly you don’t use clove, chili flakes, or sour plums without clear intention. They are statement-makers. And so was Laila. She and Maggie couldn’t have been better representatives for the kitchens of Gaza. Together they constituted a serious force.

They talked about the difficulties of obtaining traditional foods because of border closures, and how reliance on white flour and sugar were causing health problems associated with malnutrition among many citizens of Gaza. Maggie showed a photo of fisheries that were created as a result of limited access to the sea. They spoke of one-pot meals and a category of dishes Laila hesitantly allowed Maggie to refer to as “mush.” But after two hours of listening to their stories I was struck by what I really saw. Two mothers. Two very poised, confident women trying to tell the story of, quite possibly, the most unstable place in our world.

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Available on Amazon

For hundreds of years tribes of people have converged upon this small region. This has given way to a culinary tradition created from necessity, trade, and war. But despite the constant state of unrest, Maggie and Laila were able to paint a clear picture of a Gazan people who were unwavering and incredibly proud of their culinary heritage.

-Written by Chelsie Lincoln, MLA Gastronomy Student

Thanksgiving with BU Gastronomy Students

We hope you had a great Turkey Day and spent lots of time reflecting on what you are grateful for!  BU is off for the holiday and we were curious about how Gastronomy students spend Thanksgiving.   Meet Michelle and Catherine who have shared their Thanksgiving traditions with us!

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Photo: Oscar Rohena, Flickr CC Search

For Puerto Ricans, Thanksgiving, or the day of the turkey, is a very special holiday. It represents the start of our favorite time of the year, Christmas. All my life, on this special day, my family and I have gathered at my maternal grandparents house. My grandmother has always been responsible for preparing the turkey with a special filling of “mofongo” (mashed plantain) and ground beef, and to make rice with “gandules” (pigeon peas), which is our official symbol of festive food.

My aunt always brings boiled root vegetables and pieces of roasted pork (simply because a Puerto Rican party without pork is incomplete). While in my home we take care of the desserts, whether a good homemade carrot cake, a flan or a “tembleque”, which is custard made with coconut milk, cornstarch and cinnamon. In addition to that, at the table we will always find “pan criollo” (our traditional bread), potato salad with mayonnaise, “pasteles boricuas” (similar to Mexican tamales but based on plantains), “coquito” (a drink made whit coconut cream), and finally “ron caña” (a clandestine rum, illegal for not paying taxes and for not meeting the requirements of health and quality controls).

After chopping the turkey and serving all the plates, my grandparents, my uncles, my parents, my siblings and I stood around the outdoor dining table, and my grandfather lead a prayer of thanks. Once my grandfather finishes the prayer, we say to each other “buen provecho” (a typical phrase that is said before beginning to eat to desire a good digestion) and we run to enjoy the exquisite food that adorns the dishes. The evening is distinguished by the typical Christmas music of Puerto Rico, the loud jokes of my father and planning the parties for the rest of the Christmas.

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Photo: Oscar Rohena, Flickr CC Search

This year is the first time I will celebrate Thanksgiving away from my warm home, but with my extended family.

My Puerto Ricans friends who live in Boston will come to my apartment and we will recreate the typical Puerto Rican Thanksgiving party that I described earlier. I’m sure the only difference will be the cold weather and the possibility of snow, but we will do our best to bring Puerto Rico to us and spend it as warm as if we were at home.

“¡Buen provecho y que empiece la fiesta!”

By Michelle Estades, First-Year MLA Gastronomy

 

It’s All About Pie

One of the key elements of any Thanksgiving meal, arguably the most important, is the dessert. Of course no Thanksgiving dessert spread could ever be complete without the perfect pumpkin pie, at least that is how my family feels. Beginning at a young age I began to help my father make the annual Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. I began to help more and more until, around the age of eleven or twelve, I had completely taken over the pumpkin pie making duties. At that point the only thing I did not do was actually cutting the pumpkins in half. I don’t know many twelve year olds who have the upper body strength to chop a pumpkin in two, so my dad continued to make that contribution for several years.  

It is always vital that I make every bit of the pie from scratch, from the crust to the pumpkin puree for the filling. Absolutely no canned pumpkin in our house. What really turned the tables was the summer that our compost pile in the backyard began to sprout a mysterious vine. By the fall the vine was producing the most perfect pie pumpkins. Not only was our annual Thanksgiving pie made completely from scratch, it was also made from local, metro-Detroit pumpkins, grown in our very own backyard.  

Backyard grown pumpkins are not the only element that I use to create our traditional pumpkin pie. The classic pumpkin spice, the correct balance of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves, isn’t even the most important part of the filling. It is all about the secret ingredient, dark rum. The rich, molasses-like flavor of the dark rum brings the whole pie together in a way that no other ingredient can. Over the years other members of the family have tried to make other things for dessert, like pumpkin cheesecake, or pecan pie, and it is never quite the same. It simply would not be a Santrock family Thanksgiving without a rum flavored pumpkin pie. We usually like to be a little adventurous with our Thanksgiving menu, this year we are replacing the turkey with lamb, some years we don’t even have mashed potatoes! As far as I’m concerned, we could have our entire meal be pumpkin pie and we would still be keeping to tradition.

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Photo: Catherine Santrock
By Catherine Santrock, First-Year MLA Gastronomy

 

 

Nature’s Past: Histories of Environment, & Society with Dr. James McCann

Gastronomy Students:  If you are looking for an elective next semester, consider MET ML 589 Nature’s Past: Histories of Environment, & Society with Dr. James McCann.  He has provided us with a brief description of the course.

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Kenkey Groundnut and Star Beer

I teach and think about connections between
our physical world, humans role in that and what they grow, eat,
and talk about eating.  It tells us a lot about our world(s).

Environmental history has its methods defined by the parameters of science and the natural world –flora, fauna, topography, seasons—as well as human elements of technology, demography, and social organization.  Cooking and cuisine is at the apex of these interactions.  This course will examine the work of key historians in the emerging field of environmental history and the role of food/cooking in that human/nature interaction.

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Bokum, Tusker, and Cowpeas
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Calabash London

The course begins with historical/cultural landscapes and ends up in Boston’s landscape of food in bistros, food trucks, groceries, and storefront restaurants.  It will include 3 group sessions in that will focus on particular dishes from Africa, the American South, and Italy as examples of the movement of ingredients, ideas, and techniques. The goal is to explore ingredients and the ecologies of cuisine.  There seems to be a growing local, and global fascination with the world of food and how ideas in our world of what we eat, and cook, merge and diverge.  Wonderful stuff about who we are.

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Egusi and Fufu
All photos provided by Dr. McCann

05-1075 McCANN, JAMES Office Portrait of CAS History Prof. McCann 01/18/05

James C. McCann
Professor of History
Associate Director for Development, African Studies Center
Faculty Fellow, Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer Range Future
Boston University

Treat Yourself for Halloween

There are a lot of great events going on in Boston this Halloween weekend.  Here are a few that Gastronomy students might enjoy:

The Rise

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Photo: therise.com

Soooo many pumpkins!  Over 5,000 hand carved pumpkins will be displayed at Boston’s Seaport Hotel and World Trade center this weekend (Oct 27- Oct 30).  Can you imagine all of the pumpkin pies and roasted pepitas made from the innards? Click the link above to check tickets and times.

Rosebud Kitchen

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Photo: bostonchefs.com

Get a candy treat topped milkshake from this Davis Sq. gem this Halloween.  You can even  trick it out with a shot of Evan Williams Bourbon!  Get more details at bostonchefs.com

The Dinner Detective Murder Mystery Dinner Show

A real Whodunit?  Solve the murder mystery this Halloween with the Dinner Detective.  This interactive dinner show will have you playing Sherlock Holmes while you fill your belly!  For tickets and private shows at the link above.

Boston Chocolate Tours

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Photo: bostonchocolatetours.com

It’s like trick or treat or adults!  Take a chocolate tour through Back Bay or quench that Cupcake craving with a crawl before the evening festivities begin.  These tours are held seasonally every Saturday.

Dining in the Dark

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Photo:dininginthedark.com

Dine in the dark at the Hampshire House in Boston.  This 100-year-old Victorian townhome is the perfect setting for a spooky blindfolded dinner!  Built in 1910, the Hampshire House has accommodated Bostonians for generations; it HAS to be haunted right?  Click the link for tickets!

Putting Gastronomy Theories into Action

This is the second post in a series highlighting the ways students utilize Boston University’s many resources to cater the Gastronomy program to fit their own unique interests and needs. Read the first post here.

by Debra Zides

As a Gastronomy student who has grown up in a world very far from the foodies, I continually get asked the question, “Deb, what do you do with a Gastronomy degree?” During my time here at Boston University, I have developed two speeches that answer the question. My first answer ties back to why I entered the degree program in the first place – I wanted to turn my interest in starting up a small, artisanal tequila business into a reality. My second answer…well that is the story for this blog. I am going to tell you how I gained an appreciation for the current challenges and issues in our Food System, and how I am in the process of undertaking steps to solve one small problem leveraging technology to make the world a little better than when I found it. In short, how I am developing a capability that will allow households to circumvent “big” agribusiness, bringing decisive information to the people.

Continue reading “Putting Gastronomy Theories into Action”