BEIRUT — Barbara Massaad, writer and chef, in her kitchen, is telling us a terrific story about the all-conquering cult of food in Lebanon. And I am asking her: no kidding, what if we demanded that cooks and musicians run this ugly world, starting here in Beirut and, by all means, next door in Syria.
When you talk about food to a Lebanese, you bring them back to their childhood with a big smile. Once I was in Nabatiyeh, deep in the south of Lebanon, and I was taking pictures of a sign that said “Garlic” or something. And this guy from Hezbollah comes up to me and starts screaming! Like, ‘Yaaaah! You’re not allowed to photograph that! What do you think you’re doing?’ And I said: Look, food! This is what I am doing. And I started showing him my book on Man’oushé — about local varieties of ‘thyme pie’ in Lebanon. And suddenly this ferocious guy became like a little boy. ‘Aaah,’ he said, ‘you’ve got to come and visit my mom. She makes the best food in the world.’ And then it was like: ‘I promise I will come back and visit your mom.’ And he said: ‘take as many pictures as you want. I’m really sorry.’ This is the effect that food has on Lebanese people. It’s a maternal thing. It’s childhood. It’s the root of everything.
Barbara Abdeni Massaad in conversation with Chris Lydon and Mark Rendeiro in Beirut, December 2012.
At the ragged edge of the Arab upheaval, Beirut is enjoying yet another constuction boom. Gracious old Ottoman-era houses are disappearing fast near the ever-bustling Hamra Street. New luxury apartments are sprouting up next to shot-up shells of 1960s hotels, described as too big to tear down, too damaged to repair…
Talking about food is, of course, a way of not talking about everything else on Lebanon’s mind. Thousands of refugees are turning up from Syria. There’s a palpable dread that Syria’s civil war could run as long as Lebanon’s (1975 to 1990). And there’s a real danger that Lebanon’s politics — aligned for and against the Assad regime in Damascus — could go haywire again. Then again, food talk reflects and connects with everything else — village cheeses match local and tribal loyalties in this dense mosaic of minorities.
Barbara Massaad has published two handsome books of slow-food lore, both rich with social implications. Mouneh is the old Lebanese folk science of preserving food — drying and pickling, for example — to survive war and other disasters. Man’oushé used to be every Lebanese person’s daily bread, in infinite local varieties, dressed with onions, olives, tomatos, spiced with zaatar, or not. Man’oushé is her dream remedy for almost everything that ails the Arab world. “It’s a poor man’s food, but you see the richest people eating it,” she is telling us. Man’oushé is the work of magnetic, gossipy local bakeries where, as in England’s “local” pubs, “you find out who’s going out with whom, what the president said, and what Hassan Nasrallah spoke about last night.” If she could summon the energy, Barbara Massad says, she’d open a place with food for everyone. “It wouldn’t be that expensive — food for all walks of life. Something with lentils — but this divine lentil soup!”
So, what if man’oushé, lentil soup and good music are the basic program?