Barbara Massaad in Beirut: Make Food, not War. Seriously!

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Barbara Massaad (19 min, 21 meg)

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?

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  • Robert Zucchi

    Wonderful interview.

    Below are excerpts from a review of a book whose author has a perspective on the centrality of food to Lebanese culture — in even the direst times — that parallels Barbara Massaad’s observations.

    ~”Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War” by Annia Ciezadlo. (An American journalist in Iraq discovers just what a good meal can mean during uncertain times.) Reviewed by Melanie Rehak for the February/March 2011 edition of Bookforum.

    In 2004, she and [her husband] move to Beirut to escape the violence and stress in Baghdad. Their new living space is a tiny hotel suite, but even so she can’t help herself. “The more rootless I felt, the more I cooked. I spent hours in the little dollhouse kitchen assembling pathologically elaborate meals,” she confesses. “These ornate concoctions were a substitute for something else, something just out of reach. . . I wanted a time and place where people who loved each other sat around a table and conversed. Breaking bread was the oldest and best excuse for such an occasion.”

    As Israeli bombs thunder down [during the 2006 Lebanon War], Ciezadlo writes, “all of Beirut answered the call, preparing for war with an ancient Lebanese tradition: grocery shopping.”

    “There’s a saying in Arabic: ‘Fi khibz wa meleh bainetna’—there is bread and salt between us. It means that once we’ve eaten together, sharing bread and salt, the ancient symbols of hospitality, we cannot fight,” she writes. “It’s a lovely idea, that you can counter conflict with cuisine—and I don’t swallow it for a second.” All the same, her book is a passionate argument for the idea that whether it’s your mother-in-law or a military enemy, meeting over a meal eases differences, and that knowing the world means dining in it.

  • Jeremy Woodward

    What was the closing music? It caught me. JW

  • Potter

    Toleration. We certainly have intolerant people here and they can be loud about it and don’t we know it. But we have laws and a tradition of “separation of church and state” and ultimately we still agree on that. We keep a modicum of vigilance about how “sacred” that is. It goes a long way to holding our union. (I know Texas or Massachusetts might secede if we get any worse). This simple idea has not taken hold in the Middle East. I know that there are many who know this and feel this truth that we are all one, like Barbara Massaad. It’s beautiful to hear; she wants to live and let live and share and love. But leaders and religious fanatics move in packs and bring on wars. Ms. Massaad tells how she turned a fanatic around by raising his consciousness using food as the enticement, the gateway drug to enlightenment. She has plenty of work to do, bless her. She has a lovely smile to aide her.

    The suffering and dysfunction is so tough to watch from afar. I remember well the 2006 war with Israel and all the rhetoric and threats before and after. What is going on in Syria is heartbreaking.

    However one connects on the “ground level”, as a normal person, through the senses (such as with food, music the visual arts) which speak so directly to the human heart, soften and break barriers, how do you get those who are intoxicated and obsessed by power and religious righteousness to enlightenment?

    I don’t know how you do that. For the sake of everyone else who would like peace and normalcy, I don’t know how that gets under control without a lot of suffering. Even then no guarantee. It goes on and on. It should not be so hard because somewhere inside people know this truth that we are all connected and we all have limited time here.

    I am sure they make excellent hummus in Lebanon. The best I have had was in Israel. But Lebanon is at war with Israel and if I want to visit family in Israel I cannot check out the hummus in Lebanon or Barbara’s kitchen. I would readily concede that this is an Arab dish, if it mattered, if it would make a difference.