Tomorrow I’ll be appearing on a food writing panel at Emerging Writers Festival, with three friends and talented wordsmiths, talking about niches, motivation, and how to turn last night’s dinner into a story.
Had you asked me three years ago when I started this blog, or certainly five or 10 years ago, if I’d be appearing on a panel at a much-loved literary festival (let alone about food), I’d have asked if you’d mistaken me for someone else. I also wouldn’t have known then that while much if this is about the writing, it’s really – at its core – about the cooking.
The photo above is me – Vintage Yasmeen – probably around 1989. That exact place, standing on a chair next to my mother, is where I learned to cook. It’s the place I reference in my bio on this blog, the place where she asked me to cut the cookies or stir the toasting pine nuts, and the place where I’d carefully add the oil or salt to the pan until she gave the signal to stop. There was a kitchen island to the right of where I’m standing. Occasionally I’d position the dining chairs in front of the island and run ‘cooking demonstrations’ for my nanny, stuffed animals, or imaginary guests. I remember being especially proud of my egg-cracking skills.
Later on, my cousin Mona and I became known for our specialty apple pies at Thanksgiving and Christmas. In college, my Lebanese, Ethiopian and Indian roommates and I occupied an apartment we dubbed “The Third World,” in which we each cooked and shared dishes from our respective cultures. Years later in Chicago I cooked anything that would keep me warm during the frigid winters (did you know your hair can actually freeze and break? The things you learn). In Amsterdam, I was fortunate to have a great Saturday market in my neighborhood, where I picked up budget buys to stew up in my small studio (praying for my next visit to my sister’s, where she fed me spinach pie).
And then came Australia, this vast and mysterious place with bulging summer fruits like I’d never seen. I was officially the furthest I’d been from my first home in Virginia, from my parents’ kitchen, from that chair. Prior inspirations were tucked thousands of miles away. It wasn’t quite as easy to pick up the phone for a freak out with mom about why my mujaddara was mushy. And yet I kept cooking. Furiously! I have cooked more in this country than I have anywhere in my life.
I cooked when I couldn’t find a job, or when my visa was taking far too long to process. I cooked the first bundles of fruit we’d picked from the family farm. I cooked when my beloved auntie Nabila died – one of the most distraught stages of my life. I cooked before our wedding. I cooked FOR our wedding (crazy), anniversaries, birthdays, any celebration that warranted food and maybe some situations that didn’t but I self-warranted them.
I cook because, for whatever reason, it is an inexorable part of who I am. I can’t separate food from identity, joy, pain, coping, love. They are all things that go hand-in-hand, and require hands to make.
So, after wondering for weeks how to best prepare for the event tomorrow – how to talk about writing food – it hit me. I’d already been preparing. Ever since I first stepped onto that chair.