Cookbook Reviews

Deliciously complex: A review of “Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead”

I remember what it felt like, riding the school bus between towns (our town was too small to have its own school), the starkness of the prairie landscape rolling by in the hum of the early morning light. Once at school, I would race into the school library to sit in front of one of the two large, boxy desktop computers, search for the giant floppy disk, and use the fifteen minutes before class began to play, over and over and over, the classic early computer game based on settler expansion, Oregon Trail. This is what I remember of my Grade 2 education.

I spent that year of my childhood living, growing up, and going to school about 13 kilometers from the small Saskatchewan town where Habeeb Salloum grew up in the 1920s, living in an equally small, forgettable prairie town surrounded by endless farms and grasslands. In his book, Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead, as Salloum traverses to Moose Jaw and Regina – and later in life to Toronto (from where I now write this) – all places I have lived, the landscape is deeply familiar. The prairies are deeply embedded into who I am, having lived there until I was old enough to leave. But, as I read his riveting book, part memoir/part cookbook/part history lesson, I was struck by how the stories he told were, while familiar in so many ways, also new and distant from what I remember.

Growing up as a white child on the rural landscape of the Canadian prairies, I never learned about the thriving communities of Arab settlers that took up their place near where I lived. For that matter, I never learned much about the Indigenous nations whose land we were living on, until much later in life. It was all Oregon Trail and “Little House on the Prairie” for me, inculcation into a white settler nation based on terra nullius. And yet here, in this cookbook (if it can be reduced to ‘merely’ this), there is a correction, a presencing of a complex entanglement of immigrant and Indigenous cultures with the dominant narrative of white Canada and its ongoing histories of conquest on the Prairies.

An example of these complex entanglements is illustrated in Salloum’s writing when, in remembrance of his childhood on the Prairies and the ways he wanted to ‘fit in’ with his white classmates, he writes: “Feeling inferior, we aped everything our classmates said or did. This was especially true when it came to our attitudes toward First Nations peoples.” Settler colonialism invites immigrants into its structures of oppression against Indigenous peoples. This sometimes happens, as evidenced in this book, through immigrants’ own experiences of racialized oppression and violence. Salloum doesn’t skirt this but willingly embraces the complexity and convergences and, through the foods and the stories held within them, I learned new histories and experiences of places I thought I knew.

My colleague and friend, Ian Mosby, whose writing is the reason I picked up this book, writes eloquently on the complexity of the stories in this book:

Food, in other words, is used in Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead to evoke both bitter and sweet histories, histories of plenty and want…The recipes, of course, are all chosen presumably because they’re delicious. But the book allows you to do something else besides simply enjoy their flavours. It allows you to place these flavours in context, to think about what it meant to make these foods on a lonely homestead in a very different time and place.

I’ve written before about how these contexts, the histories and stories, are why food connects us so powerfully. This is “food that’s embedded in daily life; food as just another part of the texture of a world, bearing indelibly but mundanely the living traces of history.” These stories matter; they cut across neat lines that delineate ‘here’ and ‘there’, or ‘this’ and ‘that’, blurring what we thought we knew as true, adding new colors and textures to pictures we thought we knew as complete. This is the lived history that exists beyond the mainstream curriculum.

The stories in Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead trouble notions of ‘authenticity’ and also ‘fusion’. In a sense, this is fusion food. Not fusion for the sake of delicious alchemy, nor fusion for the sake of fashion, but fusion borne of necessity and need. It’s Arab food, and it’s also Canadian homesteading food. It is completely and authentically both of these things. And this raises questions: What does it look like for a Syrian family to immigrate to a new place with no one around them, no grocery stores that carry spice blends or scents of home, and completely different climates to grow the necessary food? What compromises must be made, what compromises cannot be made? Do these compromises and changes make the food, or the people, any less ‘authentic’ in their nature? Is this adaptation or evolution, or is it fusion? Or is there even a difference?

Chapters in the book are dedicated to key ingredients of this coming together of cultures: we see chapters on kishk and qawarma alongside Arab staples that could be grown in the desolate prairies, such as chickpeas and lentils, alongside chapters given to completely ‘new’ and Indigenous ingredients such as Saskatoon berries. The first time Salloum tried the Cree dish of pemmican, his appreciation of qawarma created an instant affinity for it, he writes. Salloum shares how many times his mother had to forage for Indigenous herbs and plants to flavor her dishes, approximating herbs and spices from Syria. The dishes from home tasted different, yet they were still familiar, comforting slices of home.

So, what exactly does this look like? As Mosby writes in his essay, “A good cookbook, after all, is meant to really be used—to be read and re-read, to be stained with grease and marked with annotations.” And I had picked up the book to cook with, to taste the stories.

The first recipe in the book is kishkeh, a combination of bulgur wheat and yogurt – each given their own chapters as important staples. Halloum writes that the dish comes from Damascus and was a favorite of his mothers, especially on hot summer days. As I quickly prepare it on a muggy, hot Toronto day I find out why. Its simple preparation requires no cooking and is laden with the delicious simplicity and freshness of homemade, homegrown food. I mix my tart homemade yogurt with the nutty, toasty fragrances of the bulgur. I step into the backyard to snip fragrant fresh herbs and liberally mix them in alongside cucumber to create a bitingly fresh and tangy treat reminiscent of a tzatziki or labneh, but with the added nutrient-rich hit of the bulgur to make it a complete meal. On top of warm, toasted pita bread with olive oil and salt, it’s perfect.

Later in the book, dandelions get their own chapter. While prairie children were told that they were poisonous or a bothersome weed, Middle Eastern families knew better and harvested wild greens, rich in vitamins and nutrients, to supplement their diet. Salloum calls this dish ‘assoora’ which means ‘squeezed out’, though it’s nearly identical to a common Lebanese and Syrian dish called hindbeh.

Deeply, satisfyingly bitter greens are studded with and balanced by the sweetness of the fried onions, with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of cilantro to emphasize the brightness of this dish. Its appearance is slightly mundane, struggling to differentiate itself from every other plate of cooked greens you’ve ever made before, but its flavor is anything but. You can’t ignore it. Alongside some grilled meats, some olives, or a stack of warm manoush, what was once ‘weeds’ are transformed into something stunningly delicious.

 

In the ongoing and circular contestations to define what is authentically and uniquely Canadian, Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead stands out: its stories and experiences make it authentically Canadian, while at the same time embracing the troubling complexity of what this means. It complicates the debates that inevitably orbit white normative histories and practices, invoking both the Arab immigrant experience and also the realizations that these histories happen on stolen Indigenous land. It doesn’t draw neat conclusions but invites you in, over a cup of mint tea, to share and think about how these stories are connected, in positive and negative ways, to your own. It’s patient and straightforward, simple in ways that are disarming and warm, like a loving grandfather who has seen some things, learned some things, and wants to share them with you.

The book is a personal memoir, it’s a historical account, and it’s a guide for cooking delicious food. It fuses lived experiences with history in ways that encourage you to taste, to use your hands and create, what this history was all about. This is the kind of story and history I wish I would have learned in school. It’s the kind of story I wish my kids, including my son who enters Grade 2 this fall, would learn in school. It’s the kind of story I wish we all would learn a little more about.

You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply