MESA Banner
Cookbooks and Their Writers: Culinary Diasporas and Middle Eastern Imaginations

Session VI-12, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
Papers in this panel take historical, anthropological, and literary approaches to the study of cookbooks and the people who write them. We study cases involving food writers, and food experts, who either migrated from the Middle East themselves, or whose forebears migrated a generation – or generations, plural – ago, settling in parts of Europe (notably, the United Kingdom) and the Americas (the United States and Latin American countries). In the process we examine how cookbooks and their writers have fashioned diasporic identities, centered on cuisines and foodways and on various ways of imagining the Middle East and its constituent peoples and landscapes. We use the term “cookbooks” to refer to diverse sources. We draw on published texts that range from commercially successful, professional cookbooks to amateur printed compilations of recipes. Our sources also include food-centered memoirs with recipes; archived correspondence about cookbooks and recipes; and familial lore and practices, both orally transmitted and handwritten. Our studies show how foodways and cuisines have intimately shaped identities around shifting conceptions of “the Middle East”, “the Mediterranean” or “eastern Mediterranean” world, the “lands of Sepharad” (from which Iberian Jews were displaced), and imagined “home” countries, such as Turkey, Armenia, and Lebanon. Food, we show, has informed other identities as well, including those based on gender (e.g., ideas about masculinity and womanhood) and on understandings of bounded religious and sectarian communities. By focusing on culinary diasporas and Middle Eastern imaginations, we show, finally, how the mere act of writing about food in cookbooks for diverse English-speaking audiences has “translated” old cultures while generating new ones.
  • In the early 1920s, Armenian George Mardikian fled persecution in Turkey and migrated to California, where he would open a restaurant and later become food consultant to the Quartermaster General of the US Army. Little more than twenty years later, and for entirely different reasons, Turkish fighter pilot Irfan Orga precipitously left his homeland for London in order to escape charges brought against him by the Turkish military court for having lived with a foreigner. Both men subsequently become recognized voices of Armenian and Turkish cuisines in the United States and the United Kingdom. Both authored cookbooks that went on to sell in multiple editions, in addition to writing well-reviewed autobiographies. Cookbooks and autobiographical food writing offer striking insights into the choices that authors make in representing their identities. While the vast majority of English-language food writing by Middle Eastern authors about their home cuisines are by women, Mardikian and Orga offer a fascinating example of the genre written by men. In this paper, I explore the ways that Mardikian and Orga depict their own masculine identities as diasporic Middle Eastern men writing for mainstream audiences in the United States and the United Kingdom. As individuals, they occupied a hybridized cultural space, having migrated west as young adults after spending their childhoods in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey respectively. Both men had spent significant time employed in the highly gendered context of the military, and we find in their writings a self-confident vision of cross-cultural masculine culinary identities. In unpacking their self-representation as food writers, and in Mardikian’s case as a restaurateur, I focus on depictions of their domestic lives with their families, their memories of family cooking from their childhoods, and their respective understandings of the social and professional roles of cook and chef. I argue that the abrupt dislocation involved in becoming diasporic pressed these men into a culturally fluid space where they needed to articulate new understandings of their own professionalized masculinity, and that food writing served both as a platform and process for that re-articulation.
  • Community cookbooks are a quintessentially American form of food writing whose roots go back to the late nineteenth century. Associated with places of worship or civic clubs, pooling recipes from many members, and generally produced by amateurs in small-town locales, community cookbooks have typically functioned as fundraisers. They open windows into bona fide home cooking (as opposed to the aspirational fine dining of commercial cookbooks), blending everyday dishes with holiday fare. Building on work from the field of American Studies, where scholars have begun studying community cookbooks more closely as a popular genre, this paper considers how community cookbooks have served as “rhetorical artifacts” of Middle-Eastern American communities. Middle Eastern-American community cookbooks have defined communities by connecting food to memories of migration and sometimes displacement, and by modeling what I call “culinary nostalgia”, entailing attempts to remain “faithful” to Middle Eastern cultural traditions amid assimilation and intermarriage. We can read recipes in these cookbooks, I argue further, not merely as instructions on how to make, say, kibbeh or stuffed grape leaves, but as mnemonic devices and cultural touchstones that affirm multi-generational identities that link American families and communities with Middle Eastern peoples and places. I draw on several Middle Eastern-American community cookbooks, beginning with a volume published in 1998 by congregants of the St. Elijah Antiochan Orthodox Church of Oklahoma City and reportedly based on an earlier edition from 1963. I then turn to a Melkite cookbook from Danbury, Connecticut published in 2012, and a Maronite cookbook from San Antonio, Texas published in 2014, followed by two cookbooks from 2018. One, which comes from an Armenian women’s league in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, mixes recipes inherited from long-deceased relatives – including survivors of the Armenian massacres – with others collected during recent pilgrimage and church tours to Armenia. The other, published by a Muslim community center in the United Kingdom, retains some classic features of the community cookbook, for example, by pooling recipes and aiming to raise funds, while departing from the genre in other ways –notably, by coming from outside the United States, albeit with an American sponsor. These two most recent volumes show how community cookbooks continue to evolve and thrive as a popular form of food writing and civic engagement, while affirming multinational and diasporic Middle Eastern identities.
  • In the segregated Mississippi Delta, social, economic, and political relations were often reduced to Black and white. But Mississippi’s Delta communities were also the home of small, but often influential, communities of migrants to the United States and prominent among them were Middle Easterners. As these Arab Americans negotiated the complex racial politics of the American South, food served as a means by which ethnic identities were preserved, whiteness was asserted, and Arab Americans’ place in the American South was negotiated. “Cabbage Tamales: Arab Recipes and America’s Segregated South” uses community cookbooks and oral histories to map the boundaries of identity for Arab Americans in the 20th century. The gradual inclusion of recipes for Arab America cuisine in Mississippi community cookbooks (evident as early as the 1920s and peaking in the 1950s and 1960s) provided concrete evidence of white acceptance. Although some scholars have suggested that the retention of traditional foodways was an impediment to Arab assimilation in the Mississippi Delta (and Arab Americans, although viewed as white, continued to face discrimination through the 1970s), food was more often a means of bridging cultural divides than maintaining them. Mississippians were eager to experience new foods, including international cuisines, and Arab American women’s willingness to share their culinary expertise opened doors. Mary Tahir may have translated the name of her malfouf recipe to help her neighbors make sense of rolled cabbage, but her recipe for “cabbage tamales” in the Tchula Garden Club’s cookbook in 1958 demonstrated her acceptance amongst the upper-middle-class elite of a wealthy cotton-raising community. While economic advancement helped to lower barriers, Arab American women deftly navigated racial and ethnic differences and, often, did so with food. Following the publication of the Lebanese Cook Book by the Women of St. George Eastern Orthodox Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1977 (followed by the publication of a number of other Arab American cookbooks in the 1980s), Mississippians of Middle East descent declared that they were not only full members of their communities, but also that they would not be invisible in a region of the United Sates that often paid little heed to those who were neither Black nor white.
  • Copts and Egyptian Muslims share for the most part the same food habits and Coptic recipes draw largely on a same culinary “grammar”. However Copts have reinvented their culinary differences since the 1950s by developing narratives of autochthony in relation to their alleged pharaonic roots. This process has always been a mix of Egyptian dynamics and foreign influences, including that of the growing diasporas from the 1960s. The main aspect of Coptic tradition which triggers the publication of online recipes is the very demanding vegan fast imposed to the faithful. Internet is an interesting site for observing Coptic discourses on food and fasting. Fasting becomes one of the distinctive features of Copticness which sometimes can be the object of self-mockery memes displayed on Coptic websites. Coptic recipes can be based on Egyptian dishes but as fasting implies eating no products derived from animals, the growing interest around vegan food offers a great reserve of ideas for Copts who want to stick to their dietary rules and explore other food cultures. The discourses accompanying those recipes can go in different directions, either it can refer to the spiritual role of fasting, or to the role of food in conveying sentiments of nostalgia for the home country. But it can also valorize the feeling of belonging to the lands of emigrations, by presenting for example Coptic food practices as a vegan diet, or by using the new valorization of fasting as a healthy practice. Food is also a site for negotiating gender role in Coptic communities which can sometimes lead to romanticizing cooking, but that can also encourage men to invest themselves in the kitchen. Finally recipes are used to present certain aspects of the community life to the lager society and explain some Coptic religious traditions such as fasting.
  • Molokhia can be a notoriously slimy soup. Its texture is a signature of the molokhia plant, after which the dish is named. The plant, sometimes referred to as “jute mallow” in English, belongs to the same botanical family as okra, malvaceae. Similar to okra, molokhia leaves develop a thick, mucilaginous texture as they cook. Despite its peculiar slimy texture, the plant has been a staple across the Arab world for centuries. Acclaimed food writer Claudia Roden traces molokhia’s lineage to the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. The first time I had molokhia was as an adult at my aunt’s house in Aleppo. My mom and grandmother do not care for the texture, so molokhia never made an appearance on our Syrian-American dining table. For me, the flavors were heavenly. My aunt taught me three tricks to keep the soup from getting too slimy. “This is how we cook molokhia,” she said. “Egyptians—they make it the slimy way,” she said raising a skeptical eyebrow. This led me to wonder: is there such a thing as a “Syrian molokhia” distinct from an “Egyptian molokhia”? When did sliminess emerge as a category of distinction? In this paper, I will explore historical references to molokhia in cookbooks from the Arab world and diaspora communities. I will pay close attention to how and particularly, when, Arab cookbook authors began to engage with molokhia's slimy texture as an undesirable characteristic that ought to be mitigated. In an essay titled, Free Okra, Siddhartha Mitter theorizes that aversion to okra’s slimy texture is a colonial legacy that was used to create hierarchies of power through food. Does molokhia suffer from a similar legacy?