Written by Shirin Zarqa-Lederman
Growing up Arab American, as a child of immigrants, all I wanted was to be “American.” I was the first generation to be born in the U.S. so it was only fair that I get the full “American experience.” To me, that meant apple pie, football, hot dogs, baseball games, and a personal childhood favorite – Mac and Cheese. Yes, there was nothing better to me than playing outside and eating at a friend’s house after we were done. I got to have a great “American” meal; burgers, fries and of course, Coca-Cola! It was heaven. Then of course, I would have to go home, back to the Arab household that smelled of lamb and rice, and had remnants of Fetoosh and Hummus on the counter. Its not like I didn’t like it. I ate most of it (I still hate Kibdi) but I was too embarrassed to invite my friends over for dinner. What if they didn’t like Mensaf? What if they asked what it was? Would they cringe at the thought of eating Mary’s Little Lamb? It was too much of a risk, so rarely did I invite my friends over.
It wasn’t until I got to college, that my fellow students would beg to come over to try my mother’s food. They were fascinated that Mac and Cheese wasn’t on the menu. On the rare occasion that I agreed to invite them over, they couldn’t get enough. The tenderness of the meat, the texture of the rice, and of course, my mother’s ability to decorate with pine nuts and almond slivers made every dish one of a kind. Of course, then you had my parent’s hospitality, which was nothing short of Palestinian Pride. “Have some more? You didn’t eat enough. Take some to your family. Have some Vimto you’ll like it.” All the while I was horrified. Listening to my mother talk about how the meat took her hours to make and the ingredients were so foreign and obscure that they could only be obtained when someone was coming from overseas. America didn’t have Arabic spices back then. So there I was, dying inside as my mother unknowingly explained the simplicity of Arab life, and the complexity of our food, all of course, through my mother’s broken English.
After college, I got married and my husband and I bought our first home. The night my husband and I moved into our home, I was so excited to cook dinner. Dinner that I wanted; Hot dogs and Mac and cheese. In my mind, I was millions of miles away from anything Arabic. A mere twenty minutes later and dinner was ready.
We sat down to eat and within minutes, I could barely continue eating. My husband noticing my disgust and asked me if everything was all right. Then I explained it to him; all my life I wanted an American mother who cooked American food with preservatives, powdered cheese, and a bunch of ingredients that aren’t even real food. That’s when I realized how lucky I was. That’s when I realized how much my mother loved us. No, she didn’t work outside the home; she slaved over a stove all-day and worked for our livelihood. She was a genius; she knew more about nutrition and health than anyone I knew. We rarely got sick, we never went hungry, and each meal she prepared was done in five-star class.
That’s when I realized how lucky I was.
By the turn of the millennium, people caught on to what my mother had always known. Foods like Hummus, Falafel, Stuffed Grape Leaves, Spinach Pies, Meat Pies; they are all mainstream foods now. There’s nothing like my mother’s food. There is no one like my mother. If you grew up with Mensaf, you were loved. If you grew up with Mac and Cheese, you were cheated. I was one of the lucky ones! Thanks to all those Arab Mama’s on Arab Mother’s Day.