Annia Ciezadlo’s world is defined by the three elements in the subtitle of her memoir: food, love, and war. But mostly food.
From the advance copy of Day of Honey upon which this review is based, I cannot tell if Ciezadlo is fat or thin or somewhere in between. But whatever her physique, her mind is obsessed with food.
Sometimes obsessions, when foisted upon strangers, become tiresome. Other times, those obsessions become the object of fascination. Ciezadlo’s memoir is, fortunately, fascinating. And touching. Plus alternately depressing (because of the seemingly endless, senseless sectarian deaths in Iraq and Lebanon) and laugh-out-loud funny (because of the self-deprecation, not to mention the vivid portraits of unique characters such as her mother-in-law).
Here is the setup: Ciezadlo, born in 1970 and reared in a multiethnic Chicago family, ended up in New York City, where she fell in love with Mohamad Bazzi, a Lebanese-American journalist for the Long Island newspaper Newsday. Ciezadlo already loved to cook and eat anything before she met Bazzi. He, on the other hand, was an unadventurous eater turned off by many of her culinary creations.
Still, they stayed together. She accompanied him overseas when Newsday assigned him to cover the Middle East. Ciezadlo, too, began writing for the newspaper and for other outlets. She and Bazzi faced near-death experiences on a regular basis because of the unpredictable violence in Baghdad; Beirut, Lebanon; and other war-torn locales. Ciezadlo coped with the tension primarily by shopping for local foods, cooking local dishes, writing about food – and eating, eating, eating.
It would be an easy path, and maybe a wise one, to fill out the remainder of this review with direct quotations from the memoir. Ciezadlo’s writing is that good. Every professional writer, myself included, strives to develop a unique voice on the printed page. “Voice” is difficult to define precisely, but writers (and plenty of readers) know it when they see it. Ciezadlo’s voice is marvelous.
Her theme is marvelous, too. It might strike some readers as naive, or at best as wishful thinking. But Ciezadlo is cumulatively persuasive as she insists that food is the way to moderate hatred, and here I will quote at length:
“Every society has an immune system, a silent army that tries to bring the body politic back to homeostasis. People find ways to reconstruct their daily lives from the shambles of war; like my friend Leena, who once held a dinner party in her Beirut bomb shelter, they work with what they have. This is the story of that other war, the one that takes place in the moments between bombings: the baker keeps the communal oven going so his neighborhood can have bread; the restaurateur converts his cafe into a refugee center; the farmer feeds his neighbors from his dwindling stock of preserves; the parents drive all over Baghdad trying to find an open bakery so their daughter can have a birthday cake. They are warriors just as much as those who carry guns. There are many ways to save civilization. One of the simplest is with food.”
Ciezadlo seems spot on when she makes the case for food as the central theme of any society: “Even the most ordinary dinner tells manifold stories of history, economics, and culture. You can experience a country and its people through its food in a way that you can’t through, say, its news broadcasts.”
Other than discovering the horrors of endless war during seven years in Beirut and Baghdad, Ciezadlo’s most striking revelation involved Iraqi food, as she foreshadows in the book’s introduction: “We all carry maps of the world in our heads. Mine, if you could see it, would resemble a gigantic dinner table, full of dishes from every place I’ve been. Spanish Harlem is a cubano [Cuban sandwich]. Tucson is avocado chicken. Chicago is yaprakis. Beirut is makdous. And Baghdad – well, Baghdad is another story.”
At first, Ciezadlo thought the food in Iraq was dreadful, and that, in fact, national and regional cuisines did not exist there. But as she explored the war-torn nation, despite the reality of death around every corner, Ciezadlo discovered culinary delights. She shares some of them in recipes at the end of the book – recipes that include ingredients and cooking instructions, to be sure, but that also include cultural narratives.
Ciezadlo’s writing voice shows through even in her recipes.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a compulsive overeater married to a fabulous chef perhaps as food-obsessed as Ciezadlo.