Over the years, legions of journalist have come to the Middle East looking for the big story. Most bring back tales of war, political intrigue, religious conflict and human suffering, but journalist Annia Ciezadlo brought back something else as well: recipes. Ciezadlo covered the wars in Lebanon and Iraq for the Christian Science Monitor and The New Republic, and also used her time in the region to gather recipes and the stories behind them.
The title of her book, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War, refers to an Arabic phrase, youm aasl, youm basl, meaning "day of onion, day of honey."
"In Arabic, it rhymes," she tells Liane Hansen on Weekend Edition Sunday. "It means some days will be good, and some days will be bad on the most simple level." People use it to comfort each other, or in a more subtle way to say that even though someone may be on top of it all now, their day may soon come.
Learning another language attuned Ciezadlo to the fact that, like Arabic, English employs many food-related phrases that slip under our own radar. Especially in the context of war, we tend to use food metaphors, she says, "because they're very concrete and they're very material." Buildings are "pancaked," people are "sardined," the word "slaughterhouse" surfaces.
In A Tumultuous Time, 'You Still Have To Eat'
Behind the scenes of every country at war, there's a lesser-seen battle that people live through every day — that of the ordinary rhythm of their lives unraveling. In a passage from the book, Ciezadlo crystallizes the way that within this chaos, food plays a vital role:
In every war zone, there is another battle, a shadow conflict that rages quietly behind the scenes. You don't see much of it on television or in the movies. This hidden war consists of the slow but relentless destruction of everyday civilian life. The children can't go to school. The pregnant women can't give birth at a hospital. The farmer can't plow his fields. The musician can't play his guitar. The professor can't teach her class. For civilians, war becomes a relentless accumulation of can'ts. But no matter what else you can't do, you still have to eat.
But faced with these can'ts, people often develop a determined, can-do attitude when it comes to food. Ciezadlo tells the story of a young Iraqi girl about to celebrate her 11th birthday in 2003. She had been out of school for a week because of a bombing that occurred on the first day of Ramadan that year, and her mother decided she wanted to get her a cake, because she was beginning to go "utterly stir-crazy" at home.
"This would seem like a simple thing, right?" Ciezadlo asks. But in Baghdad at that point in time, conditions had begun to deteriorate. Driving around town looking for just the right birthday cake was not only an act of bravery, but also a tremendous act of love, because it was so dangerous.
"It became this odyssey for her mother," Ciezadlo explains. The cake, she says, became a symbol of everything they couldn't have — like normalcy.
Coming Together Over Bread And A 'Pudding Belt'
When she arrived in Iraq, Ciezadlo herself looked for familiar sights in neighborhood markets. Finding markets filled an emotional need for her, but also served a practical purpose — she got to know a place very quickly through that scene.
Later, in 2005, Ciezadlo went to Lebanon to cover the war between Israel and Hezbollah. One of the most important things during that conflict, she recalls, was the role of the neighborhood bakeries.
"Not everybody has an oven," she says. "People would make the dough ... and then they would take it to the neighborhood bakery and have the baker bake it, because it's more efficient to have a communal oven."
It's also socially important. One of Ciazadlo's friends, cookbook writer Barbara Abdeni Massaad, pointed out to her that because of the civil war, the bakery assumed a role similar to that of the neighborhood pub. People can hang out there, gossip and talk politics; sometimes, it's a place where they can suspend hostilities toward each other.
Similarly, a Greek dish made when somebody dies brings people together, even if they aren't close relatives or don't share the same beliefs.
"It's a beautiful tradition. People make this thing called kolyva ... it's seeds and grains, it's very symbolic of fertility and sort of the cycle of life."
She describes kolyva as sort of a mush, or pudding, that you have to pass out to passers-by no matter who they are; the important part is to share it outside your normal social circle.
Similar traditions exist in Beirut, where a pudding called mighli is made when a baby is born, and one called ashura, made in Turkey which must be given out to 40 people (10 servings each to neighbors in each of the four cardinal directions). This led Ciazadlo to coin the term "pudding belt," referring to the geographical swath across which traditional puddings are made and shared with strangers from the Middle East into the Balkans and Eastern Europe. The pudding has a fundamental social purpose:
"[It] helps people share across sects and religion and ethnic differences," she says.