Taking Stock

As we enter the new month I find myself more reflective than usual (and I'm usually uncomfortably mired in my thoughts). I don't know if it's been spurred by something as simple as the changing seasons, an impending birthday, or if I'm entering a new phase in my life, but there's a lot going on upstairs. Probably some of it has to do with my recent visit with my sisters and a lot of it is trying to figure out how to move forward with my cooking space and how to best use it, and also, the dinner I went to with my Cookbook Club ladies this week also brought up some interesting issues for me.Today, while working, struggling with all of these thoughts as I wrote recipes, I was struck by a collage that sits on my desk that my mother made me for a birthday a very long time ago. We lived in Moscow and it's more than likely that she made it because there weren't any shops to buy me a toy and it's even more likely that at the time I wasn't terrifically thrilled by it. But, I still have this now battered frame and would never have hung onto the doll or lego set I might have otherwise have gotten had we lived somewhere else. Anyway, I suppose it's her vision of me at 10 (maybe?) - she glued a bunch of stuff that represented me at that time on a flowered fabric background and then framed it.Yes, I was one of those horsy girls. Took French at school and was indeed a jeune fille. Each stamp represents a country I'd lived in (USSR, Turkey, USA). I loved ballet. Was an avid Brownie and then Girl Guide. And the drawing of the woods is from the summer camp (Minne Wonka Lodge) both she and I attended in the North Woods of Wisconsin (not far from where she is buried).Anyway, I was looking at it and thinking about the girl I was and where I am now and if that girl would recognize herself in me. I like to think so (even if I haven't always walked a virtuous path). I still love to dance, adore animals, live in interesting countries, and get to use my French from time to time. Taking stock is such a powerful and emotional exercise for me and yes, it really does help me with my cooking.See for me, food is all wrapped up in memory and place, so when I cook something it often evokes powerful emotions: the smell of a particular spice, a vegetable can send me straight back to a specific market 30 years ago, the aroma of my family's chilli recipe bubbling on the stove,or even just the pot I'm using. I know, I'm a little nutty!But food is also about respecting those memories and the places they come from and the people who shared them with you. And this is how it all comes back to our dinner at Liza Restaurant on Halloween which featured guest chef Greg Malouf to celebrate the release of his new book Suqar (which means sugar in Arabic). It was a twelve course mezze extravaganza featuring sharing plates showcasing the best of Levantine flavors with lots of daring updates and mixing of traditional foods. And this is where I believe he often stumbled.From talking to others who shared the evening with me, they had hoped that if he was going to update their traditional food, he'd improve upon it. Many said that much of what we were served didn't, and sometimes mixing elements from different countries wasn't successful. A twist can be delightful, but it can also painful. Being confident of a dish, where it comes from and what it means to you, and cooking it with passion is often what separates the meh from the special.It was all a stark reminder to me as I play with the ingredients of Lebanon and serve the community here, that maybe some things are best left alone. Can you improve on a really exquisite falafel? Maybe. Maybe not. Is beetroot hummus really still hummus? I don't think so. This doesn't mean I won't continue to play with my food and try to push tastes along as I go, but being honest as I do so, taking stock, and valuing the memories others associate with these dishes is so important.Americans are so open to a cultural mish-mash of food and fusion and experimentation because that's essentially who we as a people are. We don't have a cuisine to really call our own and so we've combined what we love in others and developed it and turned it into something new. While my cooking is not rooted in strong cultural traditions like so many of the chefs I've met here in Lebanon (for which I feel sorely cheated), I still like to think it's respectful of the many and diverse culinary customs I've encountered. Part of that process is to keep checking in with myself, and with that girl my mother captured on floral fabric who was gifted all of the elements for this curious cooking life I now lead.