Thursday, February 24, 2011

Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War

by Annia Ciezadlo

New York, Free Press, 2011

382 pages Memoir

For about twenty years, I taught elementary school with Chafic Khalid, an immigrant from Lebanon. Not only was Chafic one of the best teachers I have ever known, he was also a great cook. He had turned the small office in his classroom into a kitchen, where he prepared his midday meal when the children were out on the playground. Smells of rice and kabob would emanate down the hallway; frequently, he would fill the staff lounge with baklava and Lebanese cookies. Once a week, his students would cook and share political discussions—they were fourth graders and students of the world. My son, who was his student, loved him. Chafic died way too young; the school community still speaks of him with love.

I thought of Chafic on Wednesday, when my daughters and I prepared supper from the recipes at the back of the book Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo. We cooked Kafta (p. 334), which we grilled, Yakjnet Sbanegh (p. 354), tabouleh, raita, hummus and pita, pilaf, and rice pudding. It was a feast. We laughed and cooked and chatted, and then rated our meal. We all liked the Yakjnet Sbanegh the best. The taglieh, a cilantro-garlic paste (p. 341) was so aromatic that the whole house smelled like a Lebanese restaurant. The kafta was also very good. We had a wonderful time.

Day of Honey is not a cookbook, although it has recipes. It is the memoir by an American journalist who joins her Lebanese husband, Mohamad Bazzi, in covering the Iraq war for their respective newspapers. They stop first to spend their honeymoon with Mohamad’s family in Beirut. They then move on to Baghdad where they live in a hotel and cover the war until it becomes too dangerous. They move back to Beirut hoping that things will be more peaceful, but increasing violence there makes life difficult for them as well. For six years, they live at the edge of war and try to carry on normal lives, all the time flirting with death and destruction.

The New York Times reviewer says of the memoir: “It’s a carefully researched tour through the history of Middle Eastern food. It’s filled with adrenalized scenes from war zones, scenes of narrow escapes and clandestine phone calls and frightening cultural misunderstandings.” Food is what ties the whole story together. Ciezadlo recounts what they were eating when they talked to sheikhs and members of the Iraqi parliament. She remembers the streets of Beirut, not by the street name, but by the name of the restaurant that sits on the corner. She seeks out recipes from hosts at dinner parties and farmers at the market.

The more difficult life becomes for them, the more obsessive Ciezadlo becomes about cooking and about food. But living in hotels makes cooking very difficult. She says; “I wanted dinner with friends, and not in a restaurant. I wanted to invite friends over and serve them food—my food, made with my hands.”

In the end, Ciezadlo and her husband returned to the United States where they live in New York City. When she misses Beirut and Baghdad, she cooks a meal and invites people to sit around the table and converse. “Breaking bread was the oldest and best excuse for such an occasion. It was how you created your own tribe, a microcosm of the world you want to live in.”

The New York Times reviewer sums it up: “Her book is among the least political, and most intimate and valuable, to have come out of the Iraq war.” As she says in closing: “Food alone cannot make peace. It is part of war, like everything else. We can break bread with our neighbors one day and kill them the next. Food is just an excuse—an opportunity to get to know your neighbors. When you share it with others, it becomes something more.”

Chafic knew that as he spread good will throughout our school with his baklava and falafel; we knew that last night as we cooked the recipes we had never tried before and served our husbands our creations, using the pita to clean up the very last of the garlic sauce from the spinach stew. Annia Ciezadlo knew that as she bargained with the lady selling green garlic in the Beirut market. Food heals.

Don’t be put off by the nonsensical book jacket with its pretty little girl sitting among the roses; this book is much more significant than the jacket implies. Day of Honey came to me from the publisher, and there are many bloggers publishing their reviews today. I am anxious to see what others thought.

The review in the New York Times:

Annia Ciezadlo’s website:

Here is an interview with Annia Ciezadlo:


Sidne,the BCR said...

I enjoyed reading your entire story and review of Day of Honey. I too just finished reading the book and I learned so much just reading it. i'm also going to be trying some of the recipes from the back of the book.

DWT said...

Wonderful post. I'm reading and loving this book, but haven't tried cooking anything from it yet. Very happy to find your blog!