Another series, this one about home.
Tonight, after a long day of grading geosciences essays, I wander into the kitchen and uncork a bottle of wine. The sun fades behind a lattice of trees outside the window. I pour wine into a small green glass and my headache starts to dissipate.
I rummage in the fridge and pull out eggplants and ground beef, then dip into the cupboard for some rice and spices. I slide a jar of tomatoes from the shelf and set all the ingredients on the counter together to admire. Mahshi time.
Mahshi is a traditional Middle Eastern dish that literally means “stuffed.” Which is approximately how you feel after you eat it. You can stuff almost anything; zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, turnips, grape or cabbage leaves, or eggplants. I ate it often when I lived in Palestine. Tonight, I will stuff three slightly wrinkled eggplants purchased at last Saturday’s farmer’s market.
First, slice off the stems and heft the eggplant in your palm. Hollow out the insides with a good sharp scooping tool. Feel the weight of the shiny purple eggplant lighten as the pile of guts grows on the chopping board. Dip the empty eggplants into a bowl of salt water, then set aside.
Mix rice, ground beef, butter, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pepper. Don’t pay attention to amounts. Tonight you are an Arab cook. Shake in just enough until it looks right. Roll up your sleeves and mix it together by hand. Let the hard grains of rice grit against your skin, feel the soft red beef give beneath your palm. The spices might temporarily overwhelm you with homesickness, but that is ok. Lean against the counter, close your eyes. Remember.
To be in a place is to touch it, to inhale and consume it. It becomes you. You become it. This is not an exaggeration.
Inside of you grow olive trees, back-lit by a hot sun. You contain shimmering blue Palestinian skies and dusty rutted roads. In your corners, you still find dust that settles on skin, on leaves, on tomatoes. The tunjara on the stove is full of mahshi, steam rising from its silver sides. Your dear friend stands by the stove in her flowered house-dress and slippers. She showed you how to shape the lozenges of rice and meat, how to poke them into the hollowed vegetables. Leave an inch of room for the rice to expand as it cooks. No matter how many times you cook mahshi, you will never get that practiced capable twist of your fingers that she was born with.
Lay the stuffed eggplants into a pot, and cover them with crushed tomatoes and water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Lift the lid occasionally to poke the eggplants, and breathe in the aromas.
When the rice is cooked and the eggplant parts readily beneath a knife, serve heaping dishes to your loved ones. Sit together, jostle elbows as you cut into the mahshi, spilling rice into the tomato sauce. Breathe deep, take that first bite. Now. You are home.