Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber

The Language of Baklava
By Diana Abu-Jaber
Anchor Books, 2006
330 pages

Publisher's summary:
Diana Abu-Jaber’s vibrant, humorous memoir weaves together stories of being raised by a food-obsessed Jordanian father with tales of Lake Ontario shish kabob cookouts and goat stew feasts under Bedouin tents in the desert. These sensuously evoked repasts, complete with recipes, in turn illuminate the two cultures of Diana's childhood–American and Jordanian–while helping to paint a loving and complex portrait of her impractical, displaced immigrant father who, like many an immigrant before him, cooked to remember the place he came from and to pass that connection on to his children. The Language of Baklava irresistably invites us to sit down at the table with Diana’s family, sharing unforgettable meals that turn out to be as much about “grace, difference, faith, love” as they are about food.

My thoughts:
Food, arguably the most outward expression of culture, was an essential part of Diana Abu-Jaber's childhood. With a Jordanian father and American mother, she grew up straddling two cultures. Food was at the heart of family tradition and ritual, especially for her father. Most important events, lessons, and memories revolved around food.

Abu-Jaber writes with humor, warmth, and obvious love for her family. Her father's fixation on Jordanian foods and rituals reminded me of my own Italian-immigrant grandparents. Surely the desire to preserve food traditions for future generations exists in all cultures.

The familiar setting, Syracuse and Central NY, also contributed to my personal enjoyment. I have visited the same parks, eaten in the same restaurants, and survived the same brutal winters.

Recipes are included with each chapter - an added bonus! I'll be trying the Peaceful Vegetarian Lentil Soup, "Start the Party" Hummus, and Diplomatic Magloubeh. For the Very Fried Falafels, however, I will happily make another trip to King David's restaurant.

Favorite Quotes:
"Making shish kabob always reminds the brothers of who they used to be - the heat, the spices, the preparation for cooking, and the rituals for eating were all the same as when they were children, eating at their parents' big table. But trying to kill the lamb showed them: They were no longer who they thought they were." p.19 
"So now what did I just do?'
"You ate some baklawa?'
She curls her hand as if making a point so essential, it can be held only in the tips of the fingers. "I looked, I tasted, I spoke kindly and truthfully. I invited. You know what else? I keep doing it. I don't stop if that doesn't work on the first or second or third try. And like that!" She snaps the apron from the chair into the air, leaving a poof of flour like a wish. "There is your peace." p. 190

My rating:

Bottom line:
The Language of Baklava is one of the best culinary memoirs I've read in quite some time.

Weekend Cooking, hosted at Beth Fish Reads, is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up over the weekend.


  1. This is my kind of food memoir -- one that talks about family and childhood and good food with friends. I'm adding this one to my list -- Can't wait to see the recipes.

  2. Delighted to read your review and I'm looking forward to reading this memoir. Abu-Jaber's novels are wonderful, so it's good to know her memoir is as well.

  3. Thanks for this delectable review JoAnn. It sounds like a rich and delicious read. Yes, food often is the most accessible, outward representation of a culture, an open pathway towards understanding. Culinary memoirs, that's an interesting genre. Thanks for sharing this... and glad to know about this post from your tweet.

  4. Thank you, thank you! I'd not heard of this, and I want to get it. If pressed, I would say that this is my favorite food. Putting aside the goats, etc. it is great for a vegetarian.

  5. being as I love baklava...
    this one sounds very interesting and I have not heard of this one before.

  6. I love memoirs like this, of growing up in other cultures that also involve food. I can't wait to read it! I also like that it includes the recipes :)

  7. Enjoyed the review, it sounds like a delicious memoir! I'm still trying to preserve the memories and culture I grew up with for my children, it's why I learned to cook!

  8. This is absolutely my kind of food memoir -- one that focuses on food and family and memories. I'm definitely adding this to my list.

  9. This sounds every bit as wonderful as I was hoping! I really need to read it sooner rather than later.

  10. I love a good memoir focused around food. The quotes are excellent, telling me I'd enjoy reading this one.

  11. Lynne - I will be reading one of her novels soon, possibly Birds of Paradise.

    Rippleeffects - Glad you enjoyed the review! I've read quite a few culinary memoirs the past few years and this is one of the best. I recently read 97 Orchard (nonfiction) that focuses on immigrants and their food experiences. Will get that post up for Weekend Cooking soon, too.

    Nan - I'm sure this is a book you would enjoy! The recipes look good, too.

    Caite - I love baklava, too, but have never made it myself.

    Sam - This is my favorite type of memoir, too. Food, culture, and family... so interesting.

    Carol - Same here! I treasure the old recipes my grandmother brought from Italy. Some are traditional dishes made just for special occasions, but most are everyday foods.

    Beth F - Food memoirs don't get much better than this. I read it with my daughter - all incoming first year students at her college read and wrote about it.

    Nymeth - It really is! Hope you get a chance to read it soon.

    Margot - The writing really sets this apart from other food memoirs. It was a joy to read!

  12. Fun to be reading Diana Abu-Jaber's backlist, and especially fun that this culinary memoir is so ... delicious.

    I'm making my way through Weekend Cooking posts this evening ... it's going to be an early dinner, my appetite is growing!

  13. This does sound like a yummy read, connecting two vastly disparate cultures through food. Such wonderful possibilities! Thank you for sharing this.

  14. This one is new to me. Sounds like one to add to next year's Fall Feasting - I'm particularly drawn to the foody books that are also memoirs.

  15. Were you the one who mentioned this one to me when I wrote my post for Maman's Homesick Pie? Baklava stuck in my head as I love it. Anyway, sounds wonderful and after loving Maman's Homesick Pie I'm definitely in the mood for more culural foodie memoirs (three things I love in books!).

    Hope you're staying warm...ish

  16. Thank you for sharing-this is so my type of book. Onto my hold shelf it goes.

  17. I love food memoirs, but so many of them are whiny... this one sounds so much better, and since it has your stamp of approval it's going on my list.
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  18. that sounds like such a great book. i love it when writers mix food and memoir- and recipes!

  19. I've had this one on my radar for a while...may be time to bump it up on the TBR :)

  20. Dawn - I've leaned never to read all the Weekend Cooking posts when hungry ;-)

    DS - An excellent read with great cultural/gastronomic insight!

    Lisa - This would be perfect for Fall Feasting.

    Trish - I'm pretty sure it was me... and I added that book to my wishlist, too.

    Esme - This is really a wonderful book. Hope you get a chance to read it.

    Audrey - This is definitely not whiny. I think you'd like it. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Marie - Me, too! Food and memoir has become a favorite combination.

    Peppermint Ph.D. - Definitely bump it up!

  21. Yummy! I love a book that includes food - and recipes - and this one sounds great!

  22. This sounds truly delightful!! I think food is universal and most certainly the way to keep heritages alive. I will be looking for this one!

  23. I love her fiction...good to know that she's just as talented with non-fiction!

  24. Bermudaonion - Food, recipes, and good writing, too... doesn't get much better!

    Staci - That is definitely true for my family. We cling to our cultural heritage through food.

    Softdrink - I loved this book. Now I can't wait to read some of her fiction!

  25. This sounds very enjoyable. I love the fact that you found some vegetarian recipes you want to try out :) I hope they will taste as good as they sound!

  26. This memoir sounds fantastic. I'm going to look for it at my library.

    I love how the book cover reflects the author's bi-cultural upbringing.

  27. I am one of those people who makes food to remind me of those who have passed on and to remember places I have been. Even thinking of various dishes can bring tears of remembrance to my eyes. Thanks for the lovely review.

  28. I have many food memoirs on my TBR shelf, but for some reason I seldom pick them up. This one looks really good, though, so I will add it to my wish list. I really, really enjoyed her mystery novel, Origin. She's an excellent writer.

  29. Our library system recommended this as a companion read to Linda Furiya's Bento Box in the Heartland, which I enjoyed - but I never got around to reading it. Thanks for the reminder!

  30. Uniflame - It was definitely a great book and I can't wait to try some of the recipes....possibly over the Thanksgiving holiday when my vegetarian daughter is home.

    Christine - That cover is amazing... a perfect representation of cultures.

    Heather - I know EXACTLY what you mean. There are certain foods I will always associate with my grandmother, and I get choked up just thinking of them.

    Rose City Reader - I have not read any of Abu-Jaber's fiction, but definitely plan to in 2012. Will add Origin to my list.

    Lisa May - Bento Box in the Heartland is new to me... off to look it up. Thanks!

  31. Food is such an integral part of family life and I've never heard of a memoir that takes this approach. I think I would enjoy this one.

  32. Kathleen - I think you would, too. Definitely a great read!


Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! Be sure to check back, I always respond. Due to a recent increase in spam, all comments are moderated.


Related Posts with Thumbnails