My husband's Lebanese grandfather, George Thom, immigrated to Michigan City, Indiana, where he met his young soon-to-be-wife, Victoria, a cheerful and fun loving 16-year-old girl whose parents had also emigrated from Lebanon. They attended the same Lebanese Catholic Church of the Maronite order, and soon struck up a friendship. When she was 17, and he was 25, they married. He went to work in the steel mills outside Gary, Indiana to support his new wife. Soon, a baby was expected. Life was good.
It wasn't long before George developed a hacking cough. Tuberculosis had invaded his lungs on account of his long hours at the mill. Hoping to remedy the illness which was progressing quickly, doctors told him to return to clean air in the hills of Lebanon. So he packed up his pregnant wife and they returned by boat. Once in Beirut, he was quarantined in a small house on a hill and Victoria went to live with his relatives, whom she had only just met. She cooked with them, learning new recipes, and cleaned with them. Soon, she gave birth to a son (my husband's father) and named him George (like his father). Then George Thom died, alone on the hill. His relatives tried to convince Victoria to leave the baby for them to raise, and return to America to start over. She would do no such thing.
And so, the newly widowed Victoria, at the tender age of 18, returned alone to America with baby George to begin life anew. She eventually re-married, one of her husband's best friends, and they had a long and happy marriage lasting almost 60 years before he died. She was, however, not able to have more children. Over the years Victoria cooked almost exclusively Lebanese food. Before freezer cooking was popular, she was stocking her extra freezer with such delights as warek eenab (meat stuffed grape leaves), koosa (meat stuffed squash with tomatoes) and kibbe (a unique Lebanese meat loaf flavored with onions and pine nuts), recipes she had first learned as a young girl.
I am the fortunate recipient of some of "Sito's" cookbooks, which she gave to me before she died. She mentored me in the early years of my marriage and taught me how to cook Lebanese style. Many Sundays my husband and I and our young children would visit her, and watch, mesmerized as she would demonstrate the proper technique for stuffing cabbage or grinding meat in her ancient meat grinder to the proper consistency for some recipe.
One of Sito's recipe books, Lebanese Cuisine by Madelain Farah, states, "In the Middle East, the chief cook in an extended family is queen of her home, and her throne is essentially the kitchen. No sooner is breakfast done, than preparation for lunch has begun, and then again for dinner. To the homemakers this is a labor of love. Mealtime in the Middle East is a leisurely and happy occasion, where the family is brought together in thanksgiving and mirth." This was certainly true in my experience with Sito. Eating was one of life's pleasures and was an occasion for conversation and family. She always had food prepared for the drop-in visitor. She was the epitome of hospitality, something many of us really aspire to, but struggle with.
As Eastertime nears, I like to pull out Sito's old recipes and devote some time to old-fashioned cooking, as much for the time it creates for family as for the food it makes. As we celebrate Christ's Resurrection and new Life, I like to turn my thoughts also to resurrecting old traditions, which bond and renew relationships of new generations to the old. When I make my own grandmother's traditional raisin coffeecake and Sito's dinner fare, I feel connected with both women, with both families, and feel that I pass along something special to my children.
This Easter as you plan your Holy Week activities to attend Mass with your family and celebrate the glorious feast day of Christ's resurrection, I invite you to also explore your own family traditions — recipes and devotions. Tell your children about their relatives, some now perhaps long gone. Maybe you would like to instill new customs into your family life. As you explore new things to do and eat, however, don't forget to look to the past for a precious treasure you can pass on to your children — their ancestry which is uniquely theirs. Have a very Blessed Easter!