A little hummus on the prairie
A cookbook featuring Syrian recipes from a Saskatchewan homestead is a surprise hit
MARTIN PATRIQUIN | Jan 01, 2007
Southwestern Saskatchewan is home to stiff winds and right angles, where the summer's dust or the winter's cold fixes people's faces with a hard, leathery squint. You eat farm-sized portions of meat loaf and boiled corn, mashed potatoes and gravy, Jell-O and whipped cream. There is no salad substitute. It is straight-ahead fare befitting a straight-ahead place. What you see is what you get, and there isn't often a whole lot to see.
Of course, Habeeb Salloum would beg to differ. His memories of growing up in this corner of the world include creamy hummus slathered on warm pita bread, spinach and dandelion kishk salad, fatayar sabaanikh pies bursting with pine nuts and cheese, all topped off with baklava, its layers of paper-thin pastry soaked in sweet rosewater syrup. Salloum, an ebullient 83-year-old food writer who now lives in Toronto, has written Arab Cooking on a Saskatchewan Homestead, a cookbook and memoir about growing up Syrian in Saskatchewan during the Great Depression.
The book sat on the bestseller list at Toronto's Cookbook Store for much of the spring and summer, in the company of such kitchen heavyweights as Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver. In September, it picked up the silver medal at the Canadian Culinary Book Awards as a work that "best illustrate[s] Canada's rich culinary heritage and food culture." It's not hard to see why: with its emphasis on low-fat, high-nutrition staples like parsley, chickpeas and yogourt, Middle Eastern cooking is a dieter's dream. Well before they became a trendy riposte to Atkins diet overindulgence, however, Homestead's recipes served a more modest purpose: keeping one Syrian family of eight alive throughout a woefully unforgiving era.
Salloum's family arrived in 1923, and after years toiling as a farmhand and a peddler, his father bought a farm of his own not long before Black Tuesday crashed Canada's economy and a drought turned much of Saskatchewan into a giant dust bowl. The most poignant of Homestead's reveries focuses on the family's arrival on a barren piece of land near the town of Val Marie. Father Salloum had exactly one successful crop, in 1928, after which drought struck. "The desert seemed to have followed us from Syria," Salloum remembers his father saying. The Salloum family's few neighbours up and left, unable to muster even the thinnest wheat crop.
Salloum's father, too broke and stubborn to move anywhere else, instead planted rows of lentils and chickpeas. As a result, though they rarely had proper clothes on their backs -- Habeeb remembers having to wear a grain sack at one point -- the Salloums ate quite well, thank you. "I think we ate better than the average Canadian," Salloum says. "We made use of our garden, and we had a few animals. There were a lot of things I could have complained about, but food wasn't one of them."(Added bonus: according to Homestead, chickpeas are "a first-rate sexual stimulant.")
Though chock full of history, Salloum's tales complement, not overshadow, the recipes. This is simple food -- hummus and pita, as well as mutton and lentil stew, vegetarian pie, potato-garlic salad, several easily made Arabic cheeses and desserts -- adorned only with Salloum's anecdotes(and some admittedly amateurish pictures of the food). "Smooth or firm or wrinkled and dark, mother was able to produce gourmet meals from this delicious gift of the earth," he writes in his ode to the prairie potato.
A career civil servant, Salloum has built his writing career on these very staples. His first article, published in Gourmet magazine in the late '70s, was about yogourt -- the very stuff his mother would make on the Saskatchewan plain. "With their food, Syrian immigrants were 100 years ahead of their time," he says. He sent in the unsolicited cookbook manuscript to the University of Regina's Canadian Plains Research Center and crossed his fingers. "If it had been a straight-up cookbook we wouldn't have published it. It's the recollection part that interested us," says publication coordinator Brian Mlazgar. "I've been publishing books in Saskatchewan for 30 years and I had no idea there were Syrian-Lebanese people here that early."
Homestead has helped change this. The book is selling brusquely not only in chi-chi Toronto bookstores but prairie cattle shows and fairs as well. Today, Saskatchewan is one of the world's biggest lentil exporters -- all of which is to say that the days of straight-ahead meat loaf and gravy could well be numbered.
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