Review: Making Levantine Cuisine

Anny Gaul, Graham Auman Pitts, Vicki Valosik, eds. Making Levantine Cuisine: Modern Foodways of the Eastern Mediterranean. University of Texas Press. Austin: 2021. ISBN: 9781477324585

Noha Fikry (University of Toronto)

In 12 essays encompassing ethnographic, archival, and textual analysis alongside scrumptious recipes and personal reflections, this edited volume provides a comprehensive and inviting account of Levantine Cuisine. This volume features essays by historians, anthropologists, restaurateurs, and food writers. This variety in contributors’ expertise & blend of genres reflect the volume’s commitments as it promises to take Levantine cuisine seriously as a scholarly subject and mobilize various perspectives to emphasize culinary experience as a significant form of knowledge while also making the volume accessible to an equally diverse audience. As the editors share in the preface, the volume benefitted from a day-long workshop for the contributors which also included a collaborative cooking demonstration and dinner. This commensality and delicious collaborations breathe out of every essay.

The volume is driven by a set of intriguing questions: What is the history of the Levant’s cuisine and why has it not garnered sufficient attention from scholars (x)? The answers that the authors provide in their respective essays include analyses of cookbooks, personal vignettes, and ethnographic fieldwork that nuance pasts and presents of Levantine cuisine. The guiding, deliberately unresolved, tension of this volume is to present a deterritorialized understanding of Levantine cuisine which begin with but always transcend a given set of borders (14). Unlike other geographic and culinary categories such as “the Middle East” or “Mediterranean”, the Levant is a regional rather than a national category which refers to historical Syria, rising between the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates River (3). The choice of Levantine cuisine, then, is a reminder that national borders are recent, political, and divisive. Levantine cuisine as a focus is also a conscious push back against the over-romanticization of local ecologies, since the authors demonstrate how this cuisine has been largely shaped by global mobility and migration. What we witness in various essays, then, is a sustained effort at sometimes thickening and at other times thinning borders that make Levantine cuisine thrive creatively. For example, Samuel Dolbee and Chris Gratien present a fascinating account of Adana kebab & Antep pistachio as two key protagonists which expose the connections between Syria and Turkey as two spaces that have come to be imagined as separate but that were part of the same polity before the fall of the Ottoman Empire (48). In their respective histories, Adana kebab and Antep pistachios then reveal the culinary legacy of the late Ottoman Levant in Turkey both as “simultaneously hidden and deliciously obvious” (63). Reem Kassis traces these ambivalent borders through the contradiction between the fact that food is inherently not national but regional, ethnic, and religious and the fact that food for Palestinians plays a huge role in defining and preserving their national identity as they’ve long been denied their independent state (134).

The simultaneous thickening and thinning of borders that allows food to persist and flourish requires a set of methodological and conceptual tools that the contributors share generously in their essays. In her profound chapter on Palestinian olive oil, Anne Meneley makes a strong case for the centrality of a human-nonhuman angle that exposes the multifaceted nature of olive oil for Palestinians. In Palestinian imaginaries, the olive tree is an actor & co-producer of oil which is also the result of human-tree co-generativity (118). For Palestinian farmers, the olive tree is a nonhuman kin that they nurture with generosity. Meneley then traces the “tournaments of value” — to use Appadurai’s term that Meneley drew on in her fascinating ethnography on Yemen — of Palestinian olive oil. On one level, Palestinian olive oil is “omnipresent” and functions as an “unspoken glue” and a source of life-sustaining delicious pleasure when added to any dish (125). On another level, Meneley shares a wonderful ethnographic vignette in which mujaddara is the main dish served during harvesting olive oil. This dish of lentils and rice features the healthy fat of olive oil from the previous year’s harvest. In her reflection, Meneley eloquently explains that the pickers eat the fruit of the last year’s harvest to enable them to work for this year’s harvest, that which will in turn hopefully feed the harvesters the following year (124). On a final, less cheerful, level, the only way for Palestinian olive oil to travel beyond Israelis’ control of infrastructure is to become “extra-virgin”, a process which entails farmers collectively pressing their olive oil which leaves out the specific taste of particular olive groves, and each farmer’s own labor. Juxtaposing collective efforts of harvesting and making kin with olive oil on one hand and reductionist efforts of meeting global standards on the other elucidates the way in which different social and political borders shape value and affect taste of foods and ingredients around the Levant.

Shifting to the other side of the chain, Harry Eli Kashdan explores the “unmaking” of Levantine cuisine through an illuminative account of a DC falafel shop inspired by Amsterdam falafel shops. In Kashdan’s essay, the methodological tip he offers is that in some cases it is more useful to move away from production to the conditions under which consumption takes place. In the case of falafel, then, the challenge is to explore the discourses by which local Levantine cuisine is globalized and how culinary ideas such as “Dutch falafel” or hummus becoming a catch-all name for any bean dip become legible and profitable (184). Kashdan proposes what he calls “culinary close reading” as a methodological tool through which researchers treat any recipe and its manifestation as a story onto itself. The DC, Amsterdam-inspired, falafel is therefore a story of an encounter between Western tourists and eastern migrants (188).

While Meneley’s chapter highlights human-nonhuman labor of producing Palestinian olive oil and Kashdan’s exposes migrant labor and consumer choices, gendered labor is a dominant theme in other essays. In Susan McDougall’s essay on women cooking in Amman, Jordan, she argues that we cannot discuss Levantine cuisine as a concept without discussing the female labor that produces this cuisine (171). Methodologically, then, McDougall spent time with women at home as they continue to ask and answer the same question everyday: What to cook, and how to cook it? In her intimate account of stuffed grape leaves, McDougall works against an understanding of housework as routine or semi-automated and repetitive through illustrating the way in which elements of serendipity, contingency,[SDE1] [NF2]  and planning are central to making lunch everyday.

In closing, Anny Gaul collaborates with Zeina Azzam in a poetic and conceptually intriguing conclusion. Gaul poses a provocative question: If food is elusive and all textual accounts of food unfold as inevitably incomplete, why still write about food? Her conclusion provides a series of inspiring answers, which all reflect the volume’s commitments and the various conclusions illuminated in different chapters. On one level, food offers a way to write ourselves out of national borders — a task that Levantine cuisine as a regional rather than national cuisine is an excellent candidate for. On another level, food allows us to push against persisting hierarchies between humans and nonhumans, while also illuminating the material construction of other gendered and political inequalities. On a final level, Gaul invites us to take food as a starting point to a form of poesis or creating — a creation or making of the conditions for different conversations to take place and for something to be made anew.

As an inviting and accessible read for food scholars, ethnographers, graduate students, and home cooks, this edited volume engages readers to discuss method, theory, recipes, geography, and research in a new light. Whether discussing kebabs, pistachios, or hummus, the volume offers so much to think with, cook, and snack on. Given its variety in tones, genres, and perspectives, this volume is an excellent choice for undergraduate and graduate classes on writing food cultures, introductory anthropology and sociology courses, the Middle East, and research methods. Whether you assign or read a chapter or the entire volume, you are destined to leave hungry, excited to cook, and inspired to think about foods and ingredients from/on the Levant anew!


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