I hold the imprint of her hands as they stirred her homemade yogurt-starter into warm milk for labna لبنة , yogur árabe, wonderfully thick and sour. She’d pour the mixture into a jar and wrap the jar in a military issue blanket, placing it next to the radiator to ferment the yogurt. All six of her sons and one of her daughters had served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. My thrifty grandmother saw no reason to toss the blankets they brought back from their service in Europe and Africa.
Clearly, frugality ruled in my grandmother’s house. Soap chips were sowed into pieces of clean rag and used until their lather was spent. Newspapers were exchanged with the junk man for precious pennies. Even when I was too old for a stroller, she’d have me clamber into an ancient one, my weight allowing it to serve as a walker when we went out. No need for medical equipment. Really, I suspect my grandmother would put today’s recyclers to shame.
I can remember my grandmother’s hands as they served us cinnamon-scented chicken and rice, gray steam rising from soup bowls. I see her hands buttering khubz خبز (bread) to go with tea or coffee, and I see them packing loose yānsūn يانسون (anise) tea into a jelly jar for my Uncle Anthony to take on a business trip. For sure she expected hotel food to cause stomach upset. No need for Tums™ and other such when there’s a delicious healing tea to drink. After all, as far back as their Phoenician progenitors, yānsūn has served the Lebanese people well for both pleasure and health.
The health benefits are not just an old-wives tale. In fact anise or aniseed – used for teas, sweet and savory dishes, and arak عرق (Leventine spirits) – does have healing properties. It’s a diuretic and a carminative. It’s a digestive. It is even said to be good for colicky babies and nursing mothers. Like its flavor-cousin, fennel, it’s a breath freshener. For those of us who avoid sugar, it’s sweet enough not to need any.
These days I like my anise combined with camomille, which is also a tradition and not just for the Lebanese. Tasty! Relaxing! Calming! Lovely after dinner …
… and here’s today’s poem:
The Taste of Baklava
Honestly, there are times
when the taste of baklava
finds my tongue and speaks to me
in the language of my grandmother’s hands,
when the honey and fresh mint in tea
vitalizes my very being ~
and I remember everything
. . . . . everything
even the scent of you, your eyes
the way we lingered over dessert,
tapered candles flaming wisps of hope,
your red roses wilting in a crystal vase,
dropping velvet petals like dreams
on the white damask of our forever
© 2017, post, poem and family photograph, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; photograph of Arabic tea courtesy of CC BY 2.0 license.