Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War
by Annia Ciezadlo
Free Press, 2012
Review by Leo Racicot
Our grandmother, an Ottoman Syrian, born in Alexandria, Egypt, imparted to my sister and me an exotic philosophy from what we imagined was an exotic land. Whenever she sought to apply a verbal salve to our youthful, little wounds or to deflate a bit our chests roostering over some small, youthful triumphs, she would caution us with the Arabic maxim, "Remember, kids. Life is unpredictable -- 'One day, honey; onions, the next'." Then, with sure and loving hands, she would fish out of the refrigerator something good for us to eat: malfouf, a sandwich (usually Syrian bread with zaytoun), a plate of Turkish Delights, a simple, bright piece of fruit. These acted as a white flag over whatever wars, wins and losses the day had brought us.
Annia Ciezadlo exacts this very dynamic in her confident and evocative Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War, a book that captures you instantly and holds you in the folds of its assured and reassuring pages. You will be hard-pressed to find a food-based book that is this moving. A New York City career girl, the author somewhat suddenly finds herself in love and married to a Middle East man and living in the countries of his origins, the war-ravaged (and much-misunderstood by Easterners) Lebanon and Iraq.
Ciezadlo, a journalist, lands a precise and knowing eye on all that she surveys, be it the way her husband eats when he doesn't know she's watching, to the way children's faces clench when they become too hungry to cry. The great food writers—M.F.K. Fisher, A. J. Liebling, Waverley Root—were, first and foremost, reporters, able to work and process under pressure and deadline. These tricks of the trade work well, especially when a writer needs to dig beneath the surface and observe a people and their ways, however foreign. The aim is to see beyond a country to its spirit of place, and Ciezadlo excels at this. Her powers of observation are original and immediate and always on point, and you feel comfortable and secure in her company.
Transported to her new husband's native Beirut, Ciezadlo finds herself in the midst of a war-torn people, their streets, her neighbors, their neighborhoods. Disoriented, turned upside down by all she is seeing and experiencing but too in love with her husband to leave him, her first and most beautiful response is to head for the stove, to cook. For what else is there to say or do in the face of chaos, destruction and war? Ciezadlo's answer is that there may be battles outside us (and sometimes inside us, too) alienating us and everyone around us, but that, gathered at the table, hands clasped, letting reassurance and common sense wash over us like sunlight, mouths full of good soup, good bread, good wine—the sound of troops laying down their arms, or not taking them up in the first place—is easier to imagine. The chaos, the obscene casualties and calamities of conflict and subversion are helpless next to the quiet and comfort of a homemade meal shared with those we love. Because food and eating, Ciezadlo teaches, are civilized acts in what has become more and more an uncivilized world.
The worth of a food memoir, I have always thought, lies in its ability to evoke, in the reader, feelings and people and needs they had forgotten they knew or had. By the time you finish Day of Honey, your memory banks will be overflowing, transporting you home to the person you used to be, to the peace you used to know, to families and friends who shared their love by letting you sit at their tables, to grandmothers who fashioned feasts from whatever they had in the fridge.