I’ve never been to Lebanon but my stomach has.
My second to last year of university, circa 1998, I was walking up and down Main Street in Blacksburg, Virginia looking for a job. I walked into Emilio’s, which appeared to be a regular, college-town eatery. The menu was mostly pizza. It was sparse inside except for tables with condiments already on them, TVs in every corner, a long bar with a cash register at one end. I asked the blonde waitress if they were hiring and she went back to get one of the owners. A short, broad man with a moustache came out – had I worked in restaurants before? I’d never worked as a waitress, but I had worked in kitchens, so I said yes. They needed a waitress, could I train that weekend? I agreed, and before I knew it I had a new job.
Quickly I learned that pizza was a cover for their real speciality. Despite the name Emilio’s, there were no Italians or Spanish in the kitchen. The two owners and chefs, Eid and Mounir, were Lebanese. Beneath the pizza on their menu was the real drawcard: kofta, kibbe, shawarma, falafel, tabouli, fattoush, labneh, hummus and baba ghanoush. Everything was made from scratch in the spotless kitchen, the French fries were cut and fried, the pitas made from the same dough used to make the pizzas and the falafel mixed by hand and freshly shaped and fried for every wrap. It was the most delicious food I had eaten; it was a revelation. I wanted to scold every customer who came in and ordered a pepperoni pizza. I had so many recommendations.
‘Why don’t you call yourself a Lebanese restaurant?’ I asked Eid and Mounir more than once.
‘We’ll never get enough customers. People want familiar food around here,’ they replied.
The kitchen was a gathering place for all of the Lebanese students at the university, they hung out speaking Arabic with the owners and eating the food that reminded them of home. They were there every day. I grew used to their company when I picked up my orders, laughing and joking. In the kitchen they made food that wasn’t on the menu and if it was vegetarian, I tried it. Stuffed grape leaves, lentils with fried onions, fava beans, green beans, okra stewed with tomatoes – it was all delicious. For breakfast, they ate something they called man’ousheh, zaatar pizzas with slices of fresh tomato. Who would think some herbs and sesame seeds sprinkled on dough and baked would taste so good? It became my regular order.
They taught me to eat French fries with toum (garlic paste) in a wrap and to make pitas that puffed like pillows in the oven. That hummus should be pale and creamy, served with a puddle of oil and a sprinkle of parsley. That garlic should never be skimped. My parents were working at the US Embassy in Uzbekistan at the time, and Eid and Mounir gave me fatherly advice. Eid helped me fix my car. They scolded me for never having been to Lebanon, they said it was the most beautiful place in the world.
I left for two years to work and travel, and when I came back for graduate school they made space for me on the schedule again. The food and the jokes hadn’t changed, but Eid had brought a wife back from Lebanon. She was from Beirut, and she was not impressed by the small Southwest Virginia town. ‘Beirut,’ she told me, ‘Is the Paris of the Middle East.’
I was in Emilio’s on September 11, 2001, the day the planes flew into the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon. I was not rostered to work, but I didn’t have a television at home and I came in to watch. All the Lebanese students were there. No one, for once, was eating. Eid and Mounir were Christian, but they knew that many people weren’t going to make the distinction. They were still Arabs, foreigners in a small town. I remember everyone’s shock and concern, but I was wrapped up in my own worry. I hadn’t heard from my parents and wouldn’t for days, and I knew that US Embassies were always a target. I remember one of the Lebanese students shaved his beard. It became more difficult for the students to get visas.
I had met Simon, my now husband, in the time I was away from Blacksburg and in January of 2002 I told them I was leaving in March. I was moving to Australia for love.
‘Well,’ Eid said, ‘there are plenty of Lebanese there, so at least you can eat good food.’
He’s right, but it has never been quite as good. What I would give for one of Mounir’s pita pillows, fresh from the oven. A French fry wrap with garlic sauce. And now that I eat meat, I would try the shish tawook: grilled chicken with toum, in a wrap with crunchy lettuce, tomato and pickles.
With the explosions in Beirut this week I immediately thought of them, my mind back in that spotless, divine-smelling kitchen; a slice of Lebanon in Southwest Virginia. I feel devastated for Lebanon, for everything it will take to recover from this. For those killed and injured, and those who will struggle more in an already difficult time. I’ve lost touch with Eid and Mounir (I stayed in Australia) but I heard the restaurant has been gone from Main Street for years. I no longer know where they are. I hope they are safe, and their families are too.
I’ve still never been to Lebanon, but I will go, one day. I plan to eat every dish on offer, and I know that each taste will remind me of them.
Hummus adapted from Emilio’s
1 tin chickpeas (drained, liquid reserved)
1/3 cup tahini
2 cloves of garlic (at least) crushed or minced
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
Combine all ingredients except cayenne, olive oil and parsley in the food processor or blender until smooth. Add some liquid reserved from the tin of chickpeas to thin. When the mixture is pureed, turn it out into a bowl, make an indentation in the centre and garnish with olive oil, cayenne and chopped parsley. Enjoy!