7 Food Rituals You Grew Up On As A Lebanese-American

This post continues last week's series on growing up as a second-generation Lebanese-American. The focus of today's list is on the food aspects of the Lebanese-American upbringing. If you have any additional experiences you'd like to share, please chime in!

1. Breakfast was always, invariably, cereal with cold milk. While your cousins in Lebanon nibbled on pain au lait or markouk with picon and cucumber, you had Cheerios or Raisin Bran (we were denied the sugary cereals) every day before heading off to school. Pancakes and waffles were treats reserved for weekends, and once in a while your mother would make your favorite, scrambled eggs with chicken liver and crunchy heart. Yum!

2. At school, lunch was the best period: a welcome escape from the classroom and time to wolf down some delectable goodness. Of course your mother refused to let you eat the cafeteria’s junk, so what’d she pack in your sack? Naturally, a pita loaf stuffed with processed American cheese, Buddig lunchmeat, and slivers of Persian cucumber purchased from the nearest Middle Eastern produce house. How’s that for fusion food? Also you could expect sliced apple wedges, carrot sticks (sans dip), and, maybe, just maybe, that magical liquid potion known as Capri Sun.

3. You begged for fast food bliss, capped to once a week at best, and who were your favorites? For burgers, it was unquestionably Carl’s Jr. (Hardee’s elsewhere), In ‘n Out (Cali peeps), and Jack in the Box. Tacos: Del Taco or Taco Bell. Chicken: the Colonel (pronounced “kernel”) aka KFC, or of course, Popeye’s for their crispy chicken tenders. Pizza? Hands-down it was Dominoes, because Pizza Hut oozed with greasiness.

4. You did NOT grow up on Nutella. In fact, you didn’t discover it until your college years, when European dorm mates, annoyed that the United States hadn't yet discovered the chocolate-hazelnut paste, horded their own supply from across the lake. Instead, you enjoyed the creamy and chunky forms of peanut butter, and in your mind, there still isn't a more perfect union than PB&J.

5. Real laban and labneh couldn’t be come by at the store, even at Arab supermarkets (the varieties on offer were more cream than strained yogurt), so your mother invariably made the two Lebanese staples at home. She’d boil the full-fat fresh milk, pour it into a glass jar to store overnight away from any light source, and refrigerate it the next day. To reduce it to labneh, the laban was strained using a cloth bag. I've always preferred homemade to store-bought, though in Lebanon the latter are remarkably authentic.

6. You never relished in the culinary marvels revered by diehard Lebanese, like kibbeh nayeh, escargots, frogs’ legs, tongue, brains, lamb testicles…you get the point. Heck, there wasn't even halloumi! The most exotic cheeses were the braided white string cheese with black aniseed (jebneh majdouleh) as well as kashkaval. Hindbeh was also absent from your culinary upbringing, as chicory could not be found at produce stores. Your mother cultivated a small grape vineyard in the backyard, along with parsley, mint, and thyme, to incorporate in traditional Lebanese dishes.

7. Every once in a while, when your parents were craving manakish and la7m b3ajin, they’d prepare the toppings at home—zaatar w zeit for the former, mince lamb meat with onions, tomatoes, and jalapenos for the latter—and take them to the local Egyptian-run pizzeria. Your father would come home with a couple boxes of thick, piping hot 18-inch (45 cm) Lebanese pizza pies. How many folks in Lebanon can attest to that? 

I miss those days!


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