I wasn’t expecting his reaction and it hit me like a blow to the head.
During the Arab-Israeli war, we were hastened unceremoniously from Egypt, (where I’d been teaching at a mission school), onto a German freighter, one of the last vessels to leave the country with fleeing, or expelled foreigners. The ship had pulled away from the dock in Alexandria and took three days to get to Cyprus. Since it was a freighter, and we refugees were sleeping in the holds that usually stored their freight, the cuisine on board was sparse. In fact it was sandwiches three times a day. But it was that dark German bread that really tastes good. However, after sandwiches nine times in a row and nothing else, the charm began to wear off.
We didn’t do much talking during those three days, each of us wrapped in our own bereavements and fears as we stared at horizonless water. I had noticed that one man in shorts and a faded shirt had been escorted by police up the gang way and shoved brutally into the ship. He had no shoe laces, and only carried a small wooden box. It turned out that he was the only Englishman on board, and since he had been hitch-hiking around the country, was presumed to be a spy and was taken from prison and thrust onto this ship with us. He had absolutely nothing but this box. Out of politeness no one asked what was in it.
We arrived in Cyprus in the dark, ten or eleven o’clock. And there, waiting for us, without a word of English but with a huge casserole, was a team of Red Cross workers. Ohhhh that casserole! I cannot remember at all what was in it, but the warmth, the nourishment, the surprise enchanted us magnificently. With no common language we did our best to express heartfelt delight and thanks to these beautiful people.
The next stage was a plane to carry us over the Alps to Rome. It was a strange vehicle, because the seats were lined up on either side of the plane. At about two a.m. we all took a seat, two rows facing each other across the fusilage. From the back of the plane a Red Cross worker handed the edge of a blanket to the person beside her, who handed it to the person beside him who handed….you get the idea. It turned out that this blanket extended the whole length of the plane, one on each side. Once all was in place, the vehicle took off with “I-think-I-can” effort. It sounded like a John Deere tractor in the sky, that whooped and dropped and rose over the air currents from the mountainous terrain below. No one dared to be sick. When grey cold daylight filtered in through the windows, we thought we could hold on. At about 6 a.m. we landed in Rome. There, loving and caring, was the Red Cross, once again. Towels, soap, toothbrushes, breakfast with hot coffee and cognac were oohed and ahhhed over, they seemed like the most precious things anyone could give us. How did they know what exactly we would need to restore us? We once again gestured and bowed our thanks to these lovely people whom we could not understand.
Then back into the plane headed for Munich. Here, the Red Cross and the German press were waiting. As we staggered out, summer-clad, into the cold, rainy morning, sleep-starved, disheveled and bewildered, each of us was greeted with a hug and soothing incomprehensible words from the Red Cross workers. It was such a beautiful thing to do. To this day my heart is warm with their memory.
We refugees were soon sorted into nationalities. The Germans were in one group, getting Red Cross help, received by relatives, and telling their stories to the press.
An elegant stretch limousine with liveried chauffeur turned up at the docks to take the single Englishman away to his embassy.
We, the three Americans, had no one. Eventually, with a bit of difficulty (we had no money to pay for a call) the US Consulate was contacted. They then referred us to the US military. “We heard you were coming,” they said. Two hours later, maybe three, we were picked up and taken to accommodation at the military base. The freedom of fear was exhilarating. It is surprising how exhausting it is to live in constant terror. Americans! My own people! I was on home ground!
Only I wasn’t. The place was buzzing with military testosterone – each young soldier eager to “get out there” and shoot the Egyptians, people I loved and who had loved me, people whose beauty was embedded in their very ancient sophisticated culture. . The burly commanding officer wanted to interview us individually. After taking details, it was then that his response struck me like a blow. He threw down his pen and said, “You Gentiles should stay at home and MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!!!!!”
I was stunned into silence. I’d been so beautifully cared for all the way here by people with whom I couldn’t communicate, but who served and nourished me nevertheless. And ;now this sudden unexpected attack. This was the first – and only – time in my life that someone challenged my faith. I think of the refugees today who at last make it to our shores, I wonder how they cope?
The recipe for this blog just has to be a casserole. This is probably the easiest and most favourite in our family, with happy taste memories that weave into our own traditions. It is unfortunately called
“Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon,” says the Dalai Lama, and this dish is made for play.
Peel and slice vegetables: potatoes, carrots, onions, celery* peppers, and zucchini. Add them in layers to a buttered casserole dish, with tinned chopped tomatoes, and 400 gms (1 lb) minced (ground) beef. Somewhere in the middle of the dish add 2 – 4 tablespoons raw rice and continue layering. Season each with salt, pepper, paprika, oregano and/or tarragon (or both in alternate layers.) Add a half a cup of boiling water, seal well by placing foil between the dish and the lid.
Place in a low oven, 150C or 300 F and check it for juiciness after two hours. If drying out, add more boiling water or 1 cup of cream. Cook for 20 minutes more while you prepare buttered seasoned bread crumbs with parmesan cheese. Sprinkle on top. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes more, without lid, until bread crumbs are browned. Depending on the size and depth of your casserole dish, it may not take the full three hours to cook.
Whew! This took longer to write than it did to prepare!
*Note on celery. Our family enjoys it better if the stringy back is shaved off with a potato peeler.
Children’s Shipwreck. A mother writes that her family (including three children) eat “every scrap of this”: Use a can of condensed tomato soup and boiling water instead of cream. Season with salt, pepper, and paprika. Vegetabless: onions, potatoes, uncooked rice, celery, carrots.
Vegetarian Shipwreck. Don’t use the meat, of course. Start and end with slices of fresh tomatoes. An ancient Gourmet Magazine suggests lathering two tablespoons of melted butter on each layer, but I have found that a bit too rich….either that or I was heavy-handed with the butter.
Happy 5th Birthday to this blog! Thanks to all you wonderful faithful readers! Have a look at past posts.