“Miss Judy, will you come on Thursday to share our bread and salt, as we say?”
“Oh, thank you for the invitation. I would love to come. But bread and salt are all I will share, because in the evening we Americans have our Thanksgiving celebration, with a big feast.”
“Good. We normally do not have much to eat. Come to our house at 12.”
I was in Egypt, teaching and living at a girls’ boarding school in Assiut (halfway between Cairo and Luxor) and was eager to make friends. Surprisingly I found the place with no difficulty and was warmly welcomed, shoe-less, into the house. There, I was offered the obligatory drink from the living room fridge — a status symbol, yes, but very handy for serving drinks in a land where temperatures could easily soar to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 Celsius). No matter how short a visit, I found that it was customary always to accept something to eat or drink. I think this must have started long ago when the guest had to show her trust in the host not to poison her.
Looking back now at my 25-year-old Self, I am surprised that with the existing knowledge of Asian and Middle Eastern hospitality in my background, I had absolutely no suspicion whatever of what “bread and salt” could have meant. Youth? Naivete? Stupidity?
But as I sat there, Reality set in. Scents wafting from the kitchen prophesied far more than bread and salt. Aromas betrayed roasted pigeon, succulent aubergines stuffed with rice, minced lamb and pine nuts; grape leaf mahshi —leafy bundles bursting with surprise fillings, skewered lamb pieces, thick warm flatbreads in their whole-wheatey goodness, pasta dishes, my favourite ta’amaya (Egyptian falafel), cinnamon spiced beef stews, and who knows what else!
I was right. Mounds of food, — fresh vegetables and salads as well – emerged, all waiting to be eaten. In Egypt I never served myself. This was dangerous, and that day it was most dangerous. Every time my plate was emptied and I was offered more, I would say “no thank you”, the server would smile and ladle on another portion. This went on through to the desserts of rice puddings, baklava, kunafeh pastry, and glasses of tea. I couldn’t keep up. I had been taught that clearing one’s plate was a good thing. A polite thing to do, especially with someone else’s cooking. Children were often praised for their empty plates. “Kiss the cook!” my Dad would proclaim joyously when we’d cleared all the dishes. It meant that the food was so good, we couldn’t allow a scrap of it to remain. But here it was an impossibility, and my “No thank yous”, often expanded into paragraph-long protests, were only met with a smile….and more food.
I staggered back along the streets, ready for the next onslaught – a long buffet table spread out in the garden* with all the traditional, wonderful soul food to celebrate that first Pilgrim Thanksgiving in America, food that made this day so special. I couldn’t not eat, could I? At least here served myself. But there were so many dishes, that even taking the tiniest, squitchiest, teensiest, weensiest spoonful of each temptation created another mounded plateful.
[*Garden parties were no problem at all. In Egypt, with an average rainfall of half an inch per five years, we never worried about rain. School assemblies took place on the playground, the Head on a balcony above with sound enhancement. Moonlit picnics (oh! the desert in full moon! So gaspingly beautiful!) were planned months in advance. It did, however, rain once while I was there. Great muddy globules fell apologetically for twenty seconds, then excused themselves and left. “Now see what you’ve done!” the students had accused. Apparently it was the foreigners’ fault.]
Back to the dorm, heaving a huge bloated painful body up the three flights of stairs to our rooms, I collapsed face downward on the floor in front of my friend Carolyn, whose Egyptian experience surpassed mine by 18 months. “Stand on my back,” I urged from her feet. “It might make me feel better.”
It was only then that she gave me the clue: “Never mind our upbringing,” she said. “The way to deal with this is to leave a portion on your plate. This tells the host that you have had enough to eat.”
Simple, wasn’t it? Why didn’t I think of it myself? Youth? Naivete? Stupidity? Probably.
Herefordshire, happy with its apples, is producing them abundantly this year. Each path, each road, has small stands of boxes and bags of them, begging to be taken away and used. Here’s a recipe for long-term storage. Like peanut butter, it contains no butter. (But they taste good together.) Like other jams it can be mixed with yogurt for dessert, used in tarts, spreads, cake centres and lovely on buttered toast. Unlike other jams it can be used instead of fat in muffins, quick breads, and cakes (but cut down on the sugar). Wonderful with fruited cakes. This recipe comes from my food-stained The Fanny Farmer Cookbook (Boston School of Cooking).
Take 4 lbs of tart apples, wash, de-stem, cut them into pieces, with cores, seeds, skins and all. Put them in a heavy-bottomed pot.
Cover with 16 ozs, ½ litre ish, cider, cider vinegar OR water. Cook until soft. Put through a sieve, colander, or food mill. (Cook down to remove excess water if necessary.) Measure. For every cup of pulp, add ½ cup of sugar. I used preserving sugar, just because I had some.
To the whole mixture add, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground cloves, ½ teaspoon allspice, and the grated rind and juice of 1 lemon.
Cook covered, gently, until all sugar is dissolved. Uncover, bring up the heat and stir constantly until it is smooth and thick when spooned onto a cold plate. (During this time, I read a book holding it with one hand as I stirred with the other.) This batch took about 40 minutes of cooking time. Pour into hot sterilized jars and seal.