Tasty memoir dishes up food, family and friendship

As the daughter of a Middle Eastern father and an American mother, Diana Abu-Jaber grew up in a household with strict, traditional rules – she and her sisters were not allowed to date or indulge their romantic passions.

Instead, she said, they developed a strong love of the sensual, and the kitchen table became a cornerstone of family life.

“Food became one of those sensual pools... that led me to love the body, the forbidden... all the things that had been taboo in my childhood,” said Abu-Jaber, the featured speaker at the Feb. 13 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society.

Abu-Jaber, the author of four novels and two memoirs, came to talk about her latest work, a family history called “Life Without a Recipe,” which was published by Norton in 2016. 

The book weaves together the writer’s memories of her life’s milestones – from the adoption of her daughter to the deaths of close family members – with details about the dishes prepared for or by her at various stages of both childhood and adulthood.

Two key figures emerge in the book – her maternal grandmother, Grace, of German heritage, who plied her grandchildren with a rich assortment of cookies, cakes and other baked goods, and her father, Bud, who grew up in Jordan, and served as her family’s most prominent culinary practitioner.

The two don’t get along, wrote Abu-Jaber, but they agree on “everything. Especially the two essentials: 1. Men are terrible. 2. Save your money.”

“Also, they both want all the love. As if there is a limited supply and never enough to go around. They wrangle over the children’s souls and both set out food for us, bait inside a trap. Bud cooks – earthy, meaty dishes with lemon and oil and onion. Gram is more ruthless – she pries open those foil-lined tins, cookies covered with sugar crystals like crushed rubies, the beckoning finger of vanilla,” Abu-Jaber wrote.

While she didn’t intentionally set out to be a food writer, cooking and eating emerged as a theme in a number of her books, from the novel, “Crescent,” set in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Los Angeles, to her first memoir, “The Language of Baklava,” published in 2005, which focuses on family stories the author was told during her childhood,.

Through her writing, Abu-Jaber said, she learned a key fact about herself – “I realized (food) was kind of an obsession of mine and I didn’t know it.”

Her father’s cooking, and his willingness to share stories about his family life in Jordan, influenced the writer she became.

“Every dish he made was a story,” said Abu-Jaber. As an example, when he made stuffed grape leaves, he would point out that the leaves reminded him of a woman’s hand, which in turn brought up memories of his mother’s kitchen, where as a boy, he would hide out to avoid getting in fights with his older brothers.

“They tormented him,” she said. “Dad was always trying to stay out of trouble, so he stayed in the kitchen.”

As a novelist, she said, having to stick to the truth in writing a memoir was challenging. But ultimately, she saw that in both genres, it was critical to imbue characters with emotional depth.

“What memoirs do share with novel writing is character,” she said. “I feel that’s what saved me. That’s what made it possible to write” her latest book.

Her family, however, wasn’t thrilled with the result, she said. Her sisters have different recollections of some of the stories she relates in the book.

“Everybody has their own version. We remember stuff differently,” she said.

After the book came out, one of her cousins was so offended that she told Abu-Jaber’s aunt that the author was no longer welcome at her table.

“I said, ‘I didn’t even write about her,’” Abu-Jaber said. “My aunt said, ‘That’s why.’”

When she is not working on a book, Abu-Jaber teaches writing and literature at Portland State University. She and her family split their time between Portland, Oregon, and South Florida.

For more information on Abu-Jaber, visit www.dianaabujaber.com

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