I’m still not sure whether my childhood friends liked me or my mother’s rice best. We’d be sitting on the floor after school playing Parcheesi, Clue or Risk when the aroma genie would waft a beckoning curl from the kitchen to our noses. “What is that smell?” my friends would ask, eyes a bit wild, drool glistening. “Do you think your mom will let me stay to dinner?” If they were lucky, and if it was Friday, it would be chicken and rice. Divine, gold-burnished, crisp and lemony roast chicken. Infant peas bathed in butter. A bowl of cool yogurt with cucumbers, garlic and mint. Peppery watercress and velvety Boston swathed in lemon and olive oil. My friends were astonished that salad could be served dressed, without a passed bowl of orange stuff I argued was not French. And then there was the rice. Just a starch on most tables, my mother’s Egyptian rice held pride of place on ours. It was a celestial cake of golden crispness, a gilded sarcophagus of crunch that concealed, within its toothsome shell, perfectly separated, glistening white grains longing to become the divan upon which all else would rest.
Although rice feeds two thirds of Earth’s people, none of my school friends in Manhattan in the 50s and 60s made the inclusionary cut. My privileged chums were overwhelmingly the children of old New York families, kids with museums their grandfathers grew up in, eponymous Manhattan streets and neighborhoods, and DNA dirtying the Declaration of Independence. Dinner with my WASP friends was overcooked brown meat with limp vegetables, gluey potatoes and sliced white bread on the side, all washed down with lashings of full-fat milk. Sometimes there was chicken a la king or Welsh rabbit, but it all tasted the same: overcooked, under-seasoned and thickened with too much flour. This prison fare was invariably served in dark, cavernous and un-renovated pre-war kitchens, where children ate with the housekeeper or nanny, who was frequently named Bridie. My mother was aghast. Milk? Milk was only for infants and coffee or tea. Bread, and not even real bread, but white and sliced? And although my parents rarely ate with us, we always used the dining room, because that was where you practiced your table manners.
I had a vicious French governess, Micheline, a fabulous cook from Normandy, who my mother kept on despite her torture of me because of her abilities with tarte Tatin, crème renversée, and petites pommes de terre carrées -spectacular little potato cubes fried not once but twice- that she served with leg of lamb studded with garlic and rosemary, swaddled in a blanket of Dijon, and roasted quickly at high heat. My mother made the rice, because Micheline considered it too foreign and wouldn’t, simply repeating, “Non, madame, je ne pense pas,” like a Gallic Bartleby when asked to cook it. Cowed by the Frenchwoman, my mother allowed her to feed me all the things thought to make children grow strong in the 19th century: brains, liver, fish and daily spoonfuls of cod liver oil. Once, I gagged on some liver tissue I’d prefer not to contemplate too closely even now, and excusing myself politely, went to the bathroom and spat it in the toilet. Micheline fished it out and made me re-eat it. Waste not, want not. “You must try to understand her,” my mother said. “The war was particularly harsh in her part of France.”
There were a number of known Jews at the Episcopal girl’s school I attended, but not nearly as many as came out later. These girls had fathers who were ambassadors, owned vast West Side department stores, had aunts who built oddly-shaped museums to house their modern art collections, and grandparents who endowed galleries at the Met to store the family’s old furniture. The Jewish kids knew what rice was, because they were always eating at Chinese restaurants, which was a really special thing back in the unimaginable days before take-out, computers, and the web. My friend Jane’s father was a Federal judge, and they lived in a modern building across East End from Gracie Mansion with a Chinese restaurant on the ground floor. We were always thrown together on High Holy Days, when our parents reconnected with their roots, and our Episcopal school was not closed for the holiday. On Yom Kippur we were sent to the Chinese restaurant to break the fast at lunch with Moo Goo Gai Pan and Shrimp Chow Mein. The rice was awful, completely inedible, and I don’t even know what I’m doing mentioning the glutinous Chinese stuff and my mother’s Egyptian paragon in the same sentence.
The perfume of rice is the fragrance of memory. Childhood summers revolved around watching my grandmother produce a vast selection of wondrous and complex Middle Eastern foods. I pestered the aunts who kept the stories. Had we been in Egypt since Moses?, I asked. No, we arrived with WW I, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, from Damascus, the oldest continually occupied city on Earth. As far as anyone knew, we had always lived in the Levant, had never moved to Spain or been thrown out in the Inquisition. “We do not speak Ladino,” my grandmother said, “we cook the cuisine of the Ottoman courts.” I eventually traced my family through the food that we ate, Claudia Roden my guide and constant companion. She helped me identify locales that had faded from memory with the deaths of the women I cooked with. Everyone in the Middle East eats the same things, it is only the fats used and seasonings that vary. There are dozens of regional recipes just for the preparation of white rice.
My father, a commodity trader, was known as the Grand Master of Rice. He was born in Damascus in 1910 at the tail end of the Ottoman Empire in our family home, Beit Stambouli, a palace which still stands in this Unesco World Heritage site, and is now being converted to a luxury hotel. My father’s family had a rice mill in Aleppo by the middle of the 18th century. My mother’s were tax collectors for the Ottoman sultans starting earlier than that. But these distinctions are slight, since my parents were first cousins.
When we left Egypt in 1953, stateless political refugees, we had to get on a ship pretending we were just going on vacation to Lebanon. My young mother had to leave everything behind and took only her jewelry --given to me to hold, hidden at the bottom of a bag of chocolates-- and the family’s best rice cooking pot. This pot would ensure that no matter how far we strayed from where we came, that home would always be with us. I have it still, the wooden handle grip burned from a long ago accident, the metal scarred and pitted after, what, sixty or seventy years? It has been decommissioned and replaced for use with a heavy metal pot with a nonstick lining that enables perfect crust every time.
When my daughter, who graduated from Barnard in 2010, was little and brought her friends home for play dates and sleep overs, she always asked for rice for dinner. Over time, Julia became the most adept rice cooker in the family, always achieving firm, separate grains and the startling contrasting crunch. The sinuous aroma of Thai jasmine rice, the best in the world, filled the lobby outside our apartment whenever she cooked, which was just about every day.
Julia moved to California after graduation, so far from Egypt and New York, and I miss her terribly. For a long time, I made no rice at all, the twenty pound sack of Thai jasmine sat in the kitchen unopened, mourning. Recently, I found a perfect rice cooking pot and instantly knew it was for Julia: one quart, very heavy, with a close fitting glass lid, and a serious non-stick lining. Its solidity and comforting heft combined with its tight top signaled that it would make perfect rice for a good long time. I sent it to Julia, who uses it to cook the 10 kilo bag of Thai rice I send her from Amazon every three months.