The year was 1989, and I was a junior in college. My school offered all kinds of study abroad programs, including one for the summer. First my roommate Betsy said she was going. Then Julie. Then Kari. I wanted to go, I really did.

So I asked my parents. Suffice it to say that my father was never into the study abroad plan for any of his five children. Whenever we thought about it out loud, he’d say: don’t be exotic. Put your head down and study, study, study. He’d say, have a good time, not a helluva good time.

I was banking on a firm, incredulous “no” from both of my parents to such an extent that I had already told my friends I was sure I couldn’t go. When my parents said yes, ok, you can go, I just about fell over. I was excited, I suppose, but more than that, I was…afraid. Now I have to go, I realized. This wasn’t too long after the plane went down over Lockerbie, mind you.

In the two weeks between the end of the school year and the start of the trip, my mother helped me plan and pack. We put the luggage and everything I’d be taking on the bed in my brother’s empty room. She told me to be smart about my wardrobe (keep it simple, but dress nicely), not to worry about blowing my hair dry so I could focus on other things (would you just let it stay curly for a change?), and, perhaps most importantly: take travel snacks. She slid into my bag handfuls of granola bars and a jar of crunchy peanut butter.

When we arrived in Ireland for the first leg of the trip, after a long flight and now with 90 undergrads awaiting a bus in an airport parking lot, I was exhausted. And hungry. I remembered the granola bars, and opened my big suitcase right there on the blacktop in the hot sun. Thank you Mama!

This week I’m planning a whole lot more than travel snacks for a trip that wasn’t for my parents to approve of, but for me to give the go-ahead to myself. I’ve been pining for a visit to Lebanon for pretty much my entire conscious life, and probably even from the womb. The family has planned a few different trips there, only to be thwarted by things like war with a baby in tow, or my father’s reticence.

I was going to go just before heading to San Francisco for culinary school, but time and cash ran tight with leaving my job of 14 years. I thought I’d go last spring, after culinary school, but the overthrow in Egypt and general unrest in that part of the world kept me back (plus Lebanese relatives telling me directly: don’t go now). My friends have heard me talk about going to Lebanon so much that they probably have wanted to shove me off to Fantasy Island to get it out of my system.

I want to go to Lebanon, I really do. I’ve said no to myself so many times that I was banking on my own firm, incredulous “no” when my sister told me she’d be in London for a couple of weeks on business and we could meet in Beirut after that.

But then I heard myself saying ok Maureen, you can go, and I almost fell over. Am I afraid? Not too much. I’ve done my fair share of overseas travel since that first trip abroad. Besides, when we leave tomorrow I’ll have Mama right there with me. And this time I’m packing the granola bars, homemade, for her.

We won’t be cooking in the kitchen on Main Street next week, but I’ll be sure to send you a postcard or two…

Homemade Granola Bars
This recipe is adapted from Ina Garten’s rather famous granola bars. The ingredients are remarkably flexible. In other words: have it your way! Ramp up the healthy quotient by using agave rather than honey and brown sugar. Replace toasted wheat germ (it comes already toasted) with flaxseed (but best not to leave one or the other out; it’s an important binding element). Use canola oil rather than butter, or any dried fruit and nut combo you like. If coconut isn’t your thing, just add more oats instead. The number of bars from this depends on how they’re cut; I made 15 rectangular bars.

2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup shredded coconut, loosely packed
½ cup toasted wheat germ
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup honey
¼ cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup chopped pitted dates
½ cup chopped dried apricots
½ cup dried cherries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom of a 9x13x2-inch baking pan. Line the pan with parchment, making a parchment ‘sling’—leaving an inch or two of parchment overhang on the two longer sides of the pan. This will allow for easy removal of the granola bars after they’re baked by pulling the parchment and granola out of the pan together.

Toss the oatmeal, almonds, and coconut together on a sheet pan and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl. Stir in the wheat germ.

Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees F.

Place the butter, honey, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook and stir for a minute, then pour over the toasted oatmeal mixture. Be sure to do this when the butter mixture and the oat mixture are both warm, for better binding. Add the dates, apricots, and cranberries and stir well.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Wet the palms of your hands and press, press, press the mixture evenly into the pan. Wet your hands again as they become sticky. Be sure to press with all of your force so that the bars become compact and will hold together.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown. Cool for at least 2 to 3 hours before removing the sling from the pan and cutting into squares. Pack individually wrapped in parchment, plastic wrap, or waxed paper to take on the run, or on a trip.

Find a PDF of this recipe here.

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