The Abood sisters, my aunts, had talents. Helen sang like a star, Hilda cooked like magic. When their mother died, Hilda seized her tasks like a women who had finally found her mission in life. She would go into the kitchen and heal the family of its loss, and in return would find an essential aspect of her identity.
I remember a few years ago when she called everyone over for a meal, to give comfort to her brother, my Uncle Fred. He had recently learned he had cancer of the esophagus, a terrible irony for a man who loved food as he did. Aunt Hilda set her defenses against the menace of death as it hovered over the family: prayer and cooking. She began preparing the dinner three days ahead, making the laban and pickling the lift, Lebanese pink turnips. The shocking pink lift, achieved by a red beet slipped into the jar, calls to mind sugar flowers on a birthday cake, pink bubble gum, or some other unnatural sweet. But these crunchy pickles are strong and piquant beneath their sweet-seeming technicolor, certainly a surprise to an unsuspecting eater. Lift is like the Lebanese themselves, typically well-dressed in unabashed style, and underneath: Strength. Edge. And always, piquant humor.
Aunt Hilda’s menu that night included so many dishes that they couldn’t all fit on the table and sideboard. She rolled one hundred grape leaves cooked with lemon and butter over pork neck bones, roasted two chickens and made four cups of rice for hushwi, sautéed two pounds of ground beef for housee, kneaded four and a half pounds of specially ground beef for kibbee nayeh and sanee. There were bowls of romaine with lemon and oil, laban with mint and cucumbers, thickened labne with olive oil, mashed potatoes, green beans with caramelized onion and toasted almonds, relishes of olives, radishes, peppers.
The table was set with Aunt Hilda’s good white and gold wedding china. Her house was spotless, her furniture elegant, everything from carpet to couches in white. When people arrived, they came in through the garage door, whose vantage point allowed Aunt Hilda to greet and farewell everyone with love as only she could–and from the moment they stepped out of their cars in her driveway. “You’re so delicious,” she greeted me, “I could eat you without salt.” Each one of us thought we were her favorite. The men walked through the kitchen and made a little plate of grape leaves to take into the family room for an appetizer, where they turned on the football game. Aunt Hilda took them glasses of ice water. Whenever anyone arrives at the house of an Abood, they are offered, or just handed, a glass of ice water.
When we did eat, it happened quickly: Aunt Hilda said a generous blessing, what a gift it was for her to have us at her house, and we remembered the faithful departed, may they rest in peace. Uncle Fred ate small portions of chicken and grape leaves, his stomach being tender, and as he ate I saw him stroking Hilda’s arm next to him. Uncle Dick piled his plate high; his hunger to satisfy his appetite was second only to his hunger to demonstrate his appreciation for his sister’s food. He reached for a radish as he ate—radishes Aunt Hilda had sent me on a special trip to the store to buy that afternoon. Dick likes those, she said, so we must have them on the table. We both saw him take a radish and eat it, and when I looked at her she smiled and winked back to say, “Good thing we got the radishes!”
Most people were nearly finished before Aunt Hilda landed in her chair and the food was passed to her. She looked around to see who had eaten what, and asked each one to eat whatever was missing from their plate or to take more of whatever had been finished on the plate already. When I declined the mashed potatoes, she tsked her tongue and said she knew they weren’t hot enough, that nothing was hot enough because she’d cooked it all too early. How could I have forgotten the cardinal rule of eating with Aunt Hilda? Always take some of everything, whether you want it or not. The men headed back to the family room, saying, “Hilda, you’ve done it again.” She denied the compliments radiantly, savoring the response to her herculean effort.
Then the dance of the leftovers began: Hilda begged each of us to take kibbee and grape leaves and hushwi. There was refusal; she reminded us she is alone and can’t possibly eat it, it didn’t taste good to her, and she doesn’t want to eat it again anyway. My mother reminded her that the cook never thinks the food she’s been staring at for three days is as good as the guests who come to it fresh. I broke the cycle by saying I’d like to take some of her spicy lift, which was excellent, famously so. Her pleasure was evident as she launched into a litany of all of the people she knows who feel the same about her lift, and “they rave about it!” When Aunt Pat and Uncle Fred walked out intentionally without leftovers, Aunt Hilda sent me running out to their car with a bundle of grape leaf rolls. “I don’t care if he can’t eat them,” she said. “He loves them, and I just want him to have them.”
Lebanese Pickled Turnips, or Lift
These are simple refrigerator pickles that gain zest, character and crunch over time. Aunt Hilda loved hers spicy with plenty of garlic. Select turnips that are heavy and hard, the smaller the better. Lift should last a month or so refrigerated. The pickles are delicious on their own or alongside a sandwich, a hummus or babaganouj plate with bread—or served with olives and cocktails.
1 pound white turnips, tipped, tailed, peeled
¼ pound fresh beets, peeled
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 small banana or Mexican hot pepper (optional), pierced several times with a knife
¾ cup distilled white vinegar
¾ cup cold water
4 teaspoons salt
Cut turnips and beets into wedges or ½” thick slices. Pack tightly in a quart jar with the garlic cloves and hot pepper. Mix the vinegar and water; add salt and stir until dissolved. Pour over the turnips and beets. Cover with the lid and refrigerate for three days. Stir, rotating the vegetables in the jar, and don’t hold back from tasting. Refrigerate for three more days, then enjoy.
Find a PDF of this recipe here.