First, a confession: I avoid reading books about war and geopolitical strife. I get upset enough by newspaper-sized dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan and now Libya. So even though this probably marks me as embarrassingly unserious, I haven’t read much of the past decade’s important, book-length reportage out of war zones.
Yet it’s been a long time since I have enjoyed any nonfiction as much as I did Annia Ciezadlo’s Day of Honey . The book is about war, undeniably: Her memoir begins in New York City on Sept. 13, 2001, and follows her to post-invasion Baghdad, where her husband Mohamad was reporting for Newsday and she worked as a freelance journalist. It then moves to Mohamad’s native Beirut, where the couple lived and worked during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. But the book manages to make war take a backseat to food. Ciezadlo, who grew up in the Midwest, is a culinary swashbuckler, tasting and cooking as many new dishes as she can. Her husband-who moved to the U.S. without his parents during the Lebanese civil war- has a list of dislikes so long that dinner hosts must call ahead to see what they can possibly serve him; at times, it’s a point of contention in the marriage, and squabbles about food stand in for larger arguments between the two. But it was, in fact, a shared childhood love of stuffed grape leaves that first made the couple realize they might be falling in love.
Ciazdlo’s determination to know intimately the cuisine of wherever she’s staying lends the book both its organization and richness: She takes the reader along with her to the souqs of Lebanon, where she buys fresh fennel and green garlic that she totes back to the small hotel where she’s making do with a couple of stovetop burners. She conjures the silken, bloody taste of the kibbeh nayeh from the drunken night she first explored the cosmopolitan offerings of Beirut. She describes the show-must-go-on instinct of a chef at a Baghdad restaurant who, in an especially dark moment when Iraq was experiencing the Abu Ghraib court-martials and the first Marines in Fallujah, prepares a triumphant cream sauce chicken roulade. She bonds with her prickly and ailing mother-in-law, Umm Hassane, by asking the older woman to teach her how to cook the dishes Mohamad loves, like batata wa bayd, a potato, onion, and egg scramble.
Ciezadlo is a splendid narrator, warm and funny and more interested in others than in herself: Despite the dangerous situations she found at nearly every turn during those years, she lingers on her own fears and neuroses only very occasionally. I can’t wait to see if she’s as accomplished a recipe-writer; the book includes instructions for many of the dishes she mentions in her story. I’ll spend part of my weekend trying a couple and perhaps serving them to friends, even as, no doubt, the newspaper will bring more worrisome news from the Mideast. Cooking and eating are everyday comforts, and with any luck, a source of fellowship; Day of Honey was a beautiful reminder that this doesn’t change even in the midst of war.