Is it just me, or does New Year’s Day seem like a couple of months ago? I have officially hit my pandemic, political, and personal emotional limit.
And then, almost like magic, I come across an old paper that I wrote in college at UNC Chapel Hill. For a couple of minutes, I totally forget about the current state of our lives. I just zone out and enjoy the story. With tears in my eyes, a feeling of relief to be thinking about anything besides current events washes over me.
The paper was the required final in my sophomore Folklore class. We had to write about a family tradition involving food or landscape. Of course, I chose food. And here I am, 13 years later. What was once a written assignment for school, now serves as short escape.
So, I share this story with you. Maybe you too need a couple of minutes to relax and read a story about a Lebanese family and one of our most cherished dishes.
The Hundred Year Old Starter
As a little girl, brown bands flying, I’d run through my grandmother’s house, down the long hall, and into her warm kitchen. It was common to find the hump of an orange blanket neatly placed on Sitti’s washing machine just inside the kitchen door. At a young age, I knew that the orange blanket simply meant a Lebanese meal was coming — kibbi and koosa with laban, tabbuli with fresh tomatoes, rolled cabbage, hummus, and pita bread.
Years later, I realized that the real connection between the orange blanket and Sitti’s feast was laban, a dish passed down in Lebanese families dating back to the Bible. According to The Art of Syrian Cookery, by Helen Corey, the Promised Land, as referred to in the Bible, “flowed, not with milk and honey as in the English translation, but with laban and honey.” In my little world, I didn’t know the orange blanket was merely part of the process. I often recited to my childhood friends, “the white stuff, laban, it’s like yogurt,” when they’d come over for Sunday night dinners with my family. In recent years, I have learned about the two day process, the essential ingredient, “rawbi,” (also known as the “starter”), and the impact of Sitti’s famous dish.
Laban’s creamy, tart, yogurt texture is a taste that some have to acquire. My family most often eats it with the meat dish, kibbi, and the squash dish, koosa. We also eat it in the morning on toasted pita bread or with fruit. I remember as a young teenager I started eating laban with kibbi, and my dad would call me a “good little Lebanese girl.” My brother, on the other hand, thirty-five-years-old, still chooses not to eat laban. But I have friends who have spent the night and asked in high hopes, “are we having the white stuff with pita bread for breakfast?”
Sitti passed away in August 2005, but her legacy goes on with her sons and daughters-in-law. In his eulogy at her funeral, my Uncle Steve explained to hundreds how to make laban. He wanted them to understand simply the process, but understand deeply the significance of the traditions in our family, since the first Lebanese immigrants came to Eastern North Carolina. He described laban to be “much like yogurt and similarly made.” You heat milk until it’s almost boiling, he explained. Then let it cool just to the right temperature and add the rawbi which starts the thickening process.
Rawbi, the starter, is laban which is saved from a previous time making it — without the starter, laban is impossible. Uncle Steve gave me goosebumps that day when he said, “there is, in her refrigerator right now, a bowl of laban that is the latest in an unbroken line dating back 100 years or more to the time when Lebanese women first came to Goldsboro.”
Stephens and Sims in Living Folklore state, “repetition is important in establishing continuity, since a group repeats something because it matters to the group; if it isn’t meaningful, it won’t be repeated, and if it isn’t repeated, it won’t become a tradition.” Laban exemplifies one of my family’s main traditions, especially because of the urgency to carry on the rawbi from week to week, and generation to generation.
Uncle Steve also said about his mother, “I think sometimes that she performed magic in her kitchen.” He explained how the milk has to be a certain temperature before adding the rawbi and told the story of Sitti’s magic touch. When Sitti made laban, she stuck her little finger in the milk to determine whether or not it was too hot to add the rawbi. Uncle Steve’s brother, Neil, was the one who discovered the magic temperature — 115 degrees — by using a thermometer.
When Sitti became too sick to cook, Uncle Steve began to make the laban. He didn’t know the magic number, but he was doing a little investigating of his own in the kitchen with a thermometer. One time he brought the milk into the den for her to test at 118 degrees, and she said “too hot.” Another time he brought it in at 115.5 degrees. She made a face and said, “well, wait a couple of minutes.” No one understood how she could be so precise.
The Christmas before Sitti passed away, my Uncle Neil presented a cookbook named Sitti’s Secret to each of her four sons and their spouses and her eight grandchildren. Uncle Neil, who lived with Sitti at the time, had followed her around for months, observing exactly what his mother did, noting every ingredient, and translating every pinch of this, every dash of that, to defined quantities. Thanks to the cookbook, my family has responded enthusiastically to carrying on these Lebanese traditions.
Stephens and Sims use the term “tradition bearer” to explain one who takes the role of carrying on a tradition. Currently, three family members carry that role — Uncle Steve, Uncle Neil, and Aunt Lynda who is Uncle Dicky’s wife. My dad, the oldest of the four boys, has found a new way to make laban. Instead of using rawbi and the two day process, he buys a more concentrated laban in a container, adds milk, olive oil, and salt. This adaptation is really closer to “labanee” which is compared to a soft cheese. Dad would never admit the truth to his mother, but he likes his laban just as much, if not more than traditional laban.
Over the years, the process of making laban has been adapted, but much has stayed the same. Uncle Steve, Uncle Neil, and Aunt Lynda agree that the most significant change in the process is the thermometer. Without Sitti, the thermometer is crucial to finding the perfect temperature of the milk. As for the ingredients, they go unchanged. Even Uncle Neil uses the same blanket and towels Sitt used when making the laban.
At our last Thanksgiving feast, Uncle Neil joked, “after I take out my rawbi, Steve’s rawbi, and Lynda’s rawbi, and I eat some myself, it’s time to make it again. But it seems like Mama could always feed the masses.” Sitti’s niece, Marie Louise, compared Sitti’s laban to the loaves and the fishes. She said, “Sitti could always feed everybody. We would be over visiting, and she’d invite us to stay for dinner. She could always pull a feast out.” This is because cooking and feeding her family was a central part of my grandmother’s life.
The urgency of making laban every two or three weeks so that the rawbi didn’t go bad was never an issue for Sitti. She made the laban and the kibbi and the koosa out of love for her family. She expected us to come over, to stay a couple of extra hours, and sit around the kitchen table to talk and laugh and tell stories. In the introduction to Uncle Neil’s cookbook, he explains how he bought fifty-year-old cooking ware on eBay in hopes of finding Sitti’s secret to her recipes. But what we discovered in the end was that “the secret to Sitti’s wonderful meals is not held in any pot or pan. The secret is in the heart.”
I used to come down for breakfast, and there would be a bowl of laban and fruit. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t consciously think about its history. Stephen S. Birdsall speaks of taking our heritage for granted, “meaning is usually taken for granted as people navigate within the familiar lived-in world of their everyday experiences. In other words, we are just too busy living to notice the context of our lives.” As I grow older, I become more aware of the strong heritage my family continues with the Lebanese food.
For this generation, cooking Lebanese food is fun and everyone believes we should keep doing it. But they also agree that it is harder. Steve from Washington, D.C., Lynda from Chapel Hill, NC, and Neil from Goldsboro, NC, are in the process of making a schedule so that one of them makes laban every few weeks for several months and then they rotate. My dad enjoys making certain dishes from the cookbook. Everything else he buys from Neomonde, the Lebanese deli in Raleigh. I have come a long way from running down Sitti’s hall and marveling at the bright orange blanket. My cookbook sits on the bookshelf in my dorm room. Next year, when I have my own house, my own kitchen, I too will begin to discover Sitti’s secret.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed. I linked the dropbox version of the cookbook above and will link it again here.
To this day, I find such joy and peace cooking Sitti’s recipes. My dad still serves his version of laban with fruit and toasted pita to his walking group friends every morning on our back deck. It takes our entire family to pull off a holiday Lebanese meal that Sitti could have made single handedly. Thanks to tradition and the beloved cookbook, Lebanese food continues to bring my family and our friends together. I’m so grateful.
All my best to you, from my family to yours. May you be well.