Equal Partners
by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners

By Roland Ezri

"Women are the backbone of all societies. They do a substantial part of the work, and play a major role in raising the future generation yet they are largely powerless. The decisions that count are made by men and foisted upon women."

Writings by Roland Ezri

The Second Exodus – Egypt – XXI. My Years at 12A Rue Khantaret Ghamra – Food (6 of 18)

The tools of the trade

Today’s kitchen includes an electric or gas range, a refrigerator, and a microwave oven. My mother had none of these modern gadgets. And yet, as you’ve been informed, we didn’t go hungry. So what were her tools?

Let’s start with the primus. Nowhere could I find a description of the primus, therefore, I will do my best to describe it to you. It had a yellow brass tank that was filled with kerosene; to the tank was attached a tube and a head, and a support over the head to put your pot on; you opened a valve, struck a match, and the kerosene fumes lit a fire around the head; there was also a piston that was pushed in and out to inject air and increase the strength of the flame; if you wanted to lower the flame, you partially closed the valve; finally, when you were finished cooking, you turned the valve off. An easier way to visualize the primus, is to think of a trail stove that you take when you go camping.

Cooking over the primus was tricky; but it was still a big technical improvement over cooking with charcoal. Nonna Helene had in her kitchen a big counter, and under it was an arch with an area that in the old days was filled with charcoal; you lit the charcoal, and when the counter was hot, you cooked your food, boiled water, made coffee or tea, and so on. By the time I was born, my grandmother no longer cooked over charcoal. She used “modern” implements such as the primus and the fatayel.

The fatayel (I don’t know the English name or even if there is one) was a large ceramic tank that was filled with kerosene; on the tank was placed a cover with three wide wicks that dipped in the kerosene; when you struck a match, the wicks caught fire; a lever connected to each wick allowed you to adjust the flame; of course, you had the option to light one or two wicks, not necessarily all three. The fatayel was used for slow cooking, or reheating food. Each family had at least two or more primuses and fatayels.

Such advances were made possible thanks to the refining of petroleum and the production of kerosene. But the time would come when Flora benefited from more advanced cooking technology.

My father imported from Europe something called a presto. Prestos still exist today. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, a description follows. A presto is a large pot with a springy cover; you press on the top to open it, you then add the food, the spices, and the water; when you press again the spring will seal it hermetically; a valve on top allowed the steam to escape. The food took much less time to cook, and the meat was more tender. My mom was elated with her presto. But better things were on the way.

A company called (as far as I remember) Butagas sold two burners connected to a propane tank. A reserve tank was also provided. When a tank emptied, the burners were connected to the reserve tank, and a new one ordered. I can still hear my mother’s praise over this life-changing advance. It was a big help, but she still needed her primuses and fatayels.

You remember what I said over having to send baked goods to our friendly baker? Well, here too, there was an advance of sort.

One year, when we went to Alexandria, aunt Linda invited my mother to the kitchen to see her new oven. It was a big steel monster, with shelves in the middle to place your trays on. You would have looked in vain for an electric or gas connection, there were none! What you had instead were two big holes at the bottom which allowed you to place two primuses there. Voila! You had an oven; you no longer needed the baker!

All this talk of old and new methods of cooking leaves one question begging, how did we preserve the food?

By then, refrigerators had already been invented. However, they were still very expensive. Even more financially taxing, was the fact that they consumed a lot of electricity, and electricity was prohibitively expensive in those days.

Therefore, yes, we relied on the icebox. Everyday, when the iceman rang his bell, the maid rushed out with a special pincer, and purchased a large block of ice. And every hour, a big drawer at the bottom of the icebox had to be emptied of its water (the melting ice). The icebox was placed in the bathroom so that we could easily empty the drawer in the drain.

In 1952, we purchased our first refrigerator. We had finally entered the 20th century.

The last item worth reporting in this section is the ola (plural: olal) or gargoulette in French; I don’t know the English name, but no matter, I will describe it next.

An ola is made out of clay; it is round at the bottom and tapered on top. It came in all sizes, some were really big, at the opposite end were small children olal. They were filled with water, and placed on a tray by the window; the clay would “sweat” and the evaporation cooled the ola and the water inside. Since we had no refrigerator, and little room in the icebox to place a jug of water, the water from the ola, in summer, was the next best thing. At least that was the idea behind it.

The principle of physics just mentioned (evaporation causes cooling) didn’t really work in the case of the ola. The water from the ola, as far as I was concerned, was slightly cooler than the tap water. Many people disagreed with me and found the water “fresher.”

As soon as it got hot (often as early as March) we purchased our olal. The ones from the previous year were discarded; you couldn’t use them two years in a row. We bought quite a few, at least 4 medium-sized olal, 1 child-size ola for me, and 1 baby-size ola for Robert.

Humans are the same regardless of time and place. The problem you have getting your family members filling the water pitchers in the fridge, we had it with our olal! There were times when we went to drink, and there wasn’t a drop of water in any of the olal! There was also another problem.

Robert at 4 was cute as a button. My mother bought him a baby ola, and he liked it to the point that he wanted to take it to bed with him! Family members and neighbors loved to see him pour water from his tiny ola. But, I played the role of the spoiler. I teased him mercilessly. “You have a baby ola because you’re a baby!” “There is hardly any water in your ola!” And on it went. By 6, he graduated to a child ola. And peace was restored, at least in the olal department.

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