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 – XXII. My Years at 12A Rue Khantaret Ghamra – Food (7 of 18)

Masters at work

The generations that succeeded my mother held their own in the kitchen. I am referring to my brother, his wife, and his children; my wife, my children, and myself. I should also add that today’s men, in many instances, are as well versed in the culinary arts as are the women. That wasn’t the case for my dad and uncles. In my home mom was the cook.

That said, as I was growing up, I was fed by masters, not mere cooks. Their food had an extra dimension that cannot easily be put into words. What I can do, however, is to introduce you to these virtuosos. The list below goes by age, not by competence. I would be hard pressed to determine who was the best. They were all masters in their craft.

Nonna Bida

My maternal grandmother was never registered at birth. Her date of birth (including the year) is unknown. Only when she left Egypt to go to Israel was an “official” birth certificate issued. An approximate calculation based on the year of birth of my paternal grandfather, and the average age difference as between a man and a woman at the time of marriage (6 years), put her year of birth at 1890.

Sadly, my nonna never went to school. Indeed, many parents never bothered to educate even their male children. Do not conclude, however, that children, in those days, were idle. Far from that.

Zahra (Bida’s mom) had 5 children, 4 girls and 1 boy; and Bida was the youngest. She was named Victoria (I assume since she was born during the reign of Queen Victoria) but nicknamed Bida. And Bida she remained to the end of her life.

As early as was humanly possible (probably around the age of 6), my nonna was expected to pull her own weight. The amount of work required to cater to the needs of 7 people in the 19th century is beyond the comprehension of our modern minds. Thus even though she never saw the inside of a classroom (except for a short spell in an Italian school), in relative terms, she toiled just as hard as any 21st century kid.

To put the matter into its proper context, let me go back in time.

Back then, the food was cooked on coal. Fancy equipment such as a primus, or an icebox did not exist. Having a family of 7 take their bath for Sabbath was a major enterprise. Washing the laundry was a team effort requiring all hands on board. There were neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. I could tell you so much more based on my grandmother’s stories, but I do have to stop somewhere.

Another important point that Bida reiterated again and again was the fact that she grew up in a loving and kind environment. Zahra was a gentle mother; her dad (I do not remember his first name, but his family name was Chochan) was both greatly loved and respected by his children.

I may seem to have strayed from the subject matter, but this introduction was necessary to take you back to a time when little Victoria was being groomed to one day run her own household. A complex undertaking as I am sure you have by now concluded.

Patiently, and with kindness, little Bida was mentored by her mom and older sisters. She may, for instance, watch them cook a large chicken. She will observe the process from cleaning to the end products; and there is more than one. The chicken has yielded a chicken and potato dish; part of it was ground to make chicken croquettes; and in the end, a golden chicken soup was prepared, the kind that cure all ailments!

There will come a time when she will have to practice. And that may entail: cleaning the entrails of the chicken; washing it; salting it (to drain all blood as per Jewish religious requirements); cutting it; boiling, frying, or grinding as required; peeling and adding the potatoes; and adding the necessary spices and herbs. Of course, chicken is not cooked alone, there are side dishes; but let’s ignore that so that we don’t complicate little Victoria’s life.

If you have a picture in your mind of adults scribbling on a pad the ingredients and methodology needed to cook that long-suffering chicken, you’re far, far, off the mark. Nobody in this kitchen knew how to read and write! Bida will have to consign everything to her memory.

Cooking is only the first course offered in this university; there are many more and they are all compulsory!

Keeping a clean house; arranging the bath ritual; leading a team through the intricacies of washing the laundry; dealing with the servants; tackling social graces such as receiving and pleasing both short and long term guests, and being a good neighbor; shopping for food and other household items; learning the art of haggling (fixed prices were a rarity in those days); clothing your family, and that will entail, mending, designing, cutting, and sewing the needed clothing, or calling upon a seamstress to do that for you. And there is more, so much more, for each of the above functions had many subfunctions. If I could remember most of what my grandmother told me, I could write a separate booklet on that!

(I didn’t mention parenting because you can only learn it on the job. Nevertheless, the example imparted by her parents, no doubt, guided Bida in her role as a mother).

The most important lesson Zahra will pass on to her daughter is how to establish, develop, and maintain a harmonious marriage. If Zahra was still alive today, and if she was teaching a university course on the subject, most divorce lawyers would have to switch to another area of law!

I took you down that long and winding road to make an important point. What my grandmother learned, and how she was taught, cannot be duplicated today. Nor do we need to do so, for many of those skills are no longer needed. The one skill that remained relevant was her cooking, and the aptitude to pass on her knowledge to her daughters. Her cooking ability is part of her persona, it was ground into her. But why am I saying that?

Think of little Victoria at 6, then at 8, and 10, and so on. Her brain is plastic and can easily make important connections. And, it is mostly devoted to the household arts, especially cooking. Thus, by the time she is an adult, she can elevate her cooking to an art form. And she can pass on – and indeed did – her mastery of cooking to her daughters.

Nonna Bida married at 17. By then she knew everything that’s expected from her, save one. Of course, over the years, she added to her knowledge to become the beloved grandmother my cousins, brother, and myself knew so well.

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