When I listen to the news these days and hear reports of rockets from Lebanon bombarding Israel, I worry for my Israeli cousins and friends but my heart also aches for the Lebanese people. My first association with Lebanon was Kahlil Gibran and his treasured book of wisdom “the Prophet.”(“Your children are not your children, they are life’s longing for itself…”) My best friend from India named her first daughter Kahlila after him. Her second daughter was named Yael. She confided in me that she didn’t dare tell her parents that it was an Israeli name so she told them it was an Arabic name. When my liberal-minded Indian friend had her hair done in an Afro and discovered that New York taxi cabs wouldn’t stop for her, horrified, she lost no time in retreating to hair straightened back to its original Caucasian texture.
Ironically, I am also reminded of an old Russian friend of my mother’s who told her father when introducing him to an East Indian man with dark skin she was dating that he didn’t speak English because he was an orthodox Israeli Jew.
So sad and so scary are the prejudices that infect our beautiful world. But getting back to Lebanon and my second association is the love affair I had when I was a young woman with a man I called “The Fifth Cellist.” It was love at first sight when I saw him in the “orchestra pit” in the fifth chair of the cello section. I had a vision of him playing the cello in Boston, in a wood-paneled library, with a ray of a late afternoon winter sun illuminating his dark golden curls. Not being able to stop myself, but heart pounding with daring, with great assumed authority I asked the chorus master to put a note on the fifth cello stand during intermission. He obliged without questioning. On the fifth cellist’s return from intermission, I watched as he saw the note, as his surprised and intrigued eyes searched the audience like beacons, and in sheer terror I instantly dropped mine. All I had dared put into the note was my phone number. (He later told me that had it been a business card of any sort he would not have responded.) That night, studying the huge Janssen book of art history, I fell asleep until midnight when the phone rang and I heard the amazing words “This is the Fifth Cellist.”
We met the following week and it was magic for both of us. I learned that he was in the middle of a relationship with another woman but couldn’t resist satisfying his curiosity as to who would write such a note. I also learned that he was indeed from Boston. That he was half Lebanese and that his father and Kahlil Gibran were best friends. And eventually, months down the road, when we talked about the possibilities of a permanent relationship, and I speculated about how my Jewish relatives would react to my marrying an Arab, Richard told me how gentle and peace-loving the Lebanese were. The image he painted was of his uncles preferring to lie under an olive tree to any other activity—so different from what I as an American was led to imagine. I’m sure I would have married my fifth cellist but he could not/would not leave the relationship to which he felt committed...until some years later when I discovered from a baking student of mine who coincidentally turned out to be the best friend of “the other woman” that she was the one to run off with the husband of their best friend!
Here’s the story I finally wrote 16 years ago for my column in the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, in which I nestled in the romance and the recipe that, along with my lasting love of Lebanon, was my souvenir of those magical moments in time.
Romantic Dinners Cooked by Men
Colleagues concur: one of the few problems with being a food professional is people’s reluctance to cook for us. As my food career progressed, even my mother, at first, seemed suddenly to become intimidated. This is a great pity because I enjoy the uncontrived, full flavor, comfort and intimacy of a home-cooked meal more than eating at even the best of restaurants. Perhaps it is the rarity of such events these days that makes it so appreciated. I am so thrilled when invited for dinner, before I can rethink it I offer to bring dessert. Nowadays it may not seem so unusual, but when I was in the dating mode, it was a truly uncommon treat to have a man invite me for dinner. Whenever I was in love, I always wanted to cook for the object of my affections, but in my 9 years of single life, only 6 men have ever cooked for me.
First, there was Rick who prepared a South American beef stew with cinnamon that I went on to make for years, calling it Rickstew. It was unusual and good but what impressed me most was that he announced he had fired the cleaning lady that day because she washed the cast iron pan in which he had prepared the stew, thus ruining the seasoning. I was sympathetic but suspected this was a result of fanaticism more than of passion. There went Rick.
Hugh prepared and served an impeccable salmon dinner as a thank you for having bailed him out during a major snow storm returning from a ski trip to Aspen. He had a steady girlfriend and he was quite the gentleman, performing his obligation and then returning me to my apartment in a round-trip taxi.
Then there was dark and handsome Bennett, with a voice of honey, who was put out that I expected him to pick me up even though he was cooking dinner. It was an oriental stir-fry and delicious. Maybe he had a point.
Michèl was a trained chef from France. Since he cooked all day, he did not consider cooking recreation. He did, however, once make me a pot au feu which the next day he turned into a beef stew, so glorious with a mirepoix of vegetables as the sauce that the word stew seemed utterly inappropriate.
Jean Pierre, who grew up in a hotel/restaurant family near Orleans, made me his signature dish of carré d’agneau, entreating me never to tell anyone how, due to his exceptionally cavalier attitude, it had slipped to the floor at one point during the preparation.
The most romantic dinner, however, was with Richard, the cellist. At the time we met, he was living with another musician, but we were mad for each other and when she went on tour, he invited me for dinner up in his log cabin. I remember the blaze of the wood fire, the spell-binding white expanse of snow and the breath-taking yearning. I wouldn’t have cared if we hadn’t eaten at all but I’m glad I had the foresight to have asked how he prepared the delicious Lebanese spinach.
The relationship ended when finally I became fed up playing second fiddle to a violist. (Yes, I did play the violin.) But I have this recipe to remember him by.
1 pound of fresh spinach 1 tablespoon virgin olive oil 1 medium clove garlic, smashed salt pepper Wash the spinach well to remove any grit. In a large pot with tight fitting cover, place the olive oil and smashed clove of garlic. Turn the heat to medium and cook for about 3 minutes or until the garlic starts to sizzle.
Place the spinach leaves on top, without shaking off any water that clings to the leaves. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Cover tightly, reduce heat to medium low and cook 15-20 minutes, or until the spinach is wilted and tender.
Stir lightly and discard the garlic clove. Drain and serve. Addendum: my husband of 16 years Elliott, does not cook and I wouldn’t want it any other way.