Photos: Jim Dunnavant
Born and raised in Kansas, I am a Midwestern girl at heart. There’s literally nothing southern about me…except for my dad…and my brother…and the twang in my voice when I hang out with them for more than 5 minutes! Honestly I don’t know where that twang comes from; I only lived in the South for one summer! Well, even that was more than enough for this delicate flower. I couldn’t stand the heat (literally), so I got out of the kitchen (so to speak) and moved back home (apparently, with a little twang in tow.) My Dad and my brother, on the other hand, fell in love with the South (and their southern belles) and have never looked back.
While I may not love the heat, I do love just about everything else. I love the people. Love the pace. Love the sense of faith and family that is visibly woven into the fabric of southern life. It envelopes you like a cozy blanket and leaves you feeling welcomed and loved; charmed by the warmth of day-to-day interactions where people are quick to offer a smile and a genuine hello, having never laid eyes on you before.
I feel that sense of belonging every time I visit – of course from my family, but also from their friends. You know what they say about southern hospitality…well, I’m here to tell you it’s all true. I’ve experienced it first-hand, time and again; if you aren’t “family” when you arrive, you are when you leave. Perhaps that’s why I eagerly await any opportunity to pay a visit…
It has become an almost annual tradition for me to fly down for a long weekend and “cater” a big dinner for family and friends. Truth be told, I am not the first one in our family to show up with a tray of baklawa, three batches of maamoul and a dozen different spices in her suitcase; that distinction belongs to my Sitey (my grandma) who started this tradition many years ago as, one by one, her children and grandchildren settled in cities far and wide. Not unlike my Jiddo (my grandfather) who travelled the country selling ladies handbags, Sitey took her show on the road, cooking her way from one family to the next.
So, this past winter, on a Sitey-inspired road trip, I filled my suitcase with pastries and spices (to the utter dismay of airport security!) and traveled southward to cook for about 50 of my brother’s friends and family. Lest you think I tackled this alone, I should be clear: the only thing I love more than cooking for family is cooking with family! So, Dad, Eric and I, along with the rest of our “team” (Tissie, Patti and Cindy) cooked up an honest to goodness Middle-Eastern feast. Over the course of two days, we rolled a mountain of grape leaves, washed an even bigger mountain of dishes, shopped, chopped, sliced, diced, and taste-tested; all the while bantering about whether Sitey made it this way or that way and who’s recipe was closest to hers! We laughed, cried, reminisced and, when all was said and done, longed for just one more bite from the hands of the one who loved and taught us all.