Food can be a transformative thing. It can engage all of the senses, sometimes to the point where they overlap and you experience a kind of foodie synesthesia, where you become certain that a food tastes bright green, or that a bowl of gumbo smells of jazz.
I adore food, the whole experience of it: growing or shopping for ingredients, messing about in the kitchen, and especially eating. The eating was particularly good this year at Top Chefs, where our guest stars cooked up a cornucopia of food styles representing traditions from the world over. That’s the kind of food experience I love best, when one culture crashes into another and something magic happens. It doesn’t have to be fusion; it can simply be a person experiencing the food of a different place for the first time.
When I was a young man living in Lexington, KY, my mother volunteered in an English as a Second Language program associated with a local church. She got to know a first-generation middle-eastern woman whose name has become part of my own story of falling in love with food. Her name was Jaleeleh Natour, and she made the best squash I had ever tasted. My parents raised vegetables and mom had taken some in with her to the ESL program. Ms. Natour had answered that generosity with a pan full of yellow squash, stuffed with meat and rice and smothered in a spiced tomato sauce that tasted so new and good to my developing senses that I found it hard to want anything else. It was like the desire I felt for my first adult love: I wanted THAT, and I wanted it all the time.
The dish is called coosa mehshee, or cousa mahshi, depending on how you want to transliterate the Arabic. It’s one entry in a broad category of mahshi, which can, to my understanding, include any stuffed vegetable. From experience over the years, I’ve come to learn that cousa mahshi is one of those dishes where, if you come from that part of the world, everybody’s grandmother has a recipe. I’ve had versions made by families of Jordanian, Lebanese, Syrian, and Egyptian origin. When I was a teacher, I told the story of Jaleeleh Natour from time-to-time, and on more than one occasion got a pan full of the family recipe. That dish changed me, and it changed how I saw the world and the different people I share it with.
One of my students, after a trip to her family’s native country, brought me back a squash corer from Jordan. I now make my own mahshi. Sometimes it gets pretty southern, like this past weekend, when I made it with a little smoked bacon given to me by Allan Benton, with whom I recently had an engaging and wide-ranging discussion you can read in this issue’s “Conversations.” Eating his 24-month country-ham prosciutto is an ethereal experience.
As I was working on this issue of Cityview, I called the Natour family, who owns a restaurant in Manassas, VA. Turns out they have some cousins in Knoxville who run a little place you might know called Pete’s, which you can see featured in our “Dining Guide.” Food: it’s a transformative, human, special thing that can help us get to know one another.
Hope to see you out and about enjoying
Knoxville’s innovative cuisine scene!