In the summer of 2007, as a Sweet Sixteen birthday present to me, my parents split. And because my mother was, and remains, a drama queen, she packed and left, not to another house, not to another state, but to Dubai. We realized much later that she had mentally packed her suitcase years before she actually booked her one-way ticket and boarded the plane. What kept her from exiting the marriage was indecision, her inability at the time to decide how far away she wanted to go. And then Dubai loomed from the distant east like the promised land. Its tall buildings, its sparkle, its affluence. Her childhood friends were calling it home already. It beckoned, and my mother obeyed.
My sisters and I stayed back in Durham, North Carolina, with my dad, missing our mother, missing her larger-than-life dreams, missing her cooking. We visited her often in Dubai, but didn’t want to move there. In her own element, my mother was different. She moved in wide circles. She glowed.
Ten years later, like the monsoons blowing out of season, she decided to come back to the United States. My sisters and I were four grownup women by then, still trying to grapple with her absence.
She forgot a lot of things while she was in Dubai, but most of all, she forgot how to cook. She had a maid there. She ate out. She ate at her friends’ houses. Or she didn’t eat. It made no difference. But for ten years, she didn’t cook.
My sisters and I reminisced about her cooking, and asked her to make us one of her dishes she used to make. She looked at us, raised her eyebrows, and said, “I cooked that? But I don’t know how to cook.”
It was as though the woman who packed her suitcase ten years earlier was not the same woman who unpacked in 2017.
We thought she was just trying to avoid cooking. But I have every reason to believe she actually did forget.
“Why are you surprised?” she’d ask. “Cooking is a skill. If I really cooked as well as you say I did, and didn’t practice for ten years, it goes without saying that I lost that skill.”
And then one day, my mother lifted her head from the book she was reading, or the book she was determined to write, and said, “I’ll cook for you today.”
She opened the fridge and complained about not having enough things to make a proper salad. She pulled out the kale, the spinach, the bell peppers, the carrots, the arugula, the tomatoes, the cucumbers, the parsley, the fresh mint, the lemons. She opened the kitchen cabinets. Took out the dates she'd brought from Dubai, the dried figs from Turkey, the almonds from Beirut, the olives from her dead mother’s orchard in the West Bank, the olive oil from trees in that same orchard (where neither of us has ever been but from where she continues to receive two 16-liter tins every year, courtesy of cousins neither of us has ever met), and the walnuts bought locally at Costco. She washed what needed to be washed. Chopped what had to be chopped. Sliced what required slicing. Squeezed what called for squeezing. Reached for the salt grinder and ground until the sodium level in my blood screamed Stop. Tossed everything. Said, “Wait.” Reached for a can of chickpeas. Opened it. Drained it. Added it to the mix. Tossed one more time. And said, “Here’s your salad, appetizer, dinner, and dessert.”
Then she said, “I’m going to finish my book now.” She grabbed her coffee and went to the balcony, not tasting her own creation.
My sisters and I call that dish “Mom’s Everything But the Kitchen Sink Salad.” We try making it, but the end result is never the same. I open my new recipe book, ready to write down the ingredients. Ask her how much of this, how much of that. She looks at me like I’m speaking gibberish. She never measures.
From that day on, my mother has made that salad quite often for us, whenever we are together and ask for it. She never uses the same ingredients twice. No kale? No problem. The salad mix will do. We ran out of dates? So what. Dried cranberries or raisins will do. There would always be something added or something taken away. Added, not because it was missing the first time, but because it wasn’t in the kitchen or the cabinet. Taken away, not because it proved unsuitable for the salad, but because it wasn’t there the next time my mom wanted to make her salad. And yet, the salad was always, always, fit for deity.
My mother doesn’t know how to cook. When there is food, she eats. When there is none, she reads. I pack her leftover salad for lunch at work, and my colleagues taste it and salivate.
“Your mother is a great cook,” they say.
“But my mother doesn’t know how to cook,” I tell them. They don’t believe me.
Finally, in order to preserve a form of her salad for my own kids one day, I sat down to write the ingredients and the steps as much as I could. I showed what I wrote to my mother for her approval. She skimmed it and said, “It’s just a salad, darling. Anyone can make it.”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” I said.
“It’s all in the olive oil,” she whispered to an unseen ghost in the room as I was leaving, before she took another sip of her Turkish coffee, adjusted her reading glasses, and flipped the page in the book she had started reading that morning.
Hajer Almosleh often writes stories and poems that reflect her daughters talking about her; this one is written from the point of view of her eldest daughter. She can be found on Facebook and @hajeralmolseh.
My Mother’s Everything But the Kitchen Sink Salad
1 bunch kale (or 8 oz. kale leaves)
6 oz. spinach
6 oz. arugula
6 oz. salad greens
3 tomatoes, cubed
1/4 c. each green, red, yellow, and orange bell peppers
1 medium organic seedless cucumber
1/4 - 1/3 c. lemon juice
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 c. pitted olives (Kalamata olives are great)
1 bunch parsley
10 fresh mint leaves
1/4 c. almonds
1/4 c. walnut halves
1/4 c. pitted dates
1/4 c. dried figs (or cranberries or raisins)
15 oz. can chickpeas, drained
salt to taste
Wash what has to be washed, coarsely chop what needs to be chopped, finely chop what requires to be finely chopped (parsley and mint), cube what must be cubed. Toss everything together.
Hint: Try the salad with quinoa and grilled salmon on the side.