Stories of family and food that spread out like pancake batter on a griddle are about “grace, difference, faith, and love,” writes Abu-Jaber (Crescent, 2003, etc.).
Abu-Jaber is the daughter of a Jordanian father and an American mother (though there’s also a German grandmother thrown into the mix, who adds rigorous counterpoint to the wayward intuitiveness of Abu-Jaber’s father). The stem of the narrative is about the author’s precollege youth, an appealing sequence about making and losing friends, testing the waters, endeavoring to find a way forward. Its foliage is a swarming recollection of food and exile; though Abu-Jaber’s father immigrated to the US of his own free will, he feels the bite of his homeland enough to move the family there for a year. What soothes the Jordan in his heart is a piping knaffea, or a “shish kebab that comes like an emergency,” eaten hot off the grill. Abu-Jaber, too, will be shaped by food, both her father’s and that of the immigrants around her: she wants to confess her sins after her first bite of panna cotta, and she warms her frostbitten toes in a bowl of Arabic soup made of bright herbs and orange peels. Her father is restless, moving the family here and there, the geography fluid while the daughter’s social life is constrained by the father’s edicts. But if he is protective on the fatherly front, he is expansive when it comes to food and, more affectingly, to the stories of his family. Abu-Jaber’s tales are equally powerful and lovely in their imagery, from the faux pas of barbequing in their front yard in the US to the car ride they take late at night, to the Dead Sea, where the road is “dusty blue and smells like the woolly heat of a sheep’s back.”
Food as a way to remember or a way to forget—either way, Abu-Jaber gets it just right.