A memoir that is both pungent and sweet, The Language of Baklava, is as rich and full-bodied as the recipes peppered throughout the book, a spicy peek into bi-cultural life. Heartwarming and witty, Abu-Jaber infuses her memoir with the joy of family and the love of food, meals shared with many because "you never know who's just come over from the old country." The old country is Jordan, the new, America.
In her novels Arabian Jazz and Crescent, Abu-Jaber drew inspiration from a unique assortment of extended family and friends. But The Language of Baklava is her personal story as a child of two cultures, absorbing everything around her, the people, events and aromatic dishes prepared by her father. Moving from America to Jordan and back, she speaks to the cultural ambiguity of a schoolgirl in America, with a father who has his own ideas about the behavior of adolescent daughters, "good Arabian girls."
The author introduces her extended family in all their eccentricities; as generous and expansive as they are unconventional, the Abu-Jabers draw outsiders into their circle, unable to resist the tempting aromas that waft from the kitchen. Food, family and celebration go hand in hand, the rich tastes that bring memories of Jordan, the flavors of home. Food is memory, triggering the tastes and places of youth, familiar and comforting.
In one memorable scene, the children stay up all night on New Year's Eve. As their parents gather to talk of old times, the children create their own adventures, freely roaming the midnight landscape, their imaginations wild with abandon until, one by one, they fall into exhausted slumber.
In chapters that illustrate growing up with the flavors and language of Jordan, but also the American experience of a lively family, Abu-Jaber forges the links between taste and emotion, captured in imaginative recipes: "Distract the Neighbors" Grilled Chicken, "Start the Party" Hummus, Lost Childhood Pita Bread, "Stolen Boyfriend" Baba Ghanouj and Chicken Msukhan for Richer or Poorer.
The connection to family is profound, especially Diana's deep ties to an old-fashioned father, the product of an entirely different generation. Through the push and pull of young adulthood, Diana struggles for independence, a definition of herself as a woman and a writer, successfully navigating the dangerous waters of self-sufficiency: "A reluctant Bedouin- I miss and long for every place, every country I have ever lived."
With an abundance of grace, Abu-Jaber beautifully relates her unique story, blending the love, resistance, acceptance and bounty of a large multi-cultural family with room and heart enough for everyone.