We joke about it a lot, just how different Jill and I are on paper.
There’s the age difference (19 scandalous years), the skin color difference (she’s white, I’m brown), the religious difference (she was raised Pentecostal, I was raised Hindu), and too many personality differences to count. But rarely do these differences occur to us as stumbling blocks; in fact, they rarely occur to us at all.
We forget our age difference—“Oh wait, you wouldn’t remember that, you were three in 1985,”—and I have, more than once, asked Jill to borrow her concealer, only to realize that “pale beige” isn’t really going to work for me.
Truth be told, the biggest difference between us, or at least the one that occurs like the biggest, is the class difference. Jill was raised in a solid, blue-collar family in Shreveport, Louisiana; I was raised in a decidedly white-collar suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. We may both be Southern women, but the ways of life to which we grew up accustomed are very different.
Jill grew up gardening, hunting, pickling, and canning—that’s how her family got their food. And though her parents, through their frugality and hard work, could easily now afford not to do any of that anymore, they still do. Because it was never just a strategy, it was (and remains) a way of life.
Of course, this way of life has recently become trendy. More and more people are starting to see the value of growing their own food, or at least knowing where it’s grown. Food writers like Michael Pollan and Hank Shaw are helping to remove some of the ignorant stigma against those who have the courage to kill their own dinners. And pickling and canning have seen a real resurgence in the last few years, one which I suspect will only grow.
Last month, in May, I was asked to participate in an incredible grassroots event here in Houston, Outstanding In My Backyard (OIMBY). The event featured local chefs and home cooks using local ingredients to create a literal backyard feast. We raised over $5000 for the Houston Food Bank and hope to double that number when cookbooks featuring recipes from the event go on sale later this summer.
It seemed only appropriate for an event like OIMBY that I cook a dish that has always been Jill’s signature—deviled eggs—using the okra that her parents grew, and that she pickled & canned. For Jill’s family, this “new” emphasis on local, fresh, and organic isn’t new at all, it’s the way they’ve lived for generations.
serves 6-8 as an appetizer
2 dozen farm-fresh eggs, hard-boiled
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup whole-grain Dijon mustard
1 dozen pickled okra spears, roughly chopped*
2 T pickling juice from the okra
smoked paprika (optional)
Slice the eggs lengthwise & gently turn the yolks out into a large bowl. Mash the yolks with the mayonnaise, mustard, okra, & okra juice. Stir mixture until it’s fluffy but not wet, adding more okra juice if necessary.
Spoon a rounded tablespoon of filling into each hollowed-out egg white half, mounding it up as high as you like. Continue until all of the eggs have been filled; garnish each egg with a generous sprinkling of paprika.
*Substitute cucumber pickles. Note: I prefer the texture of hand-chopped pickles to that of pre-made pickle relish.
Jill is the world traveler in our family. Given the nature of her work, she finds herself among the air-mile elite, logging thousands of miles a year for book tours, speaking engagements, and a few times at the behest of Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan. She has been four times to Turkey, to Israel, Jordan, & Egypt, and all over Europe—at the moment, as the scholar-in-residence on a group trip to Macedonia & Croatia.
There are things I don’t love about the frequency of her travel. Our dog, Dolly, who is convinced that Jill is God & I am God’s secondary consort who will do if God is not around, pouts from the moment she sees Jill pack a suitcase to the moment Jill walks back through the front door. Selfishly speaking, it’s inconvenient to go from a two-person household to a one-person. I enjoy my alone time, but I hate doing all of the dishes, all of the cooking, all of the chores, all of the dog-attending. And I miss Jill. She is my favorite person to spend time with, my beloved, my sounding-board. I feel a bit thrown when she’s away; I worry.
At the same time, I wouldn’t put a stop to her travel even if I could. When I signed up to live my life with Jill, I did so with the understanding that it’s my job to broaden her, to cheerlead the pursuits to which she is so clearly suited, to celebrate the work about which she is so passionate. To push her to be her biggest and most expansive self. And that she would, as she so gracefully does, do the same for me.
Of course, there are tremendous benefits to Jill’s travel. Frequent flier miles, a thousand stories and hundreds of photographs, and the sense of having contributed to the growth and expansion of all those whom she meets and inspires on her travels. Not to mention—exposure to all kinds of food. Jill has been lucky to eat at some incredibly drool-worthy places, from river cruises on the Nile to the humble kitchens of local hosts and hostesses, who generously treat her to sumptuous home-cooked meals.
Now Jill loves food, but she’s not obsessed with it the way I am. She has, though, in one of those non-ostentatious but incredibly meaningful displays of affection, altered her travel habits to include regular pictures of and notes on the food she eats. And she’s learned that the presents that thrill me most—like this Scandinavian honey—are food related. (I’m still hording the homemade, mystery fruit preserves from her last trip to Jordan and a tiny bottle of mystery liquor from Latvia.)
We’ve also, as a family, adopted many of the tastes and preferences she brings back with her from various countries. It pushes us to seek out restaurants, grocery stores, & home cooks here in Houston with whose help we can attempt to replicate the good stuff she has eaten, allowing me to taste along with her. Lahmajun, a classic Turkish dish, is one of our favorites and I am proud to say that Jill declared my version “just as good” as the best ones she had eaten abroad.
These make for a perfect weekend lunch or light dinner, especially when served with a green salad and cold, pale beer or white wine. A bit labor intensive but well worth it—these flew off the serving platter on blog-recipe-test day!
Many recipes for lahmajun topping will call for the addition of pomegranate molasses or syrup, which you can pick up at most Middle Eastern grocery stores. I didn’t have any on hand that day, so I substituted preserved lemon to add a similar tart edge to the dish.
1 cup bread flour (substitute all-purpose if need be, but bread flour truly does yield better results)
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup warm water
1 T olive oil
1 tsp. yeast
pinch of sugar
pinch of salt
Sprinkle the yeast & sugar over the warm water and leave five minutes. If the yeast hasn’t bloomed, throw it out and start over. If not, add the flours & oil and knead by hand or with the dough hook on a mixer. Knead until dough is smooth and elastic.
Leave the dough to rise in an oiled bowl, covered with a cloth or plastic warp, for about an hour. Place the dough in a warm place to help it double in size.
1 lb. ground lamb (substitute: ground beef or turkey)
½ onion, chopped
3 gloves garlic, minced
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
1 preserved lemon, minced (substitute: juice + zest of 1 regular lemon)
2 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. harissa paste (optional)
1 tsp. salt
Sauté the onion & garlic in a little olive oil. When they become translucent, add the lamb and cook until it browns. Remove from heat, stir in the remaining ingredients.
extra parsley, chopped
3 T melted butter
Once the dough has risen, punch it back down and divide into eight pieces. A bench scraper is very handy for this step; just keep halving the dough until you get to eight. You can also use a kitchen scale if you are a fanatic for equal-sized pieces of dough. I’m not.
There are two ways to bake the lahmajun—all at once, on baking sheets or one at a time, on a pizza stone. I used the latter method because it seems more authentic and because I like the crisp edges it achieves. However, if you need all of your lahmajun to be ready at once, just assemble them all, move them carefully to greased baking sheets, and bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through.
If you plan to make them in succession, though, I suggest waiting to roll each piece of dough until you’re ready to top it & put it in the oven—it is likely to dry out otherwise. Keeping the dough pieces covered with a damp cloth will help as well.
Roll each piece of dough into a rough circle. Top with about a quarter-cup of the lamb mixture, spreading out evenly but leaving a half-inch border of plain dough. Brush the border with melted butter.
Use a large spatula to transfer directly to a well-preheated pizza stone and cook for 8-10 minutes or until the edges become nice and brown. Remove from oven and garnish with extra parsley. Enjoy when warm.