TWI: To be fully transparent, we should acknowledge that this is our second recorded interview with you, Jessica, after a computer glitch wiped out our last one. Thank you for this generous donation of your time–again! We’ll look at our last conversation as a kind of a rough draft. I suppose it’s a lot like cooking in a kitchen. The recipe didn’t work out, and now we’re trying it again.
You write a unique food blog, one that I’ve been following since its inception about a year ago. Tell us a little bit about yourself – who you are, where you come from.
Jessica Moore: My identity is a rather complicated one. I’m an American, but also an Arab. I’m an Israeli but also a Palestinian, and I’m a Christian. My father is an American. He grew up in the Midwest. My mother, Rhoda, is an Israeli Arab–ethnically Palestinian, with Israeli citizenship, and she grew up in a Christian home. I had a childhood that was blessed with lots of different foods, and I’ve lived in lots of different places, from France; to Cairo, Egypt; to Jerusalem, and then back to the American Midwest. All of those places and flavors make up who I am and what I eat.
I’m now a stay-at-home mom to two little kids. Before that I was a teacher at a wonderful classical Christian school here in Northern Virginia, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I took some time away from my teaching career to be a mom and to teach my own kids.
TWI: Tell us about your blog, Bint Rhoda’s Kitchen. What does that mean?
JM: Bint is Arabic for daughter, so the blog name means “The Kitchen of the Daughter of Rhoda.” In the Middle East, people are often re-named by their relationship with their mother or father: literally, “Mother or Father of So-and-So,” or, “Son or Daughter of So-and-So.” That’s the way that our culture defines people. Since this is a blog about my mother’s culture, it seemed right for me to describe my kitchen as the kitchen of my mother’s daughter. My mother is vibrant and energetic, and fierce in the kitchen. She is passionate both about food and her Christian faith. All of those things contribute to what the blog is about.
TWI: There are a lot of food blogs in the blogosphere. What makes yours unique?
JM: Bint Rhoda’s Kitchen focuses on traditional Palestinian food—not Jordanian, Syrian, Lebanese, or Egyptian food. It explores how traditional Palestinian foods were prepared a hundred years or more ago, and specifically on how they were traditionally prepared. This is important for many reasons. Before I began blogging, I realized that there were very few places for me to find out about cooking with Arabic ingredients and creating these dishes that my mother and grandmother would make in their kitchens. In Palestine, as in much of the Arab world, cooking is a skill that’s transmitted in person—orally and experientially. It’s very rarely put into written form, and if it is, it’s usually in Arabic. Non-Arabic speakers have a hard time accessing that information. If your mother isn’t right there in the kitchen with you, it’s very hard to learn these recipes and skills. I began this blog to provide a source for traditional Palestinian food.
The other reason is that, years ago, I became interested in the real food and traditional food movements. But more recently, I realized that while there are a lot of lovely blogs that explored traditional foods, I could only find one other Middle Eastern version of that. I’ve since begun to collaborate with those bloggers, but it’s still a big gap. The world ought to have these recipes.
I do sometimes wonder what gives me the right to write about these things. I’m not fully Palestinian. I don’t live there now. My mother would be more equipped to write about Arabic foods than I am. Yet in some ways, I am uniquely situated to talk about these foods because I grew up learning how to bridge cultures and knowing how to explain one way of life and thought to another. I’ve been doing that all my life. Cultural transmission and translation is easier for someone to do who has lived between cultures, and can see the humanity and common ground in both cultures. That’s also what drove me to start this blog. It was a way to enter the traditional food conversation but also built bridges between cultures.
TWI: You do a lot of reflective writing on your blog as well. It’s not just recipes. As an adult third culture kid, you have a strong sense of being “in between,” and it seems like this blog is a creative space for you to grapple with your own sense of identity and to find a place to be and belong.
JM: Absolutely. Food is a medium to talk about identity and identity making. I talk about it in one of my more sensitive blog posts when my daughter talked about being a “beginner Arab.”
It’s been fascinating to watch how my children grapple with questions of identity. They know that my mother is Arab, and I can see that my daughter is trying to make sense of that and her own heritage. She sees me purposefully talking about and preparing Arabic food. That’s one of the primary ways she enters into Arabic culture. It gives her a sense of pride. She’ll say, “I’m eating this like an Arab!”
So, on that point, when my daughter was about four years old, I was teaching her how to eat hummus with a piece of bread – how to hold the bread and dip it properly into the common plate. She said, “Mommy, I’m a beginner Arab. Taytah [Grandma] is an advanced Arab, and you, Mommy, are a medium Arab.” That was how she understood what it means to be an Arab. My grandmother was the master, she was a beginner, and I was somewhere in between.
So, is being an Arab is something you have to actively learn and become? Is cultural identity something you advance in? Is it a skill set? Do you have to acquire these skills, check off a checklist, in order to be a part of a culture? People who are born into and raised within a monoculture don’t have to ask those questions. But the children who live between cultural worlds have to ask what it means to be who they are.
TWI: In our earlier conversation, you mentioned that this blog was an important way of passing along this cultural and culinary heritage to your children. You realized that if you were not consciously making this effort, your children would not know this aspect of their culture.
JM: That was a significant realization for me. It happened when my mother was visiting us. She made a Palestinian dish with which my children were unfamiliar. It was that moment that I realized that my children could grow up and not eat the foods that I grew up with. I was already pursuing real food and traditional food, but it was of other cultures, but I realized then that they might never encounter “their food” — which is a tragedy! You can see yourself in this long line of people behind you who have eaten a certain way, and how quickly that line can be lost. So I made a commitment, not just to make Arabic bread once a year, but to make it part of the weekly rhythms of our family life so that when they came across this food, they wouldn’t bat an eye. They needed to be familiar with Arabic food.
But I had to learn that too. I didn’t live in the Holy Land until I was in fifth grade, and before then, my mother had had limited access to her traditional foods. I wasn’t exposed to, let’s say, jibneh baida until I was ten. That’s when I started to learn the language and the food. I was better at learning the food. [Laughter.] It was a real transition, but I did it.
Food was a way for me to participate in a culture, clearly marking that I was an Arab. I knew that I was different when we lived here in the United States simply by virtue of what I would find in my lunch bag at school. When other kids were pulling out a banana, a peanut butter sandwich, and some Cheetos, I would pull out a za’atar sandwich on homemade bread! I just couldn’t blend in. I stood out because of the food, and in time, that became part of my identity. It’s what I eat, and it’s what I enjoy.
TWI: You stepped into this intentional exploration of food through the real food/traditional food movement. Obviously, your identity as a Palestinian has been with you your whole life, but you are now finding how these aspects converge. Tell us about real food and traditional food.
JM: The real food movement is a broader movement than the traditional foods one. It is born out of a frustration with the way the food industry treats food. Many people have realized that the packaged, processed foods we find in the grocery stores contain non-food additives. When it comes to feeding our families, more and more people are returning to “real” food—food that’s been grown near you, hasn’t been treated with pesticides, and has been ethically raised. I think if we treat our animals well, they will treat us well. It’s an ethical relationship.
The traditional foods movement is within that larger real foods one, and it is guided by how cultures of the past nourished themselves, before modern, industrialized food. In the past, people knew that what they ate shaped them. These cultures even had sacred foods, and they learned different ways to preserve the future of their people through the foods they cultivated. The research of Weston A. Price has been particularly influential in my thinking about this. Price was a dentist who saw the detrimental effects of a modern diet on traditional peoples when they abandoned their traditional foods. Others since Price have discovered certain commonalities across these pre-modern food cultures and advocate a return to a traditional diet.
TWI: So it was after you made a commitment to real food and traditional food that you began a deliberate exploration of Palestinian traditional foods. We should acknowledge here, too, that you do not live on a farm! How do you acquire ingredients in the Washington, D.C., area that are also ethically sourced and local?
JM: Right, I do not have an olive grove in my backyard! This has been a big journey for me in making changes. I will still shop in regular grocery stories, but I also purchase directly from farms and from a CSA. You have to work within your budget, and your limits of time, space, and energy. But I’ve gotten to the point now where I don’t buy anything that isn’t from a single source. I buy a bag of chickpeas, not a container of hummus. I buy grains; I don’t buy bread. I buy milk; I don’t buy yogurt. That’s how it was for my grandmother. She worked with foods from a single source. She baked their bread and made their lebaneh. I’m not a homesteader, although my husband often suspects that I’d rather live on a farm.
TWI: There seems to be a hunger among people to redefine our relationship with food away from mere consumption. More and more people seem to hunger for skills and wisdom of the past that we seem to have abandoned.
JM: Yes, I think that’s true.
TWI: And just as you don’t live on a farm, you also have a fairly modest, regularly sized kitchen. It’s not full of commercial-grade appliances.
JM: … although it’s much bigger than my grandmother’s kitchen!
I have a working kitchen. It’s now put to a lot of use. One of the things that happened when I started cooking traditionally is that my kitchen became less of place of storing things that I bought at a store and then heated up, and more like a place where work happened. So my kitchen is worked quite hard. There’s always something happening in it. You can see from where we’re sitting, I have kombucha on the counter, grains soaking, sourdough rising, bread from yesterday, and homemade sauerkraut and pork in my crock pot. (My husband calls them my “science experiments.”)
Traditional food is a lot of work. You don’t go out to get your morning latte and then come home and watch your bread rise. Your hands get chapped from doing all the dishes, and you have lentils all over your floor. Real food is real work.
But, again, I’m not doing that work for the purpose of “being artisanal.” This isn’t my hobby, which is how we tend to view it. We are accustomed to thinking that because you can get food some other way, then any actual effort you make for food must be for pleasure, or as a hobby, or to make you feel good about yourself.
TWI: As in, it’s either epicurean or it’s self-righteous.
JM: Right, that’s part of the problem. We see the work of food as a hobby or as something else. I had to move past that. This is work, and this is the work that I’m called to do. This is how I feed my body; this is how I feed my kids. The cost of our health is that we have to work. We want to avoid that reality, but the truth is that my mother worked hard to fed us, and my grandmother worked hard to feed my mother. If I think I’m the first generation that won’t have to work hard to feed my family, then I’m going to pay the price. There are no real short cuts.
TWI: In our earlier conversation, you mentioned the importance of soaking grains. This was something you had stopped doing and are now back to doing it. You did embrace what you thought were legitimate short cuts, but you have now reconsidered them. Tell us about that journey, and particularly in identifying and submitting to a kind of authority that you had once abandoned.
JM: The example of soaking grains typifies this discovery, or re-discovery. My mother had always taught me to soak grains. We always had a bowl of some kind of grain soaking on our counter – whether it was lentils, chickpeas, or freekah. It wasn’t just my mother; it was everybody. As I grew up, I abandoned that practice. I didn’t see the point. I looked in cookbooks, and very few mentioned soaking grains. I watched other Americans cooking; no one soaked their grains. When I was newly married and unemployed for a few months, I watched the Food Channel a lot, especially Rachael Ray and her 30-minute meals. I loved Rachael Ray! I learned to cook all her of meals. Really, mine is really the modern story of how people learn to cook.
TWI: So there was someone else in your kitchen with you! It was also oral and experiential.
JM: Oh, yes! And Rachael Ray never soaked her rice, so I didn’t either. When my mother would visit, she would say, “Aren’t you going to soak that rice?” And I would reply, “What’s the point?” I needed to have the reason; I wasn’t going to do it just to do it. My mother didn’t have a long, scientific answer as to why this was an important step. She had more simple reasons, like, “It tastes better. It cooks up better. This is what we do.” I disregarded all of that. The benefit didn’t seem worth the work of continuing the practice, so I abandoned it.
Now, here I am, fifteen years later, learning to soak my grains, and learning that I should have listened to my mother. I should have listened to her because there is a long, scientific answer alongside her simple ones. Soaking grains is a pre-digestive step that makes the grain easier for the human body to digest. Every traditional culture has treated it grains, whether through soaking, fermenting, or sprouting. I thought it was just an Arab thing to, but it’s a global, traditional practice that spans cultures. What I once learned in a traditional kitchen, I had to relearn again.
TWI: As a Christian, how has your journey into traditional food influenced your encounter with Scripture and the Christian faith?
JM: Food is so central to Scripture. From creation to Revelation, it plays such a critical, symbolic role. Food is the way God dispenses life, blessing, and grace. You see it again and again, from the manna in the desert, to the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, to the Last Supper. I’ve learned to pay attention to mentions of food in the Bible. There’s a biblical theology of food, right from the start of the story. Food was part of the Fall; and if it was part of our fall, then it’s also part of our redemption.
I think that’s part of what this food blog is about, whether it means sharing food with others, breaking bread with others, or changing the way we approach food so that we are being redemptive in the way we feed ourselves and other people, and redemptive in the way we treat the land and animals. That’s really what having dominion means.
Food is central to the gospel. Jesus uses food both as a symbol and as more than a symbol. Through food, he communicates who we are and how to live in the world – caring for his sheep; feeding the hungry; learning who we are through food. But he also tells us that humans cannot live by bread alone.
I was recently reading Isaiah 55:1–2: “…why do you spend your money on that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” The message of the gospel is that God is inviting us to the feast. From that passage in Isaiah, what does it mean to buy milk without money? It means that real nourishment is being given to us, but someone else has settled the cost.
TWI: In one blog post, “When We Share Our Bread,” you tell a very moving story of a fellow teacher sharing lentil soup and bread with you, and how significant that action was in your life.
JM: She is now a dear friend of mine, but when this story happened, we had just met. She simply shared some bread and soup that she had made with me after we had both had a long day of teaching. It was a profound moment for me. It’s humbling to accept that you have a need when you are trying to be strong and put together. She could have photocopied my lesson plans, but she responded to my physical need for sustenance, which is very personal. That’s how a mother feeds a child. But once you have left that enclosure, and someone else meets that kind of need, there’s something incredibly humbling about receiving it. As teachers, we would receive all kinds of goodies from well-meaning people – cakes, cookies, the desserts, the luxuries. But what she gave me what primary. When someone meets a primary need for food – not dessert! – that’s humbling.
That’s a new spiritual struggle for me after truly laboring at food. Once I do all the work that goes into real food, I am tempted to hoard it. I might not have the time to do all that work again tomorrow. In our culture today, food represents time more than money. We can always buy prepared food, but it takes time to make something. Her action touched me deeply because it showed her faith in God to provide, and it showed her love for me.
TWI: What are you making for Thanksgiving?
JM: I am in the negotiations over that right now. I’ll make a turkey, and I’m working on my source for a good, organic turkey. It’s my first time doing the whole meal – the turkey, the dressing, etc. I’ll likely also make sweet potatoes mashed with coconut oil, stuffing from homemade sourdough bread, sautéed green beans with preserved lemons, and sourdough rolls.
I hope my parents-in-law bear with me. I’ve invited them to bring some of their favorite foods to the table too. Thanksgiving meals tell stories of the culture at large, of your family’s culture and what a family eats, and it tells the story of the food itself and where it came from. It’s a cultural experience for me because my in-laws have their own particular foods, including Pennsylvania Dutch foods that I’m not terribly fond of, like creamed lettuce and pickled eggs.
TWI: Will you make anything Palestinian?
JM: I’ve thought about that too. I don’t want to force the story. It think it’s ok for my children to have a meal that is not half-and-half or only Palestinian. There’s nothing Middle Eastern about Thanksgiving really.
TWI: Well, it is an immigrant meal.
JM: Well, there are questions I have about the whole thing! Growing up, overseas, we didn’t have the day off from school for Thanksgiving. The rest of the American kids at my school were so excited for Thanksgiving, but I didn’t really understand it. My parents kept me home from school, we ate Thanksgiving dinner, and my mother invited anyone who would come.
A lot of my memories of Thanksgiving are of Palestinians trying to eat Thanksgiving dinner, particularly looking at stuffing with a curious look. [Laughter.] My mother would stuff a turkey, but she would also stuff a chicken with rice and meat too because otherwise the guests wouldn’t eat it. Cranberry sauce? The Arab palate doesn’t do cranberry sauce! There isn’t a lot of mixing sweet and savory.
My mother is now known for her Thanksgiving feast in her community. Her Palestinian friends insist she do a proper Thanksgiving meal. Twenty to thirty people will come, and she cooks massive amounts of food for people in the West Bank who long for this particular meal – the turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.
What’s my story with Thanksgiving? I’m trying to work that out. My mother didn’t serve hummus, and I’m not compelled to do that either.
I suppose what makes this day so special is that you get to commemorate this particular day with particular food. In fact, it’s the last day Americans have that focuses on the food. We eat food on that one day that we don’t eat any other day. Those foods connect us to last year, to the year before, and to our family and its history, and to the larger story of our country. It matters that I serve that menu – the turkey, the stuffing, the pies – because those foods are important on that day.
It reminds me of the Passover seder, a meal that features particular foods for a real reason. Eating those foods helped God’s people remember how God had intervened in the world. That’s sort of how we as Americans treat Thanksgiving. In its own way, it helps us as a people to remember how God intervened in history again in our own nation.
TWI: The act of eating, taking it into our bodies, makes us enter into that story in a way that just thinking about it doesn’t allow.
JM: Yes, which is why Jesus asks us to eat and drink as we remember what he did for us on the cross. We must do both the eating and drinking as the means of remembering that reality.
Although we are nourished by the food itself, our family still prays to ask God to allow the food to nourish our bodies. I’ve written about this on my blog. That’s also an important cautionary word about real food – the food itself isn’t our salvation. There are folks that get really stuck in the self-righteousness of real food, and the effort of producing real food can sort of seem salvific on its own terms. But that’s not the point. While I work to produce real food for my family, we still ask God to nourish our bodies with this food, because we realize that there is ultimately something mysterious about the way that food nourishes the body, and that we, as humans, do not have perfect knowledge or abilities. We can work hard and commit to this profoundly important task of feeding ourselves and others, but ultimately, God is the provider of all things – even nourishment.