Wartime cravings

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The World

BEIT JALA, West Bank — It is the early days of the Second Intifada and the Israeli government has sent tanks into this West Bank town where Palestinian militants have been firing across a valley at Israeli homes on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

The presence of the tanks in the fall of 2000 terrifies the mainly Christian population, emptying the streets and shuttering every storefront. Including, I am stricken to realize as I run from one protective stonewall to another, the chicken shack.

That may sound like I am trivializing the violence. But don’t get me wrong. Like most correspondents, I was deeply emotionally engaged with the conflict and its victims on both sides. But in war, food is a powerful force, a rare source of goodness. It comforts. It brings families together, even if they can’t turn on the lights for fear of being seen from the outside. It makes people take a break from the fighting, makes them talk and remember better times. In quieter times, local Palestinians tell me that Israeli generals used to stop by the Beit Jala chicken shack.

For me, food was also a private way back to my childhood, to my mother’s cooking, to my once happy family.

And so in the restaurants and homes of the West Bank and in a dozen of other conflict-battered countries I often hunt for the comfort of food. It is a common trait, I have learned, among foreign correspondents.

Few places have quite the draw of the Beit Jala chicken shack. All it serves is barbecued chicken, marinated overnight in herbs and lemon juice and olive oil, and served with a non-egg-based aioli and superb salads. It is, I’m quite sure, the best chicken restaurant in the world.

And at this point in the fighting, it is closed.

During a lull in the fighting I beg my translator, Sufian, to try to persuade the owner to open up. But when we find the owner, he looks at us as if we’re crazy.

When the Israelis finally leave and the chicken shack reopens, Sufian and I sit down to dinner with friends and the chicken has never tasted so tender, so delicious.

I hid in war for many years, using it partly as a way to stay away from my mother. Mentally ill for most of my life and an alcoholic, she was a presence I tried to forget about.

I did not expect to grieve all that much when she died on May 4, 2005. But it hit me like nothing else I had ever experienced. And that would include the ordeal of being locked up in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq under Saddam Hussein with the imminent threat of torture and execution. I was working in Iraq as a correspondent when I was arrested by Iraqi intelligence officers on the third day of the war and imprisoned. That was, I thought, the most difficult moment of my life. But losing my mom was considerably more upsetting.

I’m an aetheist. I sense no spirit, I have no belief in an afterlife. It’s the curse of the godless. So I needed something else to help me cope with the sudden, irreversible absence of my mother. I found it in her cookbooks, especially those of the most influential of all British cookbook authors, Elizabeth David. For more than a year, I worked through my grief and, to some extent, brought her back to me through the memories sparked by cooking the food she cooked for my sister and me when we were small. Before she went crazy. When she was the most wonderful mother anyone could ever have.

In the first of three excerpts from my new book, "Bittersweet: Lessons From My Mother's Kitchen," my mother has been dead for three weeks and I seek some help to kickstart me out of a sort of paralysis.

The second excerpt is a flashback to a time and place where we were always happiest as a family — our vacation home on the west coast of Scotland. The house sits in an isolated bay named Port an Droighionn. The nearest supermarket is a two-hour drive away. You can spend days up there without seeing another human being.

In the third excerpt I find the pull of the kitchen becoming stronger than the lure of the war zone.

Read the rest of this series:

Part 1: Feet in Nepal, head at home

Part 2: Hardship Cooking

Part 3: Souring on war

Matt McAllester's website has recipes and additional photos.

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