“The transmission of recipes,” says Grace Abi-Najm Shea, “is such an important part of the transmission of traditions.”
Originally from Beirut, Lebanon, Grace Abi-Nam Shea leads an American life, thanks to her parents who moved to Arlington, Virginia many years ago. They had little education and limited funds, but family members helped them. “Our uncles helped us get settled,” she said, “and a neighbor, Christian Strasser, an active Catholic who helped us get settled here. They are my second family.
To start their life over in America, his family decided to open a Lebanese restaurant called Taverne Lebanaise. “Both parents cook,” she says. “My mother comes from a long line of chefs. My grandfather was a chef, so cooking was in her genes and obviously she had to work.
And her father’s idea of running a restaurant was to bring their country closer to their family, she noted, and the Lebanese around us. “It was her passion and my mom’s talents, and it worked,” she says. “Now there are 13 restaurants later. We all grew up cooking in all aspects of the kitchen.
Neither Grace nor her four siblings cook in the restaurant, but she and her brothers test the recipes with their mother, although she doesn’t do any actual measurements, as everything is from memory. “I’m so happy to have the recipes and my kids know them as family recipes,” she said. “Each recipe comes with a special keepsake, such as’ Whose favorite dish is this; eat it for a special holiday; and other memories.
“I do this with both sides of our family,” she says. “My husband is Irish so the food transcends all kinds of things. Passing on recipes is such an important part of passing on traditions and shows the basic need to nourish yourself and find resources around you. She added that breaking bread with each other is for her more than just food for the body but food for the soul. Unsurprisingly, Grace does a lot of cooking.
Active in their faith, she declared that her family belonged to the Maronites, an Eastern Catholic church in full communion with the Pope. “We went to mass every day at Notre-Dame du Liban in Washington,” she said. “We were closing our restaurants on Sundays because it would be our only family time outside the restaurant because everyone was working there, and it was our Sunday ritual. We ate together and gathered with the Lebanese community around us. We linked our faith to our culture, and when we moved here there were many Middle Easterners.
She noted that her mother is still the most religious person in the family. “She watches Lebanese religious TV shows and organizes mass every day,” she said. “It got him through life. She couldn’t concentrate on anything other than mass, hymns, psalms. Of course, Grace added, there are many Catholic monuments in Lebanon, such as a statue of Saint Charbel, a Maronite monk, and many religious pilgrimage sites.
How she ended up marrying an Irish Catholic, despite living in the Lebanese community, turned out because her parents sent her to a local Catholic school, her neighborhood Saint Ann Catholic School. There she became friends with the Shea family, who are patrons of the original Lebanese tavern. “One of the girls offered to take me home after school,” she said, “and then come home with her and not just to the restaurant. They became my second Catholic family. And, it turned out that the family had two boys, one of whom later became her husband in life.
Visibly proud of her Lebanese heritage, Grace said that Lebanon itself is a sign of hospitality and a sign of dedication, as it is more than just having something to eat.
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Recipe: mom and dad Fūl
“There is nothing more quintessential than fūl for breakfast in Lebanon, ”she said. This is only part of the meal which usually consists of olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheeses, zaatar and, of course, pita bread. This is topped with olive oil and if you ask my dad and Dany (brother) you can’t get enough!
- 2 tins of beans
- 1 can of chickpeas
- 2 to 3 garlic cloves crushed with a mortar and pestle
- Bunch of chopped parsley
- Juice of one lemon
- Olive oil
Empty the cans into a colander and rinse well to remove the film that goes into the can with the water. Transfer to a saucepan and cover with about 2 inches of water and bring to a boil. Cook until cooked through, about 20 minutes and only a little water remains.
In another bowl, add the garlic and lemon juice. Swirl to combine. Pour the beans over and use the pestle to partially mash, leaving half of the mixture not completely mashed. Add olive oil and mash a little more. You don’t want to overwrite it completely. Bring consistency to your preference.
Garnish with additional olive oil (be generous) and chopped parsley. Serve in bowls and put more olive oil on the table with all the Lebanese breakfast accompaniments.