There's a little restaurant in Skokie, IL called The Pita Inn. Oh yes, that link has music. This place is amazing. Vegan and straightedge kids, hardcore carnivores and drunks, come from far and wide to sample tastes of the smooth hummus, garlicky baba ghannouj, and succulent meats. Well, wait. The vegan kids don't eat the meat. And maybe some of the straight-edge kids don't either. Sometimes the drunks may stick to the veggie options, but other times they choose meats. Oh lord, where was I?
Sometimes when I'm visiting my family in Chicago, I get to go on a little outing to The Pita Inn with Dad. If the weather is nice, we take his red convertible. He asks me repeatedly if I'd like to drive, and after saying "no thanks" three or four times, I finally ask "Do you want me to drive?" He promptly hands me the keys and settles into the passenger seat. I drive that car like an old lady. It's just too beautiful for my regular Impatient Jackass driving.
We drive to The Pita Inn Market, which is next door to the restaurant. My father is greeted by his friend at the counter immediately; they start laughing and catching up in Arabic, and I begin wandering down the aisles. There are at least 14 types of olive oil on the shelf right underneath about ten types of honey. Some of the honey has chunks of honeycomb in the jar, but no label. Just down from there are about 30 types of jam. My eyes linger on the fig jam but I move away reluctantly, remembering the jar I already have in my refrigerator in Madison. In the back of the store is a small refrigerated case with three kinds of feta cheese (French, Greek, Bulgarian) and several types of olives. Dad's friend hands us tiny plates with samples of everything to help us decide what to get. Behind us is the shelf of nuts: pistachios, almonds, cashews, walnuts, some with spices, some plain, all taking up an entire aisle. Another aisle of the store is devoted to non-food items including tea sets, olive oil soaps, other skin products, movies, dvds, hookahs, and tobacco. You can buy a beautiful tea set for under $20.
Each shelf in the store is stuffed full with groceries and other items that you'd find at most markets, as well as certain gems that you really cannot find just anywhere. For example: preserved lemons, a special food coloring that's used for the dessert kunafa, and sesame candy, along with various chocolates I only recognize from my childhood times in Ireland. Oh, and phone cards. You can buy a ton of phone cards here. I love this place. I could stand around in the aisles for hours.
I always leave the store with bags full of wonderful groceries that I wouldn't even attempt to find in Madison. My staples are hummus and baba ghannouj and fresh-baked pillowy pita bread, but I've collected some other odds and ends on various trips. Like this one - I also got a bag full of dates and a package of lahem b'ajeen (which my parents referred to as "Arabic pizza" when I was a child to get me to eat it. Nice work, Mom and Dad!). The jar of pickles is straight from my dad though; no store can compare.
At the bottom of this picture is the lahem b'ajeen, and at the top is the hummus. Delicious.
On this most current trip, I bought some of that unmarked honey. It's delicious, and very good looking, which is always a lovely combination.
I also bought a giant bottle of Sultan olive oil because, you know, it's called Sultan. And this kind of olive oil tastes different. Better.
I always feel well-stocked after a shopping trip to the Pita Inn Market, mostly because I can do so much with just these few items. I can easily put together several diverse meals with just a few items. Meals like this are some of my favorites. Maybe it's in the same realm as One of Each; you get so many tastes and flavors, and you can combine everything just as you like it. There is something so appealing about having just a few items, but so many possibilities.
What is it about food in general though? Food is memories. Food is comfort. Food is home. Food is family. Food is definitely my family. You cannot come into my parents' home (or my aunties' homes, or my cousins' or sister's homes - it runs in the family) without being well-fed and, very likely, uncomfortably stuffed. It doesn't matter if you're not hungry. Perhaps you'll sample new and unfamiliar fruits or be treated to homemade soup, or maybe, if you're lucky, get an entire meal complete with cousins, upwards of seven meats, zillions of sides, people stealing off your plate, and perhaps even a rendition of the family song. Eating, sitting around the table together, it's all so important and critical. Food is huge.
This past Sunday comes to mind. I eat brunch with my family in the backyard of my parents' home. As we finish our fried eggs and bangers and rashers (irish breakfast meats - sausages and bacon, basically), we sit in the sun, chatting, and my father, without breaking the conversation, hands me a small piece of Arabic bread with cheese and tomatoes stuffed inside. I take it wordlessly and eat it; the perfect ending to a lovely family breakfast, My Lovely Family breakfast. Irish and Iraqi, all in one. It's perfect and natural and delicious.
Yes, the food is delicious, and yes, this is a very important factor in deciding what to eat because, you know, you should eat delicious things. But there is also that little spark of culture and history and family, all wrapped up in a couple of food items. The need to connect somehow when I feel homesick. And this homesickness is not about Chicago as a city. When I'm homesick for Chicago, I turn on WBBM NewsRadio 78. We get totally clear reception up here. I listen to the traffic report on the 8's and it makes me smile with a little pang in my heart. But this other homesickness, this is about my family, and being homesick for them, for sitting around a table and my dad passing me olives at the end of a meal, and for my mom making the most delicious foods from both sides of our world, which is no easy feat.
And so, tonight's dinner: spoonfuls of hummus and baba ghannouj with sliced tomato, greek feta cheese, olives, and warm pita bread. So many items! So many combinations! So many sexy results!
Maybe tomato and cheese inside the bread.
Or perhaps a tomato dipped in baba ghannouj.
How about a single, perfect olive? How about 12 of them? Because that's how many I ate.
And as for dessert...I'm not huge on dessert-y things right now, but I did find the perfect, tiny bite - Turkish Delights! I remember tasting these at parties when I was younger and knowing they tasted funny, but also knowing it was a good funny. Like, "let me get a couple more of those" funny. They're usually flavored in lemon, mint, or rose, which is actually flavored with rose water.
Okay, I'm going to go try to fry an egg like my mother can. Please understand if I or anybody else in my family tries to feed you all the time. It's probably because we love you.
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