I have a hazy recollection of my early days in Lebanon. I’m not sure if it’s Alzheimer’s, the human condition or just suppressed memory, but the first 21 years of my life are pieces of a puzzle that stray in and out of mind. I grew up during the height of the Lebanese war. My family and I were driven out of our home on my fifth birthday. I don’t remember that day. I do remember that it was difficult for us to find a place to stay. People north of Beirut were hesitant about providing rent to the southern “migrants” – they didn’t trust that we wouldn’t overstay our welcome. For months, our family of 6 spent a great deal of time in dad’s ’78 Mercedes, moving between hotels and the homes of friends and relatives. We eventually found a 2 bedroom unit in Mastita. We lived there for 14 years, the owners of the unit becoming part of our extended family. I have a clear memory of when a large amount of sand was delivered to the neighbourhood. We used it to fill up large hessian bags with which we secured the bottom floor of the building to protect us from a direct hit, stray bullets or shrapnel. When the bombing got seriously close, all the residents would rush down to the sand fortress for shelter until things cooled off. For a kid like me, it was as close as I got to being on a camping trip – a whole lot of fun. I didn’t realise the extent of the danger I was in. Sometimes, I’d be too sleepy and lazy to even bother getting out of bed. Dad would have to carry me to the bomb shelter on his shoulders. Shortly after the war slowed down and the bombing stopped, the protective sand bags collapsed under their own weight. Talk about a false sense of security.
During those days, fresh food was hard to come by. There was no electricity and so no refrigeration. Despite the fact we were living in the 20th century, our way of life in many aspects was more like the era that had just passed. Women would gather around the saj in large groups when a shipment of flour came in. They would bake markouk bread for the whole neighbourhood. We were somewhat luckier than most in that Dad’s job took him travelling around the region. He would visit small farms on his way and purchase as much fresh produce as he could get his hands on. Mom would then need to preserve his findings. Fruit became jam or cordial, milk became yoghurt, kishk or labne, and vegetables were pickled or sundried. I never knew how good mom’s tomato paste was until I moved to Sydney. Fresh, sweet Lebanese tomatoes boiled to a smooth paste that was further dried in the heat of the Lebanese summer sun. This went into anything from marinades, pasta sauces, soups and stews. Those jars full of paste would see us through the year. In the way these jars preserved the memory of a summer tomato, sun-kissed and ripe, my mother’s efforts are preserved in my memory more than any other from back then. Seeing a jar of homemade tomato paste reminds me of my childhood, of my mother and father, my brothers and sister and of our life together. Isn’t it strange? I really miss those days.
Last week, my friend Kristie brought over 10 kilos of organic tomatoes. I used 5 kilos and they turned into a single jar of tomato paste. The others were eaten fresh. This paste will keep for a year, and I will use it during the winter time. Next year, my daughter might even have some in a soup. She’ll get to know how tomatoes from her first summer tasted like. The memory and flavour of that summer is preserved in a little glass jar, waiting patiently for her.