Diana Abu-Jaber has spent years carving out a life as a successful writer, struggling to reconcile the competing voices in her head, one from a tough-minded German grandmother and the other from her exuberant Arab father.
Through it all, she baked. Cookies and cakes, tarts and scones, a blizzard of confectioners’ sugar blanketing all difficulties, smoothing out rough edges, sweetening the bitter. In the kitchen and in life, she became skilled in the art of improvising with whatever ingredients were at hand.
In Life Without a Recipe, which picks up where her first memoir, The Language of Baklava, left off, Abu-Jaber takes readers along on her bumpy and frequently surprising journey through early and middle adulthood.
For the record, that covers three marriages (two short, one still going), the painful loss of her larger-than-life father, Bud, the emotional roller coaster of writing a book and the joys (and terrors) of adopting a baby in her late 40s.
And the bittersweet thread running through that journey: learning to define her identity. Arab and American. Writer and family member. Present and past. In one scene that captures the tug-of-war, she hunches over her keyboard, longing to join in the laughter of her daughter and husband echoing from the other side of the house but compelled to keep writing.
For all of that, the book has a merry feel, as though Abu-Jaber is about to burst into laughter on the next page. A sense of life-as-adventure prevails, a legacy perhaps from her father. The stories she tells about herself are merciless, like a no-holds-barred conversation with an articulate and occasionally impulsive friend who confesses her own shortcomings but stands ready to enfold you in a hug at the slightest hint of need.
And for Abu-Jaber, that sort of love means food, always food. Food served Bedouin style, standing up, a steaming platter of cauliflower scented with garlic and cabbages studded with pomegranate seeds. On the stove — a pot of lentils ready to be sent home with the nanny. Or at the kitchen table: homemade pretzels or apple crisp or angel food cake, carefully crafted at home. All of it a “labor of sweetness.”
Interpreting life through food, making the table the center of the home, is an inheritance from both sides of Abu-Jaber’s family. Readers already know Bud from the first book, the man whose bear-hug embrace of life led his family back to Jordan when Abu-Jaber was a child, introducing her to the smells of mint and jasmine, the sounds of the call to prayer, the sight of minarets.
But this second book gives equal time to her grandmother, Grace, a sugar-obsessed figure with a strong sense of independence, an insatiable hunger for foil-wrapped sweets and a disdain for the institution of marriage.
Being single, Grace told Abu-Jaber, was the key to happiness. After Abu-Jaber’s first divorce, her grandmother shrugged: “Well, I’m just glad you got that out of your system.”
Life Without a Recipe continues to develop the theme she started in the earlier book, the unending internal argument between wanderlust and staying home, between doing what’s expected and rebelling, between sugar and spice. But this time, the conflicts play out on the adult stage of matrimony and home ownership and illnesses and babies.
Her father and her grandmother loom large in the book, frequently at odds in life and in Abu-Jaber’s head. But on two topics, Grace and Bud were in rare agreement. “1. Men are terrible. 2. Save your money. (Gram: in bra. Bud: somewhere, preferably not at the horse races.)”
Abu-Jaber copes with this familial divide the way she always has — through food, through baking. This is a serious compulsion. She dreams of baking, wakes up with jaw moving, chewing imaginary banana pancakes that drip with syrup.
Sugar, she acknowledges when her doctor finally lays down the law about her creeping blood pressure, has a hold on her. It is “not only dessert but fairy dust.” But as she works to reduce the outsize role sugar plays in her life, she learns a few things about letting go.
Her daughter teaches her about uncomplicated eating. When Grace is done with a brownie, she’s done — even if the brownie isn’t. So Abu-Jaber continues to learn about balance, learning “to answer the body, not the mind.”
Life Without a Recipe is about a lust for life, about the jumble of joy and fear and surprise and even pain. It’s about that soft cookie with the crunch inside and the slice of cake with an unexpected layer of tartness. In the end, all of it tastes sweet.
Amy Driscoll is a Miami Herald editor.
Meet the author
Who: Diana Abu-Jaber
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: 305-442-4408 or http://www.booksandbooks.com/