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  • Every Sunday my Lebanese grandmother Alexandria cooked lunch for our family, her 4 daughters, their husbands, children and grandchildren. Many people. Probably 20 or so. We kids ate on TV trays in the living room watching Roller Derby, which on Sunday was the only TV allowed. Alexandria loved Roller Derby. There was hectic banter in three languages, Arabic, French and English,Oud music blasting, the sensual collison of cinnamon, allspice ,Turkish tobacco, Jungle Gardenia perfume, roasting lamb, pita bread baking, octopus steaming in a pot on the stove with lavender froth,it's beautiful pink tentacles boiling in black inky water and garlic. Sandalwood incense permeates the air.
    I would slyly beg her for the Turkish delight, a jellied confection scented with fragrant orange or rose blossom water studded with sweet nuts in cubes, or rather glistening jewel colored cubes dusted in caster sugar kept in a box at the back of her goodie cupboard like contraband or erotica. They were kept in a box with the picture of a woman dressed in veils on the lid.
    I loved the mauve pink ones that tasted like roses, I believed them to be what I knew sex was.

    There was amardine, a thick paste made of dried apricots and rolled into a slab. Yvonne called it shoe leather; one would tear off a piece and hold it in one’s mouth till it dissolved, leaving apricot infused in every cell.

    Very often, during those Sunday lunches I would sit alone in my grandmother’s garden, near the Virgin Mary statue, old westside hazy and magnolia like, engulfed in roses and assimilate the apricot, watching LA in the early 60’s build Century City.

    We would play ‘ya dust’, a betting game with a wishbone. We played it on those Sundays when she prepared a chicken or turkey that was stuffed with a rice pilaf, studded with blanched almonds and ground lamb redolent with cinnamon and allspice, roasted till the bird shone a chestnut brown and when carved aromas filled the room and we all sat in awe, once again, of Alexandria’s magic.

    When the bird was eaten down to the bone, we all vied for the wishbone to begin the game. Break and Bet. The game rules were that one could not pass anything hand to hand with out saying ‘be baa lek’ which means ‘ I remember’ (recalling the game, etc) if ‘be baa lek' was not said at that very moment the other person claimed ‘ya dust ( which I gather meant, I won you fool! )
    and win the bet.
    Every time we played ‘ya dust’, Alexandria would remind us of the story of how she won the Kirmin rug in her living room from her longtime friend Kahil Gibran, the illustrious poet and great admirer of her cooking.

    I do not recall how they met, but Alexandria’s salon was always filled with amazing friends who were artists and musicians, writers, poets, actors. They were often at her home sharing lively evenings, drinking Arak, smoking Turkish tobacco from the large nagile that sat regally exotic and tall, brass based with long woven colored tubes like tentacles with ivory mouth pieces.
    At one of these soirees they supposedly ate a bird and broke a bone and placed a bet.

    Kahlil chose as his potential prize a huge Lebanese feast prepared by Alexandria and she chose the Kirmin rug she admired from his home. Five years passed as the most clever of manipulations and taunting prevailed, but on one particular visit she prepared his favorite delight, la ham ba jeen, a flaky pastry filled with lamb sautéed in ghee with onions, a measure of allspice, pomegranate molasses sprinkled with roasted pine nuts and pomegranate seeds. As he entered her home, he was overcome by the fragrance of the pastries baking in the oven, and I suppose he lost control of his will and she took a warm la ham ba jeen in her hand and passed it to his hand which he raised to his mouth and as his pallate exploded with joy, Alexandria smiled coyly and exclaimed,
    Ya dust!

    photo: Alexandria in the middle. Yvonne to her right, Evelyn to her left, Renee behind her. Photo likely Taken by Selwa.
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