Lately I’ve been reading Sylvia Boorstein’s book It’s Easier Than You Think (Harper San Francisco, 1995) trying to help my mind do just a little less fretting about unimportant things and a little more reflecting on helpful ones. It’s a book of short essays on basic Buddhist teachings, and Boorstein is a master at highlighting their everyday value. Big ideas like impermanence get boiled down to their essence. She reminds readers that this concept is about more than life and death; it’s about knowing that no matter how much you like or don’t like what’s happening right now (a leisurely summer swim, a long line at the bank) it’s reliably going to end.
Of course the concept of impermanence is also all about life and death. For a while I was reading along, thinking Boorstein was helping me practice on the small stuff so I could build up to thinking about the big stuff i.e. actual dying. But then today she turned that idea on its head. In an essay about the death of her good friend Alta, Boorstein shared a conversation they’d had shortly before Alta died. They were discussing a eulogy. Together they arrived at the conclusion that so much of life was spent fussing about nothing, and to Alta, many of the seemingly big and the seemingly small things looked about equal from the end point. So they agreed that Boorstein would share Alta’s recipe for marinated mushrooms at her funeral. They were good, they had made people feel better in her life and she knew it. That recipe was something worth holding on to, at least by someone.
Perhaps I have a more naturally morbid sensibility than I was giving myself credit for, because this led me to contemplate what I would like to offer at my own funeral, what I have to give that I hope will outlast me. I came up with the recipe I was given for baba ghanouj by my friend Sami. I am convinced it tastes so good at least partly because Sami is such a nice person. He grew up in Iraq, and emigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s to open a beautiful café in Minneapolis called Sindbad’s. I used to work in a restaurant that bought pita bread from him, and he taught us how to make baba ghanouj by putting eggplants directly on the stove burners – a revelation to me at the time.
He taught me a few other things, too. When the war in Iraq started in 2003, he decided to return home and leave his restaurant. He planned to move to his sister’s home in Basra “to be of use,” he said. “I may just be sweeping the sidewalk,” he answered when I asked what he was going to do, “but that’s okay.” Somehow the success of his business and life in the U.S. didn’t seem as important to him as being present for whatever changes his family was about to experience. He wouldn’t be a conventional success story any longer. He was moving back to a place that would produce millions of refugees over the coming years. From an outside view, it looked like he was getting in a rowboat and heading out to a sinking ship to climb aboard. But on reflection, who isn’t? Whose boat is going to float forever? No one I know, which makes today the ideal one for sharing snacks with the people you love. I’m thankful to Sami for teaching me that, both directly, with his life, and indirectly, with his eggplant. And on that note, in case there’s a bus out there with my number on it tonight, here is his recipe:
Sami’s Baba Ghanouj
- One eggplant
- ¼-1/2 cup tahini, depending on your taste
- Olive oil
- Clove or two garlic, pressed or chopped
- One lemon
Place the eggplant directly on a gas flame and char it until it’s soft and starts to collapse. Turn it with tongs to burn all the sides more or less equally. Rinse in cold water over a colander, and pull off the charred skin. You should be left with just the pulpy insides. Cut off the stem and the bottom and place in a food processor with the tahini and pressed garlic; salt generously. Squeeze half a lemon into this and save the other half in case the final product needs more acid. Pour a dollop of olive oil and turn on the food processor; process until smooth. Taste. If needed, add more lemon or salt. If it seems dry, replace cover on food processor and pour more oil in the top while it runs. It should have a silky consistency at the finish.
Garnish with olive oil, olives, and chopped mint or parsley or both. Serve with raw vegetables. Radishes, carrots and cucumber are very nice with this dip. If you are feeling deluxe, eat it on good bread with butter and olives. It will keep in the refrigerator for several days.
Do you have a favorite Baba Ghanouj recipe?