A note from the Director: Mujadara Memories and Everyday Life
By Sarah J. Hall, Director
I’m writing a special message today to let you know that we currently have a convergence of particularly strong and special programming — a “sweet spot,” if you will — in our calendar. From now until August 21, you can see two terrific exhibitions in one visit — Exploring Jonathan Street: History, Art, Imagination, and Allure of the Near East: Treasures from the Huntington Museum of Art. They are very different shows — one looks closely at local history, expanding upon it to reveal commonalities and hidden histories. The other brings decorative arts associated with present-day Syria, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and India to Hagerstown. It’s an exhibition largely drawn from Islamic cultures and is the museum’s first exhibition to significantly focus on Islamic art since 1933.
I often say that one of the strengths of the museum is that we bring the world to Hagerstown — sharing art, accomplishments, and stories from far-flung places (like Allure of the Near East, and last year’s Bernini & the Roman Baroque: Masterpieces from Palazzo Chigi in Ariccia), yet we also bring that same attention close to home (with exhibitions like Exploring Jonathan Street, our regional juried exhibitions, and last year’s Joshua Johnson: Portraitist of Early American Baltimore). Our lives are enriched by the balance of the two, and inevitably those exhibitions that perhaps seem to be the most distant in origin, have strong personal connections for many of our neighbors and visitors.
As different as our two current exhibitions may seem, there is a resonance between them. They both focus on the types of objects that make up our daily lives — traces of everyday existence that help us to feel connected to those before us (and hopefully foster a deeper sense of human connection as well). They are Items that give us a glimpse into taste, fashion, trends, personal comfort, and interests, as well as broader subjects like politics, trade, manufacturing, and quality of life. In the Jonathan Street exhibition, you see fragments of candlesticks and a piece of an oil lamp — ordinary interior lighting in a modest 19th-century American dwelling. In Allure of the Near East, one of my favorite pieces is featured at the top of this post, a bronze oil lamp originating in Iran during the Seljuk period; its handle is decorated with a tiny, charming bird—perhaps a guardian from heaven or a symbol of the freedom of the spirit.
Both exhibitions also contain examples of ceramics — albeit in the Jonathan Street show they are represented by fragments. Allure of the Near East features many beautiful examples, including simple earthenware and colorfully glazed fritware (a white-bodied ceramic made with a mixture of clay and ground glass that was developed to compete with the luxury commodity that was Chinese porcelain) A small turquoise and black pitcher originated in Syria and is an example of the type of vividly decorated pottery produced there in the 13th century.
Many years ago, when I met my husband, I discovered that while his Polish last name reflected his father’s heritage, his mother was the youngest of nine children born to Syrian immigrants.
When I first visited his family, every meal included as much Syrian food as American food, and Thanksgiving was double-the-food in both variety and quantity. There were always pans of kibee, and grape vines growing right outside the door for stuffing and making dolmas, or simply using as a convenient vehicle for tabouli. A particular favorite was the small dried eggplants my mother-in-law would stuff and cook in tomato sauce. (My husband periodically craves these.) If he wants comfort food, he wants riz and beans—rice cooked with vermicelli (and sometimes chicken) and green beans cooked in tomato sauce (sometimes with beef).
We would go to the market to buy cases of olives. Watercress was prized for salads. And sticky amerdeen (apricot paste) was a treat. Of course, my mother-in-law always sent me home with boxes of baklava for my mom. (And that’s just the most well-known of the panoply of sweets that household produced!)
In those days, every Sunday the kitchen at his family home would be busy with two of his aunts and his mother all working, chatting, and sometimes arguing. (Each had a different and very strong, opinion of how much lemon should be in tabouli.) They made the best salads—generous with lemon juice in a way my household wasn’t. And his mother could fry eggplant—plain slices in olive oil—into an incredible, tender delicacy. Those days are long gone; today, we’re more likely to do the cooking and deliver it to his mother. But the memories are incredibly precious—as are the connections that food makes, between families and cultures.
I still try to make Syrian food occasionally (and so does my husband)—particularly because I want my son to connect to his family history, and maybe even more importantly, I want to honor those Sundays in the kitchen. So here, in honor of all the days, we had together (and the days we haven’t) and with love and gratitude to matriarch Martha and daughters Naomi, Lida, and Josie, I share with you a recipe for one of my favorites—mujadara (lentils and rice with browned onions).
(about 6 servings)
¾ cup brown lentils
1 ¼ cup water
2 cups thinly sliced onions
½ cup olive oil
1 cup long grain rice
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter
- Combine lentils and 1 ¼ c water in a large saucepan; bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce to simmer and cook uncovered about 15 minutes. The lentils should still be slightly firm.
- While lentils are simmering, sauté the onions in olive oil over medium heat. To get them the deep brown, and partially crispy/nearly burned texture that is an important part of this recipe, do not stir too often. (This was a challenge for me until I told a Lebanese friend I never could get the onions right, she told me—“just leave them alone and cook the hell out of them!”)
- When the lentils reach the al dente stage, drain the liquid into a measuring cup and add sufficient water to bring to 1 ½ cups of liquid. Add back to saucepan with rice, salt and a scoop or two of the onions. Bring to a boil and then cover and reduce heat for 30 minutes.
- Add butter and taste for doneness. It might need up to 10 minutes more.
I love the texture of rice and lentils in this dish—and the deep flavor of the onion, which is sometimes sweet and sometimes a little crispy and burnt. It’s delicious with a dollop of labneh (yogurt) and warm pita bread.
For the recipe, go to https://wcmfa.org/allure-of-the-near-east-treasures-of-the-huntington-museum-of-art/tasteoftheneareast/ (https://wcmfa.org/allure-of-the-near-east-treasures-of-the-huntington-museum-of-art/tasteoftheneareast/