What I remember best from my father’s stories of his homeland is the food: the way he evoked the smell of apricots and tomatoes drying on roofs; rhapsodized over flaky grilled fish eaten without utensils on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates; recalled colorful stork eggs sold at the Hinnuni Bazaar.
My father was born in the Jewish quarter of Baghdad in the 1920s. His mother was a healer and came from a long line of people who believed eating well was an investment in one’s strength. Even the colors of foods played a crucial part in the delicate equilibrium of mind and body health. Green fruits and vegetables (spinach, melons, parsley) invited hope, while yellow and orange produce (squash, persimmons, citrus) encouraged happiness. Anything black (for example, the bitter skin of an eggplant) should be avoided so as not to court misfortune.
The spiritual and nutritional significance of food for Iraqi Jews did more than inform my childhood decades later in New York City—it defined it. In our house, tahini masqueraded as dessert, romaine lettuce as an exciting snack, and cod-liver oil as a benevolent addition to a cup of tea. My father warned me of the dangers of white flour, mozzarella sticks, even cold water (it assailed the system). “Poison,” he called anything with refined sugar. Our apartment was a culinary freak show. Step right up and see the Tofurky, horsetail tea, and sea-kelp noodles: all items that warmed and strengthened the body, in line with the Iraqi-Jewish saying “Give him food so he can grow.” In America, my immigrant father had taken his traditions to a whole new level. In the face of frozen dinners, he became a crusader for health. For sprouts, soy, and seaweed.
I was doomed from the start. Not only was I the only girl in my school with artists for parents, but I’d virtually never had processed foods—no grape jelly, fruit punch, cinnamon buns, deli turkey, or movie-theater candy. But I wasn’t stupid. Midway through kindergarten, I made my first grown-up decision: I wanted a Happy Meal. And I chose my friends (and their mothers) accordingly. The truth is, I do not remember the taste of that first Happy Meal or what special gift I found inside. But it kicked off my secret love affair with all things unhealthy.
As the years went on, there were stealthy trips to Chinese buffets, clandestine sides of deep-fried pickles, hidden cans of sprayable cheese. I lined up two sleepovers per weekend, based less on the quality of friendship than the quality of junk food in that family’s pantry. I became a gymnast, and when we traveled for meets, I told my parents to please stay home and rest, I’d go with another family. This is how I experienced every fast-food chain along the eastern seaboard. Plus, I discovered Marshmallow Fluff, Capri Sun, trail mix laced with chocolate-covered banana chips. Bad fettuccine Alfredo devoured on a subway platform during eighth grade gave me food poisoning so utterly horrendous that I told my father I’d been drinking vodka: obviously preferable, despite my age, to eating cream sauce.