Memories of a Lost Egypt: A Memoir with Recipes

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"Matthew's presence transports me back to the Cairo kitchen, where I am tasting the ful that Ahmet, the cook, prepared and helping Grandmaman Marguerite mix dough while she sings songs to me in Arabic. Her family pride was profoundly linked to the kitchen, so when I attempted to make sambousek once for my friends
and did not follow her recipe for this cheese-filled golden dough faithfully, she was outraged. ...
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Overview

"Matthew's presence transports me back to the Cairo kitchen, where I am tasting the ful that Ahmet, the cook, prepared and helping Grandmaman Marguerite mix dough while she sings songs to me in Arabic. Her family pride was profoundly linked to the kitchen, so when I attempted to make sambousek once for my friends
and did not follow her recipe for this cheese-filled golden dough faithfully, she was outraged. "This recipe is at least
hundreds of years old. You do not change it!" she shouted. I see her standing at the stove, a diminutive woman
usually dressed in black. Her thick, curly, henna-dyed hair was pulled upward in a large chignon; there was always
a lock of hair escaping that she would try, again and again and without success, to push back into her chignon. My daughter Marianne, who looks like her, has the same gesture of trying to push a lock of curly dark hair behind her ear. I smile as I watch the curl fall down in front of her eyes."

From Memories of a Lost Egypt
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Editorial Reviews

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The Barnes & Noble Review
There is a unique relationship between families and food. Family recipes, usually cultural or ethnic in origin, travel through generations, often going with families around the world. They are preserved and revered as much for the culinary delights that they are as for the memories of and links to past generations that they provide.

Colette Rossant's delightful memoir Memories of a Lost Egypt fuses recipes and remembrances together to create a savory, evocative tale of a life across continents introducing readers to the meals and moments that comprised her transcontinental childhood.

As Rossant narrates the story of her life in various cities with varied companions, it becomes clear that the kitchen is the place where she feels most at home, despite her grandmother Rose's admonitions that "Une jeune fille de bonne famille ne frequente pas la cuisine!" (A young girl of good breeding does not go into the kitchen!).

Rossant repeats this phrase throughout the book. But in fact, Rossant makes her way into the kitchen of every house she inhabits. In the kitchen she forges relationships not with her blood relatives, but with the hired help who work there. It is Ahmet in Cairo, Georgette in Paris, and Sister Leila at the convent school that she briefly attends — all cooks — with whom Rossant develops a familial bond.

Her relationships with Ahmet and Georgette, in particular, compensate for the fact that Rossant has little connection to her family: a missing mother, a dead father, and a brother elsewhere. Under the auspices of Ahmet and Georgette,Rossantflourishes into a sensitive and intelligent person. She develops a love affair with food that serves as her strongest identifying characteristic and makes up for the fact that as neither French nor Egyptian, neither Jewish nor Catholic, Rossant has great difficulty fitting in.

Rossant's descriptions of the places she lives are incredibly vivid. Her language elicits images of crowded street markets and steamy kitchens around the world. Each of the relatives with whom she lived comes alive thanks to her careful descriptions and colorful anecdotes. Appropriately, though, Rossant's prose truly shines when she details trips to the vibrant markets of Cairo and Paris and the scintillating smells that emerge from the pots and pans of Ahmet and Georgette's domains.

In one chapter of There is a unique relationship between families and food. Family recipes, usually cultural or ethnic in origin, travel through generations, often going with families around the world. They are preserved and revered as much for the culinary delights that they are as for the memories of and links to past generations that they provide.

Colette Rossant's delightful memoir Memories of a Lost Egypt fuses recipes and remembrances together to create a savory, evocative tale of a life across continents introducing readers to the meals and moments that comprised her transcontinental childhood.

As Rossant narrates the story of her life in various cities with varied companions, it becomes clear that the kitchen is the place where she feels most at home, despite her grandmother Rose's admonitions that "Une jeune fille de bonne famille ne frequente pas la cuisine!" (A young girl of good breeding does not go into the kitchen!).

Rossant repeats this phrase throughout the book. But in fact, Rossant makes her way into the kitchen of every house she inhabits. In the kitchen she forges relationships not with her blood relatives, but with the hired help who work there. It is Ahmet in Cairo, Georgette in Paris, and Sister Leila at the convent school that she briefly attends — all cooks — with whom Rossant develops a familial bond.

Her relationships with Ahmet and Georgette, in particular, compensate for the fact that Rossant has little connection to her family: a missing mother, a dead father, and a brother elsewhere. Under the auspices of Ahmet and Georgette, Rossant flourishes into a sensitive and intelligent person. She develops a love affair with food that serves as her strongest identifying characteristic and makes up for the fact that as neither French nor Egyptian, neither Jewish nor Catholic, Rossant has great difficulty fitting in.

Rossant's descriptions of the places she lives are incredibly vivid. Her language elicits images of crowded street markets and steamy kitchens around the world. Each of the relatives with whom she lived comes alive thanks to her careful descriptions and colorful anecdotes. Appropriately, though, Rossant's prose truly shines when she details trips to the vibrant markets of Cairo and Paris and the scintillating smells that emerge from the pots and pans of Ahmet and Georgette's domains.

In one chapter of Memories of a Lost Egypt she recounts her Epicurean and sentimental attachment to lentils: "We always ate lentil sprouts on New Year's Day as a sign of a new beginning. Also, Ahmet used to make a dish I loved: red lentils, redolent of cumin and garlic and sprinkled with cilantro. Soeur Leila made an excellent lentil soup in the wintertime that I still replicate today. Another of my favorite dishes was lentils with Swiss chard." She punctuates this paragraph with recipes for Sister Leila's Red Lentil Stew and Lentil Soup.

Rossant's injection of recipes into the text serves an interesting purpose. Of course they tempt the reader, but they also link her narrated memories with something concrete. Although Rossant did not keep in contact with many of the people who touched her life, she carried their recipes with her as she traveled the globe, preparing them for her children and grandchildren.

Rossant also recalls significant family events by recounting the elaborate meals that were prepared. At her Aunt Monique's wedding the guests were treated to the following bevy of delights: "huge roast legs of lamb; Ahmet's famous duck ballottine; tiny squabs stuffed with rice and roasted almonds (a famous dish made especially for young couples to wish them a sweet life full of love); kofta, small meatballs in an apricot sauce; and countless other delicacies."

Although most of Memories of a Lost Egypt is set in Egypt, and the recipes are primarily for Middle Eastern cuisine, this is by no means a book about Egypt. It shows readers that regardless of where you live, and who makes up your family, there are ways to feel connected to your family and to your heritage.

Be it chicken soup, lasagna, collard greens, or fried rice, every family holds at least one dish sacred. Rossant's family, varied in ethnicity, held many dishes dear. From babaghanou to Christmas four-meat pâté, Rossant shares her family's recipes with us and, with the most beautifully crafted sentences, makes the reader understand why she clung to food as a uniting, comforting, and identifying force in her life.

Memories of a Lost Egypt makes you want to get your hands on your grandmother's recipe book and head for the kitchen. Even though you'll probably never make the dish as well as your grandmother did, the memories that will come while you prepare it will satisfy you in a way that the meal may not.

—Emily Burg

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Reading this slim volume is like spending an afternoon in the kitchen with a beloved older relative. What could be better than hearing tales of an exotic past while preparing the foods that are at the core of the shared memories? Rossant, a cookbook author and columnist whose article on Egyptian cuisine in Saveur formed the basis of this poignant memoir, certainly had a colorful young life. Born in 1932 to affluent secular Jews, at age five she was taken from her maternal grandparents' Parisian home to live with her father's extended family in Cairo. Her father died soon afterward, but Rossant stayed safely with her grandparents, the Palaccis, throughout the war. Meanwhile, her singularly indifferent mother traveled about, sending her resentful "little pagan" to a Cairo convent boarding school after the war and then back to dreary postliberation Paris for matriculation in a lycee. Fittingly for someone who grew up to be a cookbook writer, Rossant's happiest memories from her childhood in Egypt center on food, from the baguette dipped in garlic and oil that she preferred to the French petit pain au chocolat, to the Ful Medamas (fava beans cooked with pickled turnips, onions and hot peppers) and Boiled Blue Crabs with Ginger Scallion Sauce prepared by the Palaccis' Arab cook, to the Tomato Salad (made with tarragon, chives, lemon juice and olive oil) that won her future husband's heart. Rossant indeed offers a tasty treat for both body and soul.
Library Journal
This autobiography, which grew out of an article in Saveur magazine, has two themes: first, it is hard, if not impossible, to go home again, and second, the kitchenwith its flavors, smells, and associationsis a powerful source of sentiment and memory. Born in France but raised in Egypt, Rossant knows both cultures well, as evidenced by numerous recipes, most quite simple, ranging from familiar French dishes like mussels marinire to a classic Egyptian tamiyya (falafel) made with fava beans. Rossant, a columnist for the New York Daily News, an editor at McCalls, and the author of six cookbooks, does an excellent job of conveying the sadness and longing felt by many former expatriates who try to recapture the past. This will appeal to fans of history, biography, and travel as well as readers interested in exotic cuisines and settings. Recommended for large general collections.Wendy Miller, Lexington P.L., KY
Paul Levy
Nostalgia for the Egypt of Rossant's childhood pervades this..charming book. Her brother spent the war years in Paris, and we are as disappointed as the author when her mother arranges for Rossant's own return.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609601501
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/30/1999
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 1.97 (w) x 7.87 (h) x 0.38 (d)

Meet the Author

A James Beard award-nominated journalist for an article on Egyptian cuisine published in Saveur, Colette Rossant, columnist for the Daily News and a contributor to many food and travel magazines, is also the author of eight cookbooks. Today she lives in New York with her husband in a SoHo townhouse.
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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1
My Mother

I am peeling shrimp for my mother. most likely, she'll refuse them. She eats nothing at the Mother Cabrini Hospice, where she is dying of cancer. Three months ago, the doctors gave her three months to live; it is clear to me that she has no intention of dying yet, as if hanging on were a matter of spiteful retaliation. She complains all the time in a whiny French voice, especially when attendants are hovering near her bed. Each time the dietitian asks her what she'd like, my mother answers, "Chinese shrimp with vegetables," as if she's in Chinatown. I have finally found the time to prepare this fantasy dish in my own kitchen, convinced that the greasy version from a restaurant will kill her. Perhaps I should have gone for the take-out.

I visit her every afternoon. When I come in, she is usually asleep, or at least pretends to be. The television is always on, with the sound turned off. She lies still, her face turned toward the television, her eyes closed. The skin of her face is very taut. Her head looks like a skull with an immense forehead because her hair is pushed all the way up. I sit on a dark brown leatherette chair and wait for her to wake up. Her hands, with their perfectly manicured nails, lie still beside her thighs. She was always proud of her long-fingered, elegant hands. Mine show the signs of washing, cooking, and gardening: short, jagged nails; swollen knuckles; heavy cuticle moons. I used to be very jealous of her hands, but I've since found revenge through my three daughters, who have magnificent hands. The Haitian nurse comes in to look at her, checks her breathing, and leaves. When my mother is awake, she tells me--inFrench--how vulgar she finds the nurse's nails, which are very long and airbrushed with intricate designs and sprays of glitter. Once a week I bring the nurse chocolate to appease my guilt, and to make sure my mother doesn't receive retaliation in the guise of care.
My mother wakes up and looks at me. She is silent and unsmiling.

"I brought you some Chinese shrimp. You want to try some?" I say. She continues to stare at me in silence.

"What time is it?" she asks suddenly, minutes later.

"Half past five. Do you want to try to eat? The shrimps? They're still hot." With irritation etched on her mouth, she rasps, "I'm not hungry. I'll eat later."

There are long silences between us. We never talk about anything that is important: God, love, my father, her life without us, how she met my stepfather--who had died a few years earlier--or why she became Catholic when she had been raised in the Jewish faith. My father died in Aswan when I was six. I vaguely remember him.

My mother never talks about him, and I always avoid bringing this subject up as I know from experience that our conversation will lead nowhere. I don't know why. When he died, she left me for four years with my Egyptian grandparents. I never knew what she really felt about me, and I still don't know today. When we went back to Paris after the war, she again left me, this time with her mother, and I did not see her until I was twenty. When I moved to the United States with my husband, she wanted to follow us to New York. I think she was lonely and she thought that we would be friends and that I would let her come into my life. It never happened. I made sure that she lived nearby but never with us. We always pretended that we loved each other, but I had built myself a world of memories where my mother is nowhere to be found. I want it to stay that way.

It is six--time for Father Paul's visit. He comes in, smiling. "How is my girl today?" My mother beams, slightly flirty, and tells him she's just fine. Maybe now she'll eat. As the priest leaves, I plead, "You want to taste the shrimp? They'll get cold if you don't eat them now." She tries one, then another, and finally smiles like a small child who has gotten what she wants. "They're good but they're not Chinese," she says petulantly as she pushed the plate away and closes her eyes. She dozes off and I wait, flipping through the thick photo album by her bed. There are many pictures--in tones of pale gray--of my mother when she was young. She is at the beach . . . in a convertible . . . at her wedding. I gaze at her lush, tall body in a long, white satin dress with the undulating waves of a train arranged behind her and a heavy, cascading bouquet in her hand. My father is taller than she and darkly handsome like an Arab prince. There are pictures of them on their honeymoon in Venice, then in Paris on their balcony. Then page after page of my brother, and just a few of me. There is a picture of me in Cairo in my grandparents' house. My brother and I are sitting on a white Victorian couch with a gilded frame. I am an adorable little girl with curly hair and a shy smile. I look at these pictures with a smile; I feel very tender toward that little girl.

MUSSELS MARINIERE
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan.
Add 1/2 cup chopped parsley and 3 minced garlic cloves and sauté for 3 minutes.
Add salt and pepper to taste, then 4 pints of mussels (bearded and well scrubbed) and 1 cup white wine.
Cover and cook over medium heat, shaking the pan several times, for 10 minutes, or until the mussels have opened.
Divide the mussels among 4 soup plates.
Strain the liquid and pour over the mussels.
Serve with a French baguette.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2000

    A welcome blend of memories and good food

    If you are like me, you enjoy reading cookbooks that are more than just compilations of recipes but also include evocative text that recreates another time and place. 'Memories of a Lost Egypt' is such a book. The author's vivid and touching reminiscences of her childhood often center on food and her relationships with her family's cooks, and she skillfully interweaves her narrative with recipes for the delicious dishes she savored and learned to prepare.

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