We sit at a small Formica table in a deli eating translucent slices of prosciutto smeared with melting sundried tomatoes and crushed basil, all piled high on a sourdough roll. My glass of shiraz is from the deli’s own vineyard; Aunt Margie’ chardonnay comes from the owner’s cousin’s farm—not quite a vineyard but on its way to being one, so we’re told. This leads to a short exchange on the intriguing topic of, aside from husband, children, friends, “How can I ever go home to Brooklyn again?”
I mention the sandwich’s passing likeness to the hoagies we ate growing up in Philadelphia. Margie complains that the Residence tries to pass something off as a hoagie every now and then so the Easterners won’t feel so homesick but which, in their very incompetent construction, makes homesickness even more pronounce. Pepper pot soup, another entry in Philadelphia’s culinary box, is similarly butchered by the Residence’s kitchen.
Margie grew up on pepper pot soup. “What’s in it? I can’t remember.”
I pull out the phone: honeycomb tripe, bacon, onion, celery, a good beef broth, three leeks, one bell pepper, cloves, red pepper flakes, black pepper, one potato and a thickener of flour and butter. Honeycomb tripe, Google reminds us, is a cow’s second stomach and you have to soak it a little in hydrogen peroxide before anything else can be done with it.
I very much doubt her when she claims pepper pot soup is incredibly delicious.
“So name something you wouldn’t eat,” I say.
“What’s hummus made of?”
She makes a face. “That was the first thing I ate when we got to Egypt. They sell it from street stalls or even from little pots carried around. Weirdest thing ever and I won’t have it again.” Sixty years of chickpea deprivation has, indeed, followed.
But the markets in Egypt—she’s suddenly walking through them again, peering into barrels and baskets, sacks of dates, the furry green shells of just-picked almonds, cloth bags full of spices. Dried leaves hanging from posts—mint, basil, something that when she crushed it into the palm of her hand left a red stain that didn’t come off for a week. Bolts of yellow silk, soft white cotton; tin cooking pots, incense, leather sandals (she bought two—one red, the other green painted with silver stars). Chickens clucking in wooden pens beside pyramids of warm eggs.
“You die with delight each time you walked through the markets. Everyone else in the Service would go to the country club first and have a drink when they arrived but we threw our bags down and headed smack into the center of Cairo, crazy to see and smell and eat and drink.”
Margie just remembers a story about a German journalist who came to stay with them while covering the region’s increasing tensions over the Suez Canal. He was a tall, thick bodied young man, shaggy brown-haired handsome with a smile that raised his bushy eyebrows to form a constantly intrigued gaze. He worked for Frank on the newspaper in Berlin and who had taught him how to interview and cover stories. He was the man Frank sent out with cameras and a notepad to talk to people who would not talk to the American press.
It was the journalist’s second day in Egypt and Margie decided to take him to the market. He could help her carry home what she would purchase for a dinner party that night, beginning with a nice-sized hunk of lamb. She dressed like a high school girl in the 50s–pencil skirt (“I loved that skirt—it gave me hips!”); a white short-sleeved blouse, saddle shoes and, across her shoulders a long scarf she had become accustomed to wearing just in case she needed to cover her hair. A notebook was jammed into the journalist’s back pants pocket. Margie thinks there were two pencils and one pen in his shirt pocket. Very clearly, though, three cameras hung around the journalist’s neck.
She took him to the smaller market, maybe four block square, near their apartment in the center of Cairo because she had become acquainted with a few of the merchants and trusted the butcher and wanted a second look at a silver bowl that might look nice filled with lemons. By now the two servants the Embassy had hired for their apartment called Margie “Tante Peg,” and they gave her a list of ingredients they would need to cook the meal that she insisted she would cook herself—or as much as they would let her since she was supposed to be a “lady” and ladies do not cook. But she hadn’t gotten used to the notion of being a lady at all, or that the American Embassy provided her with servants—help, she insisted, not servants—who conceived of her as any kind of lady at all.
What was on the list? A careful sip of Chardonnay and a bit of prosciutto at the deli table doesn’t reveal a clue. Margie shrugs. The point is she took the big, darling, friendly German journalist to the market and they walked among the men and women sitting on the ground under an awning of fluttering cloth to protect everyone and everything from the hard-nut sun. Every now and then she stooped down to examine one thing and then another, paid for a paper bag full of something, a cloth-wrapped kind of cheese, not paying much bother to the increasing commotion behind her until it was impossible not to and she turned about to find her companion snapping photographs of old men in doorways and women wrapped in black cloth sitting behind their meager offerings. Pitched intonations began to echo from towers near and far and he was scrambling about and clicking while prayer mats unrolled and the faithful knelt.
The roar, the roar of the men turning against them and the women spitting and Margie pulling on him to stop, STOP! You don’t do that, we need to go. You’ll be killed, she told him. But the journalist was too lost, uncomprehending among such strange and powerful beauty until a contingent of Egyptian soldiers surrounded them and suggested they hurry away.
“It was a delicate time to be white in Egypt, to look European,” Margie explains of the moments before the war erupted. “We were watched wherever we went, even by those in society who came to the Embassy’s parties and were educated in France. Of course, it was forbidden to take photographs in the market and he was rude but the war was coming and we looked too much like Israelis.”
An hour or two of sitting in a deli over plates of prosciutto, sundried tomatoes, basil, two glasses of wine, cracks us into a moment when she was 21 and hurrying to merge into the crooked, crowded, pungent streets of Cairo, Egypt, respecting danger but not deterred—hungry in so many ways.