Grandmothers: a legacy of love and raisin breadAug 31, 2020 01:52PM ● By Lilli-Ann Buffin
Sita looking at my baby cousin, Andrea.
In the time before Food Network and TV chefs, long before “foodie” was a word, there were meat-roasting, soup-simmering, cookie-making, bread-baking grandmothers. My maternal grandmother— my sita— immigrated to this country from Lebanon when she was a young woman. Unable to speak English, Sita found her voice in the kitchen.
My grandmother articulated her love for us through the language of food. The table became the canvas upon which she displayed her artistry. Sita possessed a magic that could turn the simplest ingredients, such as rice or lentils, into delicious, exotic fare. “Food in proportion to the love,” was Sita’s motto. Neither stomachs nor souls went hungry in our grandmother’s house.
Just before Sita covered the dough with her old navy blue sweater, she’d give my sister and me each a small ball of the sweet, stretchy paste. Sita told us that we could play with the dough, but we shouldn’t eat it. Out the back door and onto the porch we went. Occasionally, my sister or I tossed one of the little balls into the air and caught it so Sita could see from the window that we were indeed just playing with the dough. In fact, we were nibbling away.
I don’t recall the explanations we gave when our rations were consumed, but the taste and pleasure were worth any consequence. As I grew older, I realized that Sita had given us the dough to keep us quiet while the bread dough was rising. But our younger selves thought we were helping, and we were eager and proud to be part of the special occasion.
After Sita died, my aunt, Lillie, took to making the raisin bread just the way Sita had—same wooden bowl, same recipe, the ingredients for which were recorded only on her heart. Old enough by then, my sister and I served as our aunt’s actual assistants in the bread-making effort. After the dough was kneaded and placed back into the bowl to rise, Aunt Lillie would send one of us to retrieve the same thin navy blue sweater Sita had worn and used to cover the dough.
As Aunt Lillie laid that old sweater across the dough-filled bowl, she would say, “And now for the love part.”
After Aunt Lillie died, the bread-making stopped. Unfortunately, the recipe went with her. Where the sweater went, I do not know, but a portion of the love that filled the sweater that covered the dough is now inside of me.
More than 50 years have passed since I first stood alongside my sita in her bright yellow kitchen, eagerly awaiting my ration of that delicious dough. Her house is gone along with the recipe. Despite the many efforts of daughters and nieces, no one has been able to replicate the exact formula for our Sita’s raisin bread, but food continues to be a centerpiece in our lives—it is a reason to gather, a source of strength, medicine and comfort, and an offering of love in large proportions.
It’s around our tables that we celebrate all of the selves we’ve ever been and the ones from whom we came. So, here’s to grandmothers and to all of us who ate the bread, tasted the love, and who remember.