I realized yesterday…

I realized yesterday that I’ve probably cooked more in my life with Rachid than with anyone else. And that’s not counting the meals together where each of us brought something. I remember the first time we ate together. The morning of Thanksgiving Day (in 1989 I think) the phone rang and it was Rachid or Fanny asking if we were doing anything… That was already unique – who would just call someone up on Thanksgiving morning and ask whether they were doing anything. And because we are who we are (and I was going to bake a salmon which could just as well stay in the fridge) and having just met the Cordero-Benkhaltis and they seemed interesting — I said, “Nothing. Why?” And they said, you should come over for dinner this afternoon.

So we did, walking with our boys and our friend Maryrose the two blocks to their house. We sat at a table in the middle of the living room eating braised turkey quarters with Ahmed and Fanny and Rachid (Salima wasn’t born yet). And the food mattered only because of what it wasn’t: a big stuffed turkey and a lot of crazy sides. What mattered was how that meal started a very long and very loving friendship between our two families, at times almost one, extended.

Cooking together. Not sure this counts, but a couple of years later, probably around Thanksgiving but maybe Ramadan, Rachid came up with the idea of roasting a lamb in our carport. It was cold; it took all day, turning the lamb, basting it with butter, pulling off bits throughout the day to go with whatever I was making (“sides”). Rachid and JD Ross (son) were faithful to their task of turning & basting, talking and laughing; while the rest of us ran in and out with glasses of wine or maybe something stronger. (Rachid went on to roast more lambs at other homes over the years. He had made connections with farmers in various places…Puyallup I think, one year, Shelton, too? He found stuff out that I having lived here for years couldn’t imagine.)

Rachid and JD Ross tending the lamb.

One time at the ocean staying in a rented house with not much of a kitchen, we’d pretty much used up the provisions we brought with us – except for a salmon slated for the last night. There were no herbs or spices, no mayo, not even a decent pan. What to do? Rachid of course had the answer (he had a lot of answers when it came to food – even sometimes when I hadn’t asked a question). There was an onion; there was Wesson oil. I can’t exactly remember how this went, but Rachid cut the onion into very, very thin strips, tossed them on top of the (now baked?) salmon, heated the oil to just short of bursting into flames and drizzled it onto the onions which immediately crisped up. Salt. Maybe under the broiler for a bit? We served it to accolades. It’s folklore at our house.

There was the time I resented being told to bring a Greek-themed dish to dinner with Dan’s Evergreen colleague. On the afternoon of the dinner, I had a big chunk of beef and no plan for how to make it Greek. I called Rachid of course. I chopped onions and garlic while he prepared the beef with fat green olives he’d brought, herbs and tomato sauce. Rave reviews that night for my Greek stew.

I’ll try to be shorter. Years earlier, hanging out in the kitchen improvising hors d’oeuvres from the fridge so as to keep the conversation going (Salima now 3 or so, tall enough with her arm extended to steal blue cheese off the counter). Turning a piece of halibut bought with just the family in mind into dinner for 4 adults and 4 kids (foil wrapped around the halibut topped with thin rounds of potato, onion, carrot – herbs, white wine). Another time, Rachid whipped up a dish of halibut with cream and sorrel from the garden.

I never really mastered the tajine, despite watching Rachid dozens of times. Ahmed inherited a knack for it, though. A couple of times I did succeed with tangia – a dish JD loved when he’d stayed with Rachid’s sister in Casa Blanca. They took chunks of lamb to the baker to cook in a bath of olive oil overnight in the bread ovens. It’s a really simple dish, but you need a tall clay pot (which Rachid loaned me) to set on the bottom of the oven for hours. The most succulent, tender lamb.

Never even attempted couscous, which was a special way to spend a holiday with Rachid and Fanny. All day steaming the couscous, fluffing it up between his hands throughout the day, Rachid rubbing the skin off the chickpeas, stewing the meat and vegetables all day long but they never lost their bite. Eating from the communal dish, instructed by Rachid that in the family you eat first the couscous and veggies (elegantly with your fingers, but for the rest of us, a spoon), a built-in way to make sure no one went straight for the meat piled in the center (and were kind of satisfied by the time they got there anyway).

Many meals, too many to count, over the years, our two families with kids growing – everyone had to eat every day and there was no question of McDonald’s when we could all cook together. Chad has a story about volunteering to make beef bourguignon (a stretch) and Rachid acting as “sous chef” carefully under his direction.

When old friends from Rachid and Fanny’s school days in France came for a visit, they brought their families and stayed weeks (it was a long way and expensive) and the family just expanded to encompass everyone. I got to improve my French and we got a whole new slate of friends we later visited and stayed with in France, picking up the Arab-French style, customs, flavors, songs, politics, crazy humor, family lore. Memories, I guess, now.

Said, Rachid and Driss wearing their Batallon de San Patricio uniforms.

Rachid took great pleasure in telling me I needed to know “I have no money” in Arabic, which I remember as “m’ein dic she floos” though god knows that might be a million miles from how it really is said. Still, I liked saying it, though never to someone I didn’t know… Rachid invited everyone into the world he knew about and we didn’t. For me, he introduced me to Moroccan writers, Francophone writers from Northern Africa, the Magreb. Tahar ben Jalloun, Mohamad Choukri, others. Some history – the rebellion in the Rif (where we later traveled), words I would never have known, bits of info I could flash in front of someone who assumed an American wouldn’t know any of that! Thanks, Rachid!

I think I’m done now, with these thoughts, though whole chunks are left out. While they’re making me smile at times, they are now threatening the opposite. JD said Rachid made our lives so much richer. And Fanny had this concept, “people of smell” – different than people of color; redolent, funky, scenting the air around us. If Fanny and Rachid hadn’t moved to West Olympia two blocks from us our lives, opened their home and their hearts and everything, we would be different people; our kids would be different people. Instead, we became people of smell.

Bethany Weidner
December 2020

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