When Odile and Brian discussed their different dining styles in my last column, I couldn’t help but reflect on the culinary contrasts in my own relationship. While I’m a food snob who who won’t eat anything that isn’t certified USDA organic, Maroun has a penchant for meals of Tuna Helper and Great Value brand Spam—tastes he acquired when he first arrived in the States as a grad student. It is his comfort food.
But he has another favored cuisine that is easier for me to accept: I look forward to “mezza night” at home, when he sets out the delicious hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ganouj he learned to make from his mother. In fact, people who’ve tasted Maroun’s delicacies tell him he should open a Lebanese restaurant, since our area isn’t exactly known for its “ethnic cuisine.”
The Upper Valley is a gourmet’s paradise in some respects (we have wonderful farms, decent diners, sharp cheese makers, and a renowned producer of ciders, for example), but it’s true that Lebanon, New Hampshire doesn’t have any Lebanese restaurants.
But I was fascinated to discover this wasn’t always the case. Last Monday, The Valley News ran a remembrance of Mickey Alafat, who died at age 80 in January. A photo of Mickey, taken in the ’70s, ran with the story. I spotted something familiar in the man’s name, and his thick dark hair, and learned that he, the son of Lebanese immigrants, once co-owned a popular restaurant called Landers along Rt. 120, on which I now drive to work every day. According to the news story, the restaurant had “an oriental feel” to its interior design, and was known for its Lebanese cuisine.
I read on and learned that Alafat’s parents had owned a Lebanese-style diner that burned down in the city fire of 1964. It was located near the pedestrian mall where I take my afternoon walk.
A popular Lebanese restaurant and diner—all well before our time.
The thought struck me that Lebanon, New Hampshire may have been open to multiculturalism long ago. And I wondered what sort of experiences this Lebanese-American family may have had in our New Hampshire town. Did the Alafats expertly crack pumpkin seeds between their teeth, as Maroun (and just about every other Lebanese I know) does? Did they sprinkle sumac on their hummus? Eat tabbouleh “the right way” (not with utensils, but stuffed into romaine leaves)? Did they also enjoy the confusing irony of our town’s name?
In my imagination, I overhear pretend-conversations Maroun and I would have had with Mickey over a plate of stuffed grape leaves. And in reading his remembrance, I felt nostalgia for places and people I had never actually known. Food I would have liked to have tasted. People I would have liked to have met.
Maroun and I raise a glass of arek to Mr. Alafat, take a bit of pita, and acknowledge that Lebanese tradition is still being carried out in Lebanon, even if only at our own dinner table.
Allah yerhamak. Rest in peace, Mr. Alafat.