On August 4, 2020, an explosion destroyed the port of Beirut, killing more than 200, injuring thousands and damaging half of the city with the most powerful non-nuclear blast ever recorded. The explosion left death, destruction, food insecurity and homelessness in its wake—and shook Barbara Abdeni Massaad, an award-winning author of Lebanese cookbooks, to her core.
Stunned, Massaad watched the aftermath unfold from her home in Hazmieh, a town about six kilometers southeast of the capital. Driven to document the disaster firsthand, a few days later Massaad walked through the rubble photographing obliterated buildings including a restaurant her family once owned. But it wasn’t enough.
“I had to find a way to help,” recalls Massaad, who was born in Beirut. She decided to write another cookbook, one focused entirely on her hometown.
Forever Beirut—a collection of 100 traditional Lebanese dishes, each accompanied by a personal story—is her way of processing her own grief in the wake of the explosion while preserving cherished customs and recipes and helping in recovery efforts. (A portion of proceeds go to the Lebanese Food Bank.)
AramcoWorld recently spoke with Massaad about her most recent book and how her ongoing determination to safeguard Lebanon’s culinary history has shaped her work.
Forever Beirut is your fifth cookbook and the fourth to focus on Lebanese food. When did you discover your passion for traditional Lebanese cuisine?
Food was a big part of our family life; it was the center of everything. My family immigrated to the US when I was young and we had a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, called Kebab and Things. I worked in the kitchen, served customers, and I would always talk to them about Lebanon. That experience formed everything I would become in the future.
After my third child went off to preschool, I didn’t want to go back to advertising. So, I asked myself, what is my real passion? I decided it was working in a restaurant again. I started by training in Italian and French restaurants in Lebanon, but when I interned at Abdel Wahab, renowned for its Lebanese cuisine, everything came together. I’m Lebanese, I live in Lebanon, this is the best food in the world, and I decided that was what I would focus on.
You have anecdotes and memories attached to each recipe in Forever Beirut. Does that make it more personal than your prior cookbooks?
All my cookbooks are personal. Writing cookbooks is a type of therapy for me—it’s like having children. Each one is different and has a life of its own. I always tell myself that writing a book is about the journey, not the destination. When it’s finished, I get the baby blues because I no longer wake up in the morning and think about the book.
What makes Forever Beirut different is that it tells readers that, in the aftermath of a devastating explosion, we are still here. We still exist, and even out of chaos we can make beautiful things.
How soon after the August explosion did you begin working on the book? Was it hard given the chaotic situation in Lebanon?
I started within days, and I deliberately went to parts of Beirut where the explosion had the biggest impact. In the book, there is a picture of a clock lying on top of rubble. It shows the exact time of the explosion, and I needed to include that.
After the blast, we Lebanese were affected to our core, and we were walking around like zombies. This cookbook came from pain. Ironically, I gave the manuscript to Interlink Books exactly one year after the explosion.
The forward by Chef Jose Andres describes Lebanon as a country resembling a bowl of tabbouleh with “diverse ingredients, distinguishable but never separable.” How would you say this comes through in the national cuisine?
Lebanon is a country ... [where] you can go from one street to another and feel like you are in a different country. However, the common denominator for all Lebanese is food. You can disarm and befriend people anywhere in Lebanon just by talking about food.
I am very grateful for the beautiful foreword Chef Andres wrote. He came immediately after the blast with his team (from nonprofit World Central Kitchen) and experienced what we were living through.
What do you like the most about writing cookbooks that share Lebanon’s rich culinary history?
My books show a different side of Lebanon, from the local cuisine to its relationship to nature and the diversity of its people. But at its core, my work all comes back to what I love most, which is to feed people ... in doing so you are nurturing them. These collections also share stories of our culinary history. These books are a way of connecting and that has more value than just talking.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.