The foods we eat as children often bring back the strongest memories. Even the humblest meals can be touchstones of culture and community. Sometimes these memories are even stronger for immigrants, for whom food is a powerful connection to the places they grew up.
She first learned about cooking with local ingredients when she went to farmers markets in Lebanon. If she wanted fish, her family went to the fishmonger. If they wanted meat, they went to the butcher. They also grew a lot of their own food.
However, the 1970s were a dangerous time to be a child in Lebanon, and when a civil war broke out in 1975, Suzy’s family sought safety at a shelter.
“We would cook in the shelter just to keep our minds busy and our family together, with food on the mind instead of the bombs that were going outside” she says. “To me that was life and we took it, we took advantage of living. We lived every day like it was our last.”
When Suzy was 15-years-old, she immigrated to the U.S. “The airport at the time was non-existent, so we had to get in a boat to Cyprus, then Cyprus to here,” she remembers.
Her father is American, so she was able to gain U.S. citizenship right away. But it took longer to adjust to life in Florida. “We didn’t know anyone besides my brother,” she says. “We were just strangers and in this strange big land.”
The food was different, too. Fresh produce was everywhere, but it didn’t taste like the fruit Suzy remembered eating in Lebanon.
“My mom and I were very disappointed with the produce. We could find strawberries all year round, but it didn’t taste like a strawberry should. Everything out of season, readily available all year long, just loses its flavor and beauty,” she says.
Eventually, Suzy moved to Atlanta, and after 10 years there, she came to North Carolina. She went to a farmers market in Asheville where she saw a salad green called purslane that she remembered from Lebanon.
“I saw it and I lost my mind,” she remembers. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what do you call this in English?’ They said, ‘It’s purslane. It’s a weed.’ And I’m like, ‘I’ll buy it all.’ I was so excited.
Suzy was thrilled when she saw a farmer selling Armenian cucumbers. She says she prefers to eat vegetables when they’re smaller in size because the flavor is more intense. Talking with farmers helped her access those smaller veggies.
“I had to develop some relationships with farmers to tell them to harvest me things that don’t get too big, like okra or zucchini,” she says.
Those relationships deepened, and when Suzy opened her restaurant, Gypsy Queen Cuisine, she connected with farmers to find another key ingredient—lamb. She met the farmers from Highlands Family Farm at the ASAP Business of Farming Conference and started sourcing lamb from them. “We’re like sisters and brothers,” she says. “They come in and visit; they eat while they’re there. We just joke around. It’s a really beautiful relationship.”
The lamb inspires Suzy to share Lebanese stories and traditions with her customers.
“There’s a dish called kibbe, which is our national dish,” she says. “It’s basically bulger and ground lamb made into a dough and then it’s stuffed with ground lamb, pine nuts, and onions. Back in the day, like I’m talking ages ago, that’s how the wife was chosen, was how good her kibbe was.”
“I want to share my food with everyone,” she adds. “I want them to taste this and the stories behind it.”
The food system is full of people using local ingredients to share culture and strengthen communities. Learn more at www.asapconnections.org
Aired: January 28, 2019