Earlier this week I reviewed Jessica Soffer’s debut novel, Tomorrow There will be Apricots. The power and grace of this novel have now pushed me to a point of superstition because she is the fifth debut novelist this year (!) who has grabbed and shaken me and each has done it in a different way. It’s making me fearful that I’ll be reading nothing but drek for the rest of 2013 because how could there be so many amazing new voices out there?
Pessimism aside, here is a wonderful Q& A that publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt did with Soffer. As if that’s not enough, I’m following it with three recipes from the novel– which gets much of its warmth from a shared love of food. Enjoy both– insight into the mind of the author and recipes you won’t find anywhere else.
How did the idea for Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots come about?
Lorca’s voice developed from a character in a story I’d written who was also a pain addict and whose mother was a kind of villain. Their relationship was the most compelling thing I’d ever worked on and I kept coming back to it, wanting to unpack it further.
My father was an Iraqi Jew who, like Joseph, came to the United States in the late 1940s. I always knew I wanted to write about his culture. There is little about it in literature, and it’s so beautiful. Supposedly, there are only five Jews left in Baghdad, which is tragic for a million reasons. After World War I, one out of three Baghdadis were Jewish—and they were a powerful bunch: well-educated, sophisticated, and living peacefully with Muslims and Christians. But that all changed quite quickly in the 1930s and even more so after the Farhud in 1941.
Very soon after I began expanding Lorca’s voice, an image popped into my head of a young girl and an old woman cooking together, barefoot. So from there came Victoria, and then Joseph. In the end, I kept writing towards that image, trying to find a story to justify it.
So did you need to do research for the book? Or did you get all the background from your father?
I thought that my father would be the authority on all things Iraqi and Jewish, but he grew very ill early on in my writing process and was really unable to provide me with the information I was after except in heartbreaking and unreliable fits and spurts. I suppose that might have been for the best, as it forced me to do loads of research and the research was unbiased and comprehensive and made me feel like I’d earned the right to write about what I did. The issue became, however, finding an immigration story that paralleled his. Most Iraqi Jews fled to Israel. They were forced to give up their identities and belongings but they were airlifted there—and a large, very outspoken population grew from that. My father, on the other hand, went to Iran, then Ellis Island, then Brooklyn. There are documentaries, BBC specials about the Iraqi Jews in Israel but finding documentation of a story like my father’s was impossible. In the end, I had to rely on family and memory, which, after all the research, felt unsettling, flimsy. Now, I can’t help but wonder what the book would look like if my father had informed things in the way that I thought he would. Flimsy, maybe? Different, for sure.
Lorca’s sections required research, too. I was never a pain addict, but people I love were and are. There is a lot of information out there on cutting, especially in girls of Lorca’s age—and I read the books, spoke with psychiatrists, counselors, went to meetings. I’d always known that cutting was a problem, but what I didn’t know was that self-harm (burning, pulling out one’s eyelashes, self-choking) was an epidemic—and not just for girls, and not just for teenagers. Perhaps what struck me most in my research was the permanent physical damage that self-harm can wreak: scars that won’t heal, hair that won’t ever grow back.
Two of the book’s characters are at least 80 years old. Was it difficult to write in the voices of Joseph and Victoria?
I found that it was Lorca’s teenage voice that tripped me up much more than Joseph’s or Victoria’s. I never felt like a teenager, even when I was one, and so writing Lorca’s voice, all immediacy, buzz and jitters, didn’t come naturally. It felt like translating: making the jump from Lorca’s thoughts as I perceived them to an appropriate way to say them. That wasn’t the case for Victoria and Joseph who felt, quite quickly, like extensions of myself. They’re weighted down by memory, which, strangely enough, is something I felt even as a young child. I was nostalgic before I knew what that meant, which probably comes from always imagining other places, other worlds, and somehow pining for them even when they weren’t real—so writing with an air of that came easily.
Is Lorca’s relationship with her mother drawn from your relationship with yours?
My relationship with my mother is exactly the opposite of Lorca and Nancy’s, which turned out to be crucial to the freedom I felt while developing their mother/daughter dynamic. My mother is loving, supportive, and warm. I respect and adore her, which made writing about a different kind of mother a real exercise in imagination, in losing myself for the sake of building something entirely new.
What role does food play in the book and in your life?
My father’s mother was a healer in Baghdad and believed in eating for one’s wellbeing, and by color, for example: yellow fruits and vegetables for happiness, rose petals for love, shunning black and unlucky foods, such as the skin of eggplants. When my father came to the United States, he was forced to abandon his family, his Jewish faith, his national pride, and so food and the flavors of his childhood were the way he reestablished a home in New York, by replicating his mother’s recipes. Growing up, the smell of his cooking is my strongest memory: cumin and cardamom and cloves.
Writing about Iraqi Jews, about his culture, meant—for me—writing about food.
Also, there’s this notion that pain addicts are joyless, that they deny themselves completely—and they don’t. Lorca reaps great happiness from cooking, from eating. In some ways, her love of food is what saves her. It gives her purpose. It leads her to Victoria. It is the antidote to her pain.
What’s your favorite Iraqi food, and can you find it anywhere in New York City?
There was one Iraqi restaurant in Midtown but it closed a few years ago. I never went and I so wish I had. Growing up, my parents used to take me to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn—to Sahadi’s to stock up on nuts and beans and dried fruits, and then to Fountain Café for dinner, but it has since closed, and Sahadi’s has been renovated—and Atlantic Avenue is a different place. There are no more Iraqi restaurants in the area. So we make Iraqi food at home (my favorite is a crispy rice dish with tomatoes and cheese called Kichri M’Tabbag) and go out for Lebanese and Egyptian.
What did you read growing up, and what books are you loving right now?
I read everything growing up. There were books on every surface of our apartment, and so I moved them, or sat on them, or picked them up. Some authors fundamentally changed me as a person (Samuel Beckett, Gabriel García Marquez, Flannery O’Connor), some changed me as a writer (Alice Munro, Vladamir Nabokov, Lorrie Moore, David Foster Wallace). Right now, I’m teaching a short story class to undergraduates, so I’m reading a lot of collections. Lately, and in particular, I’ve been blown away by Charles D’Ambrosio, Dennis Johnson, Amy Bloom. The other day, I tried to teach my students J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” but after reading it to them, no words came out. Good short stories can really knock my socks off, leave me speechless—and send me into a fit of humility. If I keep reading them, I might never write anything good again. But if I stop reading them, I’ll probably never write anything at all.
From the Kitchen of Jessica Soffer
Whole carp (or other white fish, such as red snapper, sea bass or sole)
Equal parts turmeric, tamarind, black pepper
Optional condiments: pickled onions, ambah (mango cured in salt, turmeric, lemon and salt) or diced tomatoes with garlic
- Ask your fishmonger to butterfly fish and leave the skin on. Otherwise, clean and scale fish, and slice all the way down the back so it can lie flat.
- Brush both sides of fish with plenty of olive oil.
- Cover the flesh with a thin layer of the spice mixture.
- Season both sides generously with salt.
Place the fish skin side up in a shallow baking dish that’s been covered with tin foil. Cook under a preheated broiler for 7-10 minutes, or until the skin is crispy. Flip the fish and cook just until flesh is opaque, about 2 minutes.
Impale fish vertically on wooden stakes and put directly into fire pit or place the opened fish in a well-oiled wire grill basket, tail down, head up and cook until done, turning now and again for even heat dispersal. Cooking will take anywhere from 45 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on size of fish and intensity of fire.
Jessica on this dish
Masgouf is the national dish of Iraq and was prepared on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. The carp was whisked from the river and cooked for hours over an open fire as people strolled and drank and listened to music. The fatwah declared on the fish in those rivers speaks to a more general sense of a bygone era: the Jewish life in Baghdad is no longer. Masgouf will never be prepared as it once was again.
½ cup of butter 1 teaspoon rosewater
½ cup confectioners’ sugar ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup and 1 teaspoon sifted flour A pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom Handful of pistachio halves or almonds for decoration
- Preheat oven to 350F.
- Combine butter, sugar, flour, cardamom, rosewater, vanilla and salt.
- Knead well.
- Form into cakes about 2 inches in diameter.
- Space them one inch apart on baking sheet covered with parchment paper.
- Decorate with nuts.
- Refrigerate for 15 minutes.
- Make for 8-10 minutes, or until cookies are a pale golden brown but cooked through.
Jessica on this dish
My father’s sister, Auntie Violette, is the best cook I know. For Passover we would go to her house on Long Island where she’d been cooking for days and days. The air was always thick with Arabic perfume and the orangey smells of cumin, paprika, cinnamon. Auntie would make heaps of desserts, stacking them high on a platter and as the cooking continued, and the day went on, people noshed: a nut and honey turnover here, a date and almond ball there. One day I caught Violette’s husband, my Uncle Jack, unearthing a shoebox from below the kitchen table. He stuffed a different kind of dessert into his mouth. He grinned at me guiltily when I caught him. In the years that followed, he never said anything about the missing shakrlama from his stash, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which was smart because I never ratted him out. I’ve since discovered that Auntie dunked the cookies into her afternoon tea, but felt them too humdrum to include in her holiday bounty. Or so she says.
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 chopped onion
3 teaspoons grated garlic
2 cups stewed tomatoes
¾ teaspoon of each: cardamom, curry powder, ground ginger
½ teaspoon of each: paprika, red pepper flakes, celery seeds
Lemon juice, salt and black pepper (to taste)
1½ pounds fresh okra, washed and chopped into inch-long pieces
- Heat oil in large stockpot.
- Saute onions until translucent.
- Add garlic and sauté until fragrant.
- Add tomatoes and spices and cook on medium heat for five minutes, stirring consistently.
Jessica on this dish
Bamia is as traditional Iraqi Jewish as it gets, and is often eaten with kubbeh, or meat dumplings. My parents raised me vegetarian, however, so at family dinners, I should have just skipped the bamia, but Auntie Violette’s was too good—and just trying telling her that you had no interest in her kubbeh. Forget it. I found subtle ways to peel the dough from the dumplings, put the meat into a ball beneath my napkin, and add the dough back into the stew. Bamia on its own, meat-free, dough-free, is delicious and hearty. The first time I had okra prepared in a different way, I didn’t recognize it—and I couldn’t stand it. The bamia denies the okra its sliminess. It makes okra well worth eating, and dumplings well worth dissecting on your lap, if it comes to that.