This cookbook author’s sweet love story began at summer camp but has ripened into a wonderful tale of how food can be the thread that ties us all together.
To say life is never dull is an understatement for me. Through all of life’s ups and downs, twists and turns, there has been one constant thread. Oddly enough, that’s is olive oil.
I met my husband Steve when I was twelve years old. We were buddies at summer camp and became fast friends. He would save me a spot in the lunch line or a seat by the camp fire — you know, the things that make a tween swoon.
His family owned an olive grove in Italy. Although he had grown up in Canada, Steve’s Italian family and traditions were integrated into the fibre of their family culture.
Though it took some time, we finally started dating in our late teens, and eventually got married in our mid-twenties. I had just finished graduate school and he was working in the oil patch in Northern Alberta. We were living 3,000 miles apart, working hard and focused on getting the most out of life. It was during this time that an opportunity presented itself for us to move to Germany.
Part of my grad studies was to take groups of undergraduate students on cultural excursions to help them see how to integrate into a new culture, understand culture shock and see the world from a different perspective. The students and I supported different non-profits during our travels, and it was during one of these adventures that Germany captured my attention.
Steve had always wanted to own his own business and had started on the plans to open a coffee shop. The non-profit orphanage we were supporting in Germany was looking to open a café to support its efforts. Many of the children in the orphanage were from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. They tugged on our heart strings and in just a few months, Germany was our new home.
While we lived there, our closest relatives were Steve’s family in Central Italy. We’d often travel down to see his aunties, to catch a breath from all we were doing in Germany, have some quality family time and soak up the Italian countryside. What we didn’t expect was that we’d go home with was an undying love for olive oil.
The olive oil that his aunts created was like nothing I’d ever tasted. It was so fresh. Every drop tasted like a field of fresh herbs and cut grass. We put it on everything — bread, pasta and cheese — and whipped it into scrambled eggs. We used it constantly and completely took it for granted.
While we were in Germany we also took language classes. This was an incredible experience because our class was filled with people from so many different nationalities. Steve and I were the only two in our class of 30 who were from the same country.
My seatmate, Marwa, was a psychologist from Damascus. We became close friends, and most of our friendship revolved around food. She would often bring me a snack of some cookies she made, or we would have dinners together. Her food was incredible and like nothing I had experienced before.
In many ways, this experience shaped me, as it reminded me that food was the thread that tied us all together. We connected over food. We communicated over food and feeding people made us happy.
We lived in a converted hotel that had large common areas. We would host our whole class and have potluck meals where everyone had to bring a dish from their home country. I would make pancakes and maple syrup, Marwa would make the most incredible tabbouleh salad, someone would bring Spanish Tortilla, Mexican Rice, Egyptian orange loaf. The smorgasbord was so varied, and the tastes incredibly diverse and unique.
In many ways, this experience shaped me, as it reminded me that food was the thread that tied us all together. We connected over food. We communicated over food and feeding people made us happy.Far from being a normal family, we felt so at home with our classmates and connected to a much greater community. This was what the world should be like, every culture and country laughing and eating together, sharing life. It was beautiful. I wished we could have stayed in Germany longer, although home was calling, so once the café was up and running, we moved back to Canada.
For me, reverse culture shock is always way worse than regular culture shock, and integrating back into normal life in Canada was more challenging than expected. I would go to the grocery store and buy what I thought was good food, or brands I remembered enjoying, and they just didn’t taste quite right.
The biggest letdown was olive oil. Steve started going to the Italian market and buying really expensive olive oil, but still none of it really tasted like his aunties’ oil in Italy. My “spidey senses” started tingling. I had to get to the bottom of why the grocery store olive oil and the fancy Italian market olive oil still didn’t come close to what we’d become used to on those trips to Italy.
Channeling my organic chemistry classes from my undergrad, I dove in, head first. My goal was to understand the chemical makeup of olive oil to figure out why one was so different from another.
After far too many hours sthan I would like to admit, I learned that not only is olive oil a fresh fruit juice, but it also doesn’t have a very long shelf life. Most of the olive oil here in north America is old and tired and has gone bad before we even have a chance to consume it.
I learned so much about olive oil — and its industry — that I just had to share it. I had also started developing relationships with quality growers and suppliers through my research. Steve and I decided to open a retail store specializing in olive oil in Victoria, B.C.
Shortly after opening, I was in my own little heaven. Work every day consisted of talking to people about olive oil, educating them about how the trees grow, how the oil is made, what makes it different, walking them through a guided tasting of oils, and as a business owner, of course, a whole lot of paper work and behind-the-scenes stuff that isn’t sexy but has to be done!
Our staff and team became our family; we hosted biweekly staff meetings in our home, we would share a meal and talk about whatever was on the agenda. The important piece is that we shared life together. I didn’t want our store to be “just another job” — I wanted my staff to love to come to work. I wanted them to love olive oil like I do, sharing it passionately with everyone who walked in our doors.
Everyone had the same question. I love this, but what do I do with it? I started writing recipes. Steve was the best taste tester. We would play and create and I would write. From there we started offering cooking classes.
The Syrian connection
One of our employees, who was a culinary school graduate, asked if he could teach a class on Syrian food as his dad was Syrian. I jumped at the chance. My heart warmed with the memory of all the amazing recipes Marwa taught me, but better yet, to be able to tangibly create and share this amazing culture and food with our city was incredibly special. That class always sold out first and we taught it more than double all our other classes.
Things were going well and life was ticking along. People kept asking for more recipes and I kept writing. I amassed more than 250 recipes in short order. After having a wonderful and encouraging conversation with a publisher, those recipes were combed through and edited and compiled into a series of books called Recipes for Olive Oil and Vinegar Lovers.
The best part, for me, was connecting with many of the refugees that had recently immigrated to Canada. I was privileged enough to eat in their homes, enjoy their incredible dishes, and hear about how these ingredients and recipes were a common thread for connection and community throughout such a tumultuous and changing time of life.
What I love about the books is the wide variety of recipes and olive oils it uses. There is something for everyone: from hummus to granola, to cherry pie to braised short ribs — you name it, it’s probably in there. The most important thing for me is to show the depth and breadth of how many recipes you can make with only a few variations of olive oil and vinegar. The series, so far, includes Greece, Italy, Spain, and of course, the latest, Syria.
Related: Try some of the recipes from Emily’s cookbook Syria here!
When I was working on Syria, dinner parties became the norm. While testing and trying recipes, our staff would come to work to discover six versions of babaganoush to try, some with different olive oils, some roasted, some baked.
The best part, for me, was connecting with many of the refugees that had recently immigrated to Canada. Such incredible people with such stories of strength and perseverance. I was privileged enough to eat in their homes, enjoy their incredible dishes, and hear about how these ingredients and recipes were a common thread for connection and community throughout such a tumultuous and changing time of life. I am still incredibly humbled by their honestly, vulnerability and am so grateful that they now call Canada home, where they can be welcomed with open arms and live safely and freely.
Every Syrian I have ever met has left a beautiful impression on my life. I feel so incredibly blessed to share these recipes through the pages of the book, and I hope that everyone who reads and enjoys them feels some of the story and love that was the original inspiration behind them.
Sharing a table, in my opinion, makes you a family. Feeding each other and connecting over food is the foundation of culture, and olive oil — being a foundational ingredient that crosses every border — is the perfect thread to wind it all together.
This is #1000families post number 241. Do you have a family story of your own to contribute to the 1,000 Families Project? Or do you know a family that might want to do so? Learn more about how the series got started and how to get involved here. You can find all of the #1000families posts here.