Today I made hummus.

It occurred to me somewhere between leaving the yoga studio and arriving at the grocery store. I think I was considering what to do about those chips I have at home, which would taste so much better with something nice to dip them in. Guacamole, maybe? But avocadoes aren’t in season right now. Lemon and salt kept popping into my head, and that’s when I knew I would make hummus! Luckily the store carried tahini. In the back of my mind I knew I had a can of garbanzo beans that had been sitting in my pantry for too many months, staring back at me and asking why I hadn’t done anything with it.

I unpacked the groceries and set out the ingredients on my countertop: lemon, garlic, olive oil, tahini. I opened the can of garbanzo beans, surprised at how viscous the liquid inside was. I glanced at the label: garbanzo beans, water, salt.  Hmm! No oil, and still the beans were bathing in a golden, syrup-like liquid. When I dumped the beans into a colander and ran cold water over them, a foam formed as if I had added a drop of dishwashing liquid. I reached into the back of my kitchen utensil drawer to retrieve the Braun hand blender that I haven’t used in years, but was specifically bought for this purpose.

As the thought of hummus started to become reality, so many other memories came to me, mostly associated with my dad. My first memory of hummus was the small shallow cylindrical plastic containers he would bring home every once in awhile, labeled “Nashi Palate Pleasins”. These usually arrived at the same time as homemade apple strudel and small clear plastic bags with spices bought in bulk from a store in Chicago called Comte di Savoie. I didn’t put together the whole story of these foods at first. I do remember my first taste of hummus, being surprised at how flavorful it was despite its beige color and strange texture. I had never seen it before.

Turns out “Nashi Palate Pleasins” was the entrepreneurial venture of my father’s PhD advisor, an Italian-American organic chemistry professor who also had a palate that was far ahead of his time for an American. In the mid-1960s, he introduced my dad to fresh-roasted coffee beans ground and brewed at home as espresso (two decades before Starbucks). He introduced him to spices which seemed exotic and were not sold in American grocery stores at the time – fennel, thyme, oregano, coriander, basil. He made homemade apple strudel, inspiring us to try to make our own baklava (which we did once…filo dough is more complicated to work with than you think!). Then, in the mid-1980s, he sought seed funding from a small group of friends and family – turns out mostly former PhD students from his lab at the University of Illinois, who were now working for corporations and living in the suburbs, achieving more financial success than he had as a tenured science professor – to launch “Nashi Palate Pleasins”, a line of specialty foods to be sold in small gourmet markets. At the time I knew nothing about small businesses but looking back, this may have been my first exposure to the world of entrepreneurial finance. I would accompany my dad to shareholder meetings, held either at the founder’s apartment or in a little cafe on Central Avenue in downtown Evanston (intellectually elite suburb home to Northwestern University). I remember there being lots of samples, which was how I occupied my time while the adults talked about what I only imagine must have been financials, production issues, distribution partners, and marketing channels. To me it was just another gathering of grownups, and the food was interesting.

All those memories just from a little tub of hummus.

When I was older, I remember going to a small roadside restaurant – which was more like a hut – called “Pita Inn”. My brother told me there was bulletproof glass on the restaurant, because it was an Arab-owned establishment in the heart of a heavily Jewish suburb. It was at Pita Inn where I first tasted restaurant-made hummus, served on a saucer, spread flat and garnished with a splash of olive oil and sprinkling of paprika. Other firsts at Pita Inn were the baba ghanoush (which I grew to like even more than the hummus), falafel, and shawarma. I loved the fluffy, warm pita bread that seemed to be given in unlimited quantities. I also loved the baklava, cut into perfect diamond shapes and served with a simple syrup sauce. Over the years, it would become a place I’d return to each time I came home from whatever city I lived in. We would discover new delights – like the hot pepper sauce, and the marinated radishes and olives that my parents came to enjoy. I would sometimes order a baklava to go, being too full to eat it after my meal. Heated in the toaster oven the next day, it tasted even better than at the restaurant. My dad and I would order the Turkish coffee, which was thick and strong and tasted of chicory. My favorite part was seeing the waiter come out with a golden round plate, suspended from three foot-long rods which met in the center above the plate. He would swing it dramatically yet nonchalantly like a pendulum just before arriving at our table – miraculously not spilling a drop from either of the tiny cups.

And my most recent memory of hummus – also associated with my dad – was his discovery that he could make his own at home quite easily. He called me several years ago to announce this joyful moment to me. “I made hummus!” he said with excitement. I didn’t believe it was actually good until the next time I went home and found a Rubbermaid container of it sitting in the refrigerator. Great texture, aroma, and flavor. And homemade! But I didn’t see how it was actually done until this past summer. We were having a large family gathering in honor of my grandmother’s 90th birthday. Relatives were gathering from all parts of the country and one of the big events was an afternoon barbeque at my parents’ house. My dad decided to make two kinds of hummus – regular and basil.

As I worked on the fruit salad and roasted zucchini slices, my dad got out his ingredients – just like mine today. I watched him pound his cleaver deftly on the cloves of garlic before sweeping them with the side of his index finger into the bowl. I watched him open the can of garbanzo beans, draining the liquid through the jagged crack made by the canopener. I watched him spoon in the tahini, trying to “measure” it for my benefit, since I was trying to memorize the “recipe”. I knew full well that he never measured anything precisely except when he was trying to show one of us how to cook something. Even then, he likes to speak in ratios – “one to one”, or “two to one”, he’ll say, pointing out that the amounts all depend on how much you’re making, but the ratios will stay constant. That’s the organic chemist in him talking. Stoichiometry – balancing the number of atoms on each side of a chemical equation using ratios – comes to mind.

I then watched him add lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and then a drizzle of olive oil before he started to use the hand blender. It sounds a little bit like a dentist’s drill – high-pitched, with pulses short in duration, clearly getting a job done. The instructions on the Braun hand blender warn you not to pulse for longer than 10 seconds, or you risk burning out the motor. In practical reality, each pulse is no longer than 2 to 3 seconds at most.

My first pulse today yielded several clumps of oily garlic on my sleeve and the edge of the sink. I lowered the blender so that it was touching the bottom of the bowl. I zapped each clump of garbanzo beans, lifting up between pulses, finding another unpulverized group, and turned the bowl with my left hand. The first few pulses didn’t seem to do much. I thought maybe I had gummed up the blades, or not added enough oil. I kept going though, and after a few more pulses, I saw the first paste-like hummus ooze out from the sides of the head of the hand blender. “Wow, this really works!” I thought of my dad again. I had never actually done the honors of making hummus. I had tasted it many times, then heard about his homemade version on the phone, and then with one ear listening while my hands worked on something else, I had witnessed him making it, stationed several feet away from me standing in his own kitchen.

But now I felt a different connection to my dad. When that little grin spread across my face as the first hummus-like substance appeared in the bowl, I felt I had shared one moment of joy that had captured my dad’s attention ever since his youthful graduate student days. I wondered what my dad remembered when he made his own hummus. Did he think fondly of his PhD professor? Did he remember the deep sense of regret when Nashi Palate Pleasins went bankrupt (it was truly ahead of its time; something I remembered when, about the time I was in college in the late 1990s, hummus started appearing in every mainstream grocery store in America…and I thought of my dad)?

It was then that I knew I had to sit down and write about all the memories I have associated with hummus. It’s ubiquitous now, almost more popular than French onion dip at Super Bowl parties. But for me hummus is so much more than food. It’s the story of so many memories I’ll always share with my dad.

Caption aside: It’s really hard to make hummus pretty in a picture! Trust me, it tasted delicious…

P.S. This post marks the beginning of a new Category I’ve created, called “Shitty First Drafts/Small Assignments” in honor of Anne Lamott’s first two pieces of advice to writers in her book Bird by Bird. The Shitty First Drafts refers to silencing your inner critic and just writing something no matter how shitty you think it is, realizing that the only way to a second draft, a third draft, a tenth draft, and a final version is to write a shitty first draft. The Small Assignments refers to the blocks that we create by setting too big of an initial goal, which overwhelms and then paralyzes us. If we can give ourselves a small enough assignment, and commit to completing it, then we have at least taken one step toward a bigger goal…which is better than no step at all! When I post things here that fall into either of these categories, you will see that tag. Thanks for reading!

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