In The Language of Baklava, Diana Abu-Jaber uses stories told through food to show us what her cultural identity is and how it has shaped her into the person that she is. Food has an almost magical power. It ties people to their roots, and when all seems lost, the familiar tastes of the food you have grown up with can give you the beautiful feeling of home, reminding you that you are not alone. Diana tells her life story through the flavors that are close to her heart, expressing joy, despair, disappointment, and comfort in their simplest forms.
The meals that she shares with us are like secrets, and they give us a window into the deepest, most personal moments that tell us what made her into the person she grew up to be. In Diana’s family, food is the glue that is extremely important for keeping them so close together. Food is how they show love, and in Diana’s mind, “to offer food from your own hand” (Abu-Jaber 8) is the best way to express those feelings.
This love and connection with her family has shaped her since the early stages of life, and continues to do so as she grows into an adult. Multiple chapters of the book allow the readers to witness this, during their family gatherings when “the air turns Arabic, a few degrees warmer” (125) and we feel it. There are people everywhere: aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. They gather around big tables and eat until they are stuffed to the brim with the food that they cooked together just moments before, the laughter and chatting filling the air with a joy that radiates off the pages for anyone to experience.
Whether it is pointed out by appearance or actions, it is always known who out of Diana’s family is Jordanian and who is American. Bud often complains that he is “surrounded by Americans” (117), and he’s right, as it is a grueling task to combine such different cultures into one whole family. However, as Diana’s character begins to unfold, we see that she is not one culture at all. Though they have been raised American for the most part, Bud cooks the food that he has known his entire life to teach his girls about the world that he grew up in, a place far away from anything they know in America.
Though both are familiar, the two very different sides of Diana’s upbringing are sometimes at war, because it is difficult to know what your own identity is when you cannot clarify who you are culturally. From a young age she herself noticed what separated her from the American girls, who didn’t have “hair [that] springs in frizz and coils” (23) and that always seem to be on diets. She became teacher’s pet after she told Sister John that her father is from “the Holy Land” (25), and the food that she brought into school was so different and exotic that all eyes turned to her lunchbox. Though her classmates called her lucky and her teacher compared her father to Jesus, Diana’s mother saw what this cultural discrimination was when Diana, at such a young age, could not. All Diana did was bring in the food that she eats every day; however the fact that that food is different than what the American girls and boys eat, the entire way that Diana is looked at is altered, and this threateningly alter how she herself looks at the world and country she lives in. She becomes selfconscious of the beautiful things that make her different, instead of being proud. The unique upbringing that Diana was gifted with has not only affected her, but has also given her the knowledge and intelligence to use it to affect others. When at the Chinese restaurant with Gram, Diana and the waiter Chen shared a secret connec tion, more subtle than the fake understanding and empathy coming from her Grandmother who, no matter how much she may try, cannot understand what it is like to have to grow up as two people. Diana desperately tries to send a mental message to Chen, begging him to understand that “[Diana] is the one who understands his terrible pain” (105).
Though Chen does not get her signal, he sees something special in Diana that does not exist in Gram. He sees that “[Diana] tastes it” (102). “It” being that in her mouth she holds a secret from a world she does not know, and a culture that she has yet to understand. She, from such a young age, understood that while she cannot pretend to be a part of something that she is not, it does not make it any less beautiful in itself. It is a beautiful thing when someone shares something so personal to them, and Diana received this precious gift with amazement and gratitude. With each meal that Diana shares, she shares pieces of what makes her who she is: someone who is not only one culture but two, and someone who can be proud of both. With the memories and lessons that have shaped her all her life, she shares with us what her home is. And while her home can be summarized as food in the oven and exotic flavors dancing across her tongue, the feeling of “home” is a feeling unique to each individual person. Someone’s home can be a place, a person, an object, and, like Diana, a food. As difficult as it may be to discover, it is extremely important to know what your home is. Without that beautiful feeling of comfort and familiarity to go back to, it is near impossible to be certain of what makes you who you are.