Egyptian cooking is folk magic. Not magic in the sense of dematerializing doves or sawing beautiful ladies in half. But magic in the deeper sense of the thing-in the raw joy of what magic once was, hundreds of years ago, thousands of years ago: a surprise, a shock, an astonishment. A lesson about the invisible. A lesson about belief. I remember this from my childhood: the image of my mother, Amy Clark-Saqr, cooking late into the night for a catering gig, cooking, in a nearly empty house, enough food to feed a hundred people the next afternoon. A feast-but not for her. Saqr Catering. Butte's Finest Middle Eastern Cuisine Since 1990.
Mulukhiyya: A silky saline broth distilled from the leaves of the jute plant. It fills the air with the smell of garlic and onion and boiling jute leaves and sizzling olive oil. It was her most popular dish. She'd make it by the gallon, standing at the stove, holding the long wooden spoon that was so familiar to me. Its wood had been worn thin and smooth, and its entire body bore black scorch marks from the flames of our gas stovetop. If she were mummified and entombed in a sarcophagus, I had no doubt, my mother would request that this spoon be buried with her. Without it, she wouldn't be able to navigate the kitchens of the afterlife.
But every scrap of folk magic is counterbalanced with a curse. Here in America especially. And so, my family, we also had a curse. Copper was the curse of my family. This wasn't always true. A hundred and fifty years ago-before Montana was a state, before the railroads came clattering east from Chicago, before the Great Northern cut through the Rockies at Marias Pass and connected the mineral wealth of Butte to the booming factories of the Midwest-copper made my family rich.
My great-great-grandfather, William Andrews Clark, was a miner. He dug millions of dollars' worth of copper from the hills surrounding Butte. He was a copper king, a second-generation Irish immigrant turned vest-wearing frontier industrialist. By the time he died, his fortune amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars. But he'd started out, in 1863, making $2.50 a day in a silver mine in Colorado.
William Andrews Clark also had, without doubt, a spectacular mustache. A mustache that perched on his face like the head of a broom. Like an ornamental shrub. Like the tail of a groundhog. Looking at his mustache, I often wondered how he smoked a cigar without lighting himself on fire.
Mustache or no mustache, most of the major inventions of nineteenth-century America required copper wires. Morse's telegraph, Bell's telephone, Edison's incandescent lamp: They all needed pure, refined, conductive metals. And so by 1890 Butte was exporting thirty million dollars' worth of copper every year. Just like copper made the fortune of William Andrews Clark, it also made the fortune of this little city in Montana.
While the inhabitants of Butte used to call it "The Richest Hill on Earth," they also called it "The Perch of the Devil." Nitroglycerine, dynamite, pneumatic drilling: The thunder of explosives rolled down from the mine shafts all day long. Arsenic and sulfur and cadmium poured from the mouths of the Anaconda smelters. If cows grazed in Butte, their teeth turned a soft gold color.
At the museum where I worked, I often told tourists about the early settlers near the Anaconda mine. There was so much arsenic in the drinking water that Butte's residents grew dependent on it. Without the arsenic, they'd get headaches and nausea and splintering stomach cramps. Copper made them rich, but it also poisoned them.
That's where my story starts. With an invisible genetic heritage, with a mutation of the ATP7B gene, with an autosomal recessive genetic disorder called Wilson's disease. Both of my maternal grandparents were carriers. And so my mother's body could never properly absorb copper. Without medication, copper would build up in her soft tissues, in her liver and her kidneys and her eyes and her brain. She took an army of pastel pharmaceuticals daily; she swallowed a rainbow of cuprimine and cyprine and zinc acetate. Children raised in evangelical households can quote Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I know whole sections of The Merck Manual by heart.
There were some other aspects of my childhood that were perhaps unusual. Occasionally, my mother would forget a pill and spend a day in bed. Or I'd come home and find her sitting on the roof. "What," I'd yell, "are you doing up there?" She'd answer: "Nothing, darling," her voice as soft and gentle as the coo of a dove. Or: "I'm counting the stars." Or: "I think I can see Idaho from here."
I'd race inside to sort through the medication and determine what she was missing. Then I'd shimmy out onto the roof, carrying a glass of water and a tiny green tablet. Two hours later, she'd be downstairs, cooking or reading a book in front of the fireplace.
The list of foods my mother couldn't eat was a long one: shellfish, mushrooms, nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, dried peas, dried beans, bran, avocados. But her longings, her longings were persistent. "Just one Twix," she'd say, staring at the candy aisle in Safeway. "Please. It won't kill me, I promise." I'd push the cart forward, nine years old and barely tall enough to reach the handle, my mother trailing behind me, begging for a 3 Musketeers.
This did create some problems for a caterer (as you might imagine). Not only was I her custodian, I was also her chief taster-a fact that she reinforced with a frequent and impressive ardor. She'd knock on the doors of friends' houses, or track me down at the park, or appear in the second inning of my Little League baseball games. Once, when I was in eleventh grade, she had me summoned to the principal's office. "We're very sorry, son," Principal Gordon said. "But your great-uncle has passed away. Your mother's outside waiting to take you home." Certainly she was, sitting behind the wheel of our big white Saqr Catering van. I skulked in through the passenger's-side door, staring at the carpet as we made our way off of school grounds and into traffic.
"You're unbelievable," I said. "No one else's mother acts like this."
She looked straight ahead, her face expressionless, her hands on the wheel. For a moment-even though I didn't have a great-uncle-I was worried.
"It's the shuk shuka," she finally said. "It's just not right. I can feel it."
I buried my head in my hands. "Jesus," I said. "Nobody's going to notice, Mom. Everybody loves your cooking. You can't just pull me out of school in the middle of the day."
She looked at me earnestly, her face a mixture of regret and anxiety. "I know, sweetheart, I know," she said, and paused. "By God, I know how very much I'm damaging you even as I speak. But listen, darling. Could you just taste it and help me out?"
One fact. One instructive, inelegant fact. My mother's husband, my father, my unknown and distant father, my mockery of that word father, of the term, as it's understood by almost everyone-my satellite, my hidden galaxy, my empty suitcase, my vacant motel room-her husband deserted us when I was three. He taught her how to cook his country's food, the lamb and beef and chicken and pork dishes of his Coptic Christian parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. And then: vanished, leaving her with his foods and traditions, a hundred thousand dollars in gambling debts, and a three-year-old boy as copper as a penny. He also left her his onions. To be specific: his Egyptian walking onions.
Allium proliferum. Bulbous, sprawling, tentacular plants that filled the yard. Plants with dozens of long tendrils, with fragile purple flowers and clusters of small fruit. He planted them in the months before I was born. After he left us, after he disappeared one morning with the coffee still warm in the coffeepot, after he returned to Egypt on a one-way business-class ticket, my mother was perpetually trying to massacre his plants.
She tried digging. She tried Roundup. She tried garden shears. But Egyptian walking onions are true to their name: They walk, season after season, across your garden. They travel through the air, in seeds, and beneath the ground, in roots. They flourish. They burrow deep. They are tenacious. She never could exterminate them completely. After three or four years, she gave up. Nothing could be done. The onions had won a decisive victory. Like a field general bidding goodbye to a lost battlefield, my mother leaned against the porch and sighed. "Even Braveheart knew when he was beat," she said.
"They eviscerated him in a public square," I said.
She threw her shovel underneath the porch.
"My fault," she said. "Bad example."
I was surprised one morning when I heard a polite, persistent knocking on my bedroom door. I rolled over. The doorknob turned, the door swung open, and my mother appeared, holding a small dirt-caked garden trowel.
"Rise and shine," she said.
She looked peculiar, backlit by the light in the hallway. Her cheeks were red and puffy.
"It's so early," I said. I peered at the digital clock on my bedside table. Seven-fifteen a.m. It was Thursday, July 26, 2008.
Now, over two years later, I've come to imagine this moment, this glance at the clock, as the moment when the action of the story, of my story, started to slip out of my grasp-when it stretched and turned and rose out of my cupped palms like smoke, like escaping birdsong. There's an old Egyptian saying: A birdsong is a prediction. I could hear the chorus of sparrows through the open window.
"What are you doing?" I asked. It was the mildest form of the question that I could imagine. It was also the most civil. "Have you taken your pills?" I added.
"I have a surprise for you," she said, "in the front yard."
It sounded ominous. She pulled me out of bed. I would help her, of course, but I had a few small tasks I had to complete before I could begin my day. It's not that I had a problem; I was totally normal. It's simply that I needed to arrange the covers of the bed at a certain angle, with just over six inches of white folded back above the top sheet. And then I had to touch all four walls of the room-north, south, east, and west. And then I had to open the door twice, only twice, and look each time into the hallway, while imagining in my head the phrase all clear. Then-only then-I could set about the tasks at hand. Some might call this obsessive-compulsive. I'd call it a friendly (gentle) attention to detail. To painstaking detail. Exact detail. Precise and perfect detail.
This was my room. It was my domain, my blessed plot, my provincial kingdom. Rows of books crowded every available shelf. I'd organized them by color. Actually, the system was a little more complicated than that. I'd sorted them by color within discipline, and by alphabetical ranking within discipline. This was my tertiary organizational structure. I had books on biology, chemistry, calculus, engineering. I had encyclopedias and Bibles. I had the Great Books, the classics of world religious thinking, of philosophy and poetry and fiction. I also had an entire section of biographies of Marion Morrison, the man who became John Wayne. I liked to start each day with a Wayne aphorism. For example, this morning I read: Talk low, talk slow, and don't say too much. Excellent, I thought. Simply excellent advice.
My mother waited for me to finish my rituals, her countenance cast into a disapproving frown. "Hurry," she said. "It's almost seven-thirty."
"And? What's so important about seven-thirty?"
She frowned more deeply. "It's a minute before seven-thirty-one," she said.
Once I was ready, she ushered me out into the hallway, down the stairs, and through the front door. We stood on the porch, looking out over the garden. We'd never, as long as I could remember, had a yard like anyone else's in Butte. No grass, no gleaming metallic globe on a pedestal, no ceramic creatures of any sort, no cars on blocks. Instead, we had an organic vegetable garden. One that was intertwined by allium proliferum, sure, but a vegetable garden nonetheless. Now it looked like a scene of post-apocalyptic devastation. She'd already stripped part of the yard of its vegetation. She was working her way inward, leaving a blasted path of dark black topsoil wherever she went.
"Jesus," I said.
She nodded. "I've been out here since four," she said. "It's time we finished them off."
"Finished what off?" I said.
"Them," she said, gesturing toward the dirt.
"What are you talking about?"
"The onions," she said. "It's time we got rid of these damned Egyptian onions."
My mother hunched down and started hacking at the base of a root. I worried that she was unmedicated, that her liver was rattling to a halt, even as she raised the trowel above her shoulder. I inched toward the subject. "How are you feeling this morning, Mom?"
"Perfect," she said.
"Are you sure you don't need your pills?" I said. "I'll just run and get them."
She turned her face toward mine and stared at me. She seemed on the edge of tears. "It's not my pills," she said. "I've taken them all. Please, just help."
I fell in line beside her. Within minutes, the knees of my jeans bore broad black mud stains-stains that soaked deep into the light blue denim. The smell of dirt and flayed vegetation drifted up and over me. I dug and cleared and labored beneath a hostile sun. I searched my mind for some kind of anniversary, for some comment or news article or scrap of conversation that I'd heard, something that could have initiated this frenzy. Garden care has always seemed to me like useless botanicide. Why remove the weeds when the weeds will just return?
"What about the eggplant?" I said. We'd spent four years growing the eggplant vines, nurturing them from tiny leafy creatures into a sprawling, confident mass. "Shouldn't we save the eggplant?"
"We'll grow a new one," my mother said.
"What about the asparagus?" I said.
"It's curtains for the asparagus," she said. "And don't ask so many questions," she added. "Just get to work. We're going to strip it all. Strip, blast, clear." She straightened her back and wiped sweat from her muddy forehead, inhaling deeply. "Smell that dirt," she said. "That's the odor of success."
I followed the onion roots, working from the surface down deep into the clay. I hacked and hacked with the tip of the shovel. Sweat poured down the sides of my spine. My socks felt like wet tourniquets. By ten o'clock it was ninety-seven blistering degrees.
Excerpted from Evel Knievel Days by Pauls Toutonghi. Copyright © 2012 by Pauls Toutonghi. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.