I could say if I just look at the slope of her nose (ever so slight with a generous finish) I’d recognize that it is exactly like mine and unmistakably connect us but I know what you are thinking: there is so much more to a face, so many more crevices and cracks to throw you off course. You’d say the eyes, the chin, even the hair. And I’d agree, one cannot gage another by merely the slope of the nose but in this case it really is all it took. Because when she turned and I saw her profile, I saw myself in her; ten, maybe fifteen years earlier I was there, only with different colored hair and different colored eyes but still me and I knew right then and there, that even though we never crossed paths before, we were indeed sisters.
Of course, the story doesn’t start or end there. There are many hurdles and heartbreak and mending when one learns one’s father has led a double life and has a whole separate family as a result. It took years to get here and years I was grateful my mother was not alive to live this. But the slope of the nose is where we met and it was followed by the big-hearted smile and the prominent chin: all trademarks of my father’s Abbady genes I had thought for the most part of my life I carried alone only to quickly learn those traits where clearly molded on one of my half-sister’s face as well.
We met on a chilly foggy night in the Andean city of Quito, the remote spot my father had picked to form another life that on this memorable night merged with mine. There was too much past to clutter a future with these two young women, my two half-sisters I never knew about, and so it was time to move forward together.
And with the reliable mediator of food, we did. To begin with, there was the fact that I had landed on the equator, which opened up the door to plenty of exotic and delightful Amazonian fruit with equally strange names such as parcha, tomate de arbol, and naranjillo. There were many I had already encountered growing up in Venezuela such as maracuya (passion fruit) and mora (blackberry), all of which begged to be gobbled up with nothing but impulsiveness and greed. All my mother’s proper Philadelphia stock was put to shame as I dropped any social etiquette and lost myself in a world of sweetness and flowers and juice which I couldn’t fully experience without fingers, extra drool and a very drippy chin. To think Eden lost it all for a measly apple? Oh the damage that could have happened here!
We had the fortune of our visit coinciding with Semana Santa (Holy Week), which, in a country where Roman Catholicism reigns, is taken very seriously, right down to the food. Large makeshift shacks abound housing sweaty women stirring big pots of fanesca, a traditional hearty soup served during this meat-prohibited time consisting of beans and dried cod and garnished with eggs, fried plantains, heart of palm, and (if you’re fortunate) fried cheese empanadas. You can pick any crowded intersection in Quito, drag a dirty plastic chair up to the communal table and dig in alongside businessmen in grey Armani suits, families overflowing with children, or curious tourists like me.
There were other succulent flavors with the indelible stamp of Ecuador: Ceviche de Camaron, plump, marinated shrimp swimming in a bath of citrus, cilantro and red peppers or Encocado, which translates to “in coconut” and is the country’s trademark fish dish of sea bass bathed in fresh coconut sauce served alongside fried green plantains and a big mound of white rice. Salchipapas, the popular street food consisting of thick slices of fried hotdogs served on a bed of French fries and coated with your choice of pink, yellow or spicy aji sauce easily elevated frankfurters to a whole other level.
Of course, we ate our way through any awkwardness, quietly comparing notes of our parallel lives guided by the same patriarch and by the end of each meal we were fuller and better for it, one step closer to closing the enormous gap of secrecy and time that lay before us. And then we had our Passover dinner, the ultimate family meal for a group learning to be a family. There was laughter and prayers and countless glasses of sickly sweet wine, and then, alas, there was food, lots and lots of food. My sister and half-sisters where all there, the children ran around freely and my father, with his partner Lucia by his side, had a twinkle in his eye I hadn’t seen in years. And just as this strange trip began to settle into a faint sense of normalcy, something happened that seemed to seal the deal:
Dessert was served.
And not just any dessert. A delicious dessert. A wonderous dessert. A very Abbady dessert. Something I could see my aunt Miriam present in her cramped Jerusalem apartment along with a pot of Café Turki. After all, this was Crème Bavaria, an Israeli favorite.
The ethereal square of white gently drizzled with rich chocolate and dusted with a bit of chopped walnuts was placed before me. Lucia sat humbly next to my father, weathering the silence of a group of already tough critics. Her eyes jumped nervously between my sister and I and our families as she contended with the room’s silence. But the silence was soon broken by harmonious oohs and ahhs as, one by one, we all fell prey to the smooth and light creaminess of her Crème Bavaria, quickly and gently forgiving the misstep of using leavening during Passover as we bit into the rum-infused sponge cake resting on the bottom.
It was an instant of wonder and hope where I realized that as painful and real as many of the circumstances that created this group where, there was a chance that through such delicious moments, things could and should get better. My half-sister and I were sitting across each other. Half way through our dessert, among the buzz of contentment, our eyes met and we grinned the same grin. We were both blissfully stuffing ourselves with Crème Bavaria, making a start in the right direction guided by a happy, full stomach.
(Adapted from Popular Food From Israel 2000, by Ruth Sirkis)
1 tablespoon gelatin powder
1 ¾ cup whole milk
¾ cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon rum
3 eggs, separated
2 cups whipping cream
16 lady fingers*
4 tablespoons walnuts, finely chopped
Mix the gelatin, 1 cup milk and ½ cup sugar in a medium saucepan. Heat on medium heat until the gelatin and sugar dissolve, 5 – 8 minutes.
Remove from heat and add vanilla extract and 1 teaspoon rum.
Add egg yolks to the mixture and refrigerate until it begins to set, 45 minutes.
Beat egg whites with ¼ cup sugar until it forms peaks and gently fold into the milk mixture.
Whip cream until it forms peaks and fold this into the egg and milk mixture.
Combine ¾ cup milk and ¾ cup rum in a shallow bowl. Dip ladyfingers in this mixture and place soaked ladyfingers in an 8 x 8 square pan. Carefully pour the cream over them and cover with saran wrap.
Chill for at least 6 hours.
Cut into squares before serving. Pour chocolate syrup on each serving and sprinkle with chopped walnuts.