It was still sunny and hot in Houmal during the waning days of summer, but the village had already given itself over to preparing for the colder months ahead. Families worked to bring in the year’s sumac harvest. The air was thick with the scent of woodsmoke and slowly stewing tomatoes. I had come to Lebanon with my friend Angela Mualem Fout, who lives in New York but grew up in the village. Twenty minutes on narrow, dusty roads into the mountains to the east of Beirut—it was a world apart from the hurried capital we had just left behind.
Rounding a hairpin corner, we encountered Saida Daou, a family friend, stoking a fire in her courtyard. Salty tomato paste is an elemental component of Lebanese cuisine, and in Houmal most residents make their year’s supply at home from tomatoes they have grown themselves. Saida’s disit—a large, wide pan haphazardly set on a metal stand—steamed exuberantly with the reddest red tomatoes I have ever seen, with days’ worth of coals smoldering underneath.