Into the Archives: Revisiting Syria, 20 Years Later

Clifford Wright, food anthropologist and author of a 1997 SAVEUR story on Syria and its beloved artichokes, weighs in on the country once called the Paris of the Arab culinary world

By Allie Wist

Published on March 21, 2017

Welcome to Into the Archives, where we comb through our dog-eared copies of SAVEUR issues past and consider the stories and recipes that capture a unique time and place—and have some surprising relevance today.

Though locked into the eternity of print, magazines are inherently ephemeral. Their glossy sheen, their flimsy, softcover architecture, their stories tied to the seasons and the moment—all of this makes for a transient artifact.

artichokes elizabeth cecil
Clifford Wright explores the vegetable beloved in Aleppo and beyond

The Heart of the Syrian Artichoke

But food, and stories about food, has this ability to transport us through time, via taste. To lock us into another moment by engaging our senses. It's a portal we can step through to experience the past with visceral clarity.

Issue 17 of SAVEUR in 1997 includes a feature set in Syria. A place we can't go now, and can hardly imagine beyond the contexts of war, refugees, and turmoil. But Clifford A. Wright's piece tells a different story, one about gastronomy, food culture, and a place he says was once "the Paris of the Arab culinary world."

The Souk Al Madina in 1992

While researching A Mediterranean Feast, his breakthrough historical cookbook that won the James Beard award for Cookbook of the Year, Wright happened to spend a five-hour bus ride with a Syrian woman who clued him into the heart of Syrian cuisine: artichokes. With her and others' help, he found a wealth of Syrian dishes centered around artichokes, and began an investigation to understand Syria through this ingredient.

I reached out to Wright to talk about his story, the flavors of Syria he found, and what’s worth thinking about the country today.

Let's head back to 1997: why did you pitch this story, and why artichokes?
It's not so much that I was interested in the artichokes of Syria as I was interested in the culture of food itself. I'm really looking at culture in general, but I found one way to introduce people to a culture is through these particular elements, like artichokes. It's a very open way to do it, and it doesn't frighten anybody because everyone has to eat and everyone likes food.

I was particularly interested in the artichoke because there was a debate I had when I first started writing in the late '80s about the artichoke and its origin. There was a common thought repeated endlessly by magazines and cookbook authors that the Romans first knew the artichoke. I had argued that it couldn’t have been the Romans, since the word “artichoke” was derived from Arabic. What the Romans knew was the cardoon, and that the artichoke developed out of the cardoon. Subsequently, I wrote a scholarly article on the artichoke, and that article was really the outgrowth of this Syria trip and this article.

A Damascus market in 2014.

But the story's about much more than artichokes.
Syria is very important in terms of understanding Mediterranean history, and it's one of the most culturally important countries in the Mediterranean. It was important in understanding the rise of the Italian city-states that created capital by virtue of their trade with the east in grain and with wheat and in spices. Aleppo is also known as the Paris of the Arab culinary world. Everyone will agree the best food in the Arab world is in Aleppo. Not anymore, of course. But a trip to Aleppo and a trip to Damascus used to be essential.

The piece really does take you on that serendipitous discovery of the artichoke. It's this lovely insight into food culture at that moment, and it shows you a different view of Syria than a lot of people have right now, and I imagine then. Were there any other insights or moments from that trip that didn't make it in the article that seem interesting now, in hindsight?
I could spend days telling you stories. One example has to do with Syrian men and their relationship to food culture. What's really interesting in the Arab world, which is for the most part a paternalistic society, is how most men (of an older generation) do not cook, and do not go into the kitchen, but so many are experts on food. They might be able to tell you how it's made, how it should taste like, what needs to be tweaked and so forth, and they will speak expertly. Whereas an American husband of a similar generation would come home from work, and was really nothing more than a human garbage pail, who would shovel down the food without comment.

It reveals this connection that everybody in this society has to the food itself. And I don't mean the way we talk about food now in this faddish way, but in almost a philosophical way.

I wonder if that's changing in the U.S. Among younger men in their twenties and thirties, there's a growing culture that respects a connection to food—men who want to learn how to brew their own beer, to do day-long cooking projects, and want to understand flavors. That same kind of gastronomic insight.
I think there's a greater interest in food. But what's so interesting is the cooking is no better. People search for recipes on the internet based on what's in their fridge, instead of desiring to cook a food of a certain culture. You have to start from a recipe with a cultural grounding. People compliment me on my cooking, and I tell them, "Well, frankly, it's not me, I've just done some research and discovered that people have been making this for several hundred years, so it's a pretty good bet it's a good dish."

A Damascus souk in 2009.

Right now many people can hardly imagine Syria beyond the context of the current war. Do you think there's something to gain by re-telling a story that shows a more human side of the country?
It's more true than ever now, given that the refugees from Syria themselves have been ostracized, which is a very odd thing. Usually refugees are welcomed, but not in all cases. In this case, these poor Syrians have to land on the shores of Europe or America and be locked out, simply because they're Syrians.

I don't imagine many writers will be able visit the country in the near future to tell more of those stories. What's your take on what Syria is like now?
I was a foreign policy analyst prior to being a writer, and one of my areas of expertise was the Middle East. And I would say if anyone tells you they know what's going on in Syria now, and what we should do ("we," being the United States), then they don't know what they're talking about. No one knows what's going on in Syria, including its participants. Take a look at a map of the division of forces in Syria, and it's incomprehensible. The war has affected everything, including artichoke production. And food is being used as a weapon. It's no longer about production, it's about survival. So it's an entirely different world. It's not even about cooking, it's about survival and persistence. That's all it's about at this moment.

So what does that mean for Syria's food culture going forward? What's your sense of the diaspora now?
What Syria is going to amount to when this all ends is a big question mark, because "Syria" might not exist as a political unit, if it disintegrates. And then what do you have afterwards? There has been so many war crimes committed that there may be a point of no return, a point of no forgiveness. These are all big question marks. In one sense, of course, the culture is going to continue to exist, even if Syria breaks apart, people will still live there.

A spread from the 1997 story in SAVEUR

And they will continue to cook what they've always cooked. Particularly because, in the Arab world, food changes slowly. In Syria, no one would think of adding or changing something to a dish. Take the recipe in the article, braised artichokes with fava beans. A Syrian cook would make it just like that, and will arguably continue to do so. Even if they end up as refugees in Minnesota, these people are going to tend to stick to their food and they'll cook their food. Now maybe their children will Americanize it, but they're going to cook their food, the food that they know.

So I don’t think the food is going to change that much, but what's changing is something a little bit deeper—about how people will culturally relate to fellow Syrians. It was a multicultural place—you once had Roman Catholic Christians, you have Greek Orthodox Christians, you have Sunni Muslims, you have Alawites, you have Druze, you have Armenians, and you have smaller little minorities like Kurds, and Yazidis. It's a complex multicultural country that have all now reformed along lines that didn't really exist before.

Are you looking to go back?
Well, I never went back to Syria. I had some plans to, but they never really formulated. Then the shit hit the fan. Now, no I have no interest in going to Syria, because there's no Syria to go to. It's all based on my memory, on my writing, on photographs and things like that. It's very sad. Syria will reform in the future. Things get better. The war in Serbia ended and people now go there on vacation. And that might happen.

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