At 102, South Portland woman doesn’t hold back feelings about the food she loves, or doesn’t

“Hi, this is Kareemi Atallah. I am Lebanese. And my mother used to make the best fattoush.”

So began a message left on my telephone in August, shortly after the Press Herald published a recipe for fattoush – a peppy Middle-Eastern salad made from toasted pita, radishes, tomatoes and sumac. And so began a friendship of sorts.

“I can’t make it like her, but I would love to talk to you because I cooked Mideast food and sold it wholesale here in Portland for 15 years,” the message continued. “Atallah is Arabic, of course, and so is Kareemi, but I’m 101 years old now, and I would love to talk to you and I would love to get some good fattoush before I die.”

There was no resisting that message. So, some six weeks later, just one week shy of Atallah’s 102nd birthday, I brought her fattoush from Baharat restaurant in Portland – also baba ganoush, hummus and birthday cake – and visited her for dinner in her comfortable Sable Lodge Retirement Community apartment in South Portland.

The fattoush, I am sorry to say, did not meet her expectations.

“Pray tell me, what’s this,” she said, pointing to the slices of tender, pink steak that Baharat nestles atop its version of the salad. We were sitting at her kitchen table, which she’d beautifully set before I arrived. Steak, I told her, they put steak on their fattoush.

“Steak with fattoush??” she said, leaving little doubt what she thought about the unconventional addition. “I’ve never had steak with fattoush. I can’t chew that.”

Is the fattoush OK otherwise, I asked? Did it taste like her mother’s? “No way. Completely different.” That did not seem to be a compliment. Atallah, I was fast learning, calls it like she sees it.

We’d been talking – well shouting, she doesn’t hear well – over the meal, and I’d learned that relatively late in life she’d founded a business that she was still exceptionally proud of: For more than a decade in the 1980s and ’90s, Kareemi’s Lebanese Food delivered hummus, green bean stew, tabbouleh and several other dishes to Hannaford, Shaw’s, Good Day Market, Lois’ Natural Marketplace and a few bagel shops. She made the food in her home of 40-odd years on Ocean Avenue in South Portland. A photograph of the house hangs on her wall.

Atallah showed me a clipping of a story that someone had written about her business in a magazine. “He gave me two full pages,” she said and gave me an old business card with a black-and-white graphic of an old-fashioned pot with Arabic writing drifting out of it like steam rising.

She also shared a letter she’d saved from a bagel shop customer: “To our dear hummus woman,” it began. “I am so sorry I didn’t get this to you sooner. We opened for business. It has been a whirlwind ever since. I still haven’t got any bills entered into our computer. We love the hummus.”

“I always got good compliments,” Atallah said.

Atallah is also proud of her work sorting mail at the post office, the main branch in Portland, something I wouldn’t bother to mention, but for the fact that she got the job when she was 79 years old.

“I loved it. I did it 11 years, and I never missed a day’s work, but then I quit at 90 because it was at night, and I couldn’t see good at night (to drive home) anymore,” she said.

Atallah didn’t give up driving for another 10 years, until she was almost 100. That’s also when she sold her house and moved into Sable Lodge, which in its communal dining room serves food like corn on the cob, haddock, mashed potatoes and prime rib, but not Lebanese food, though she did give her recipe for hummus to the facility’s chef.

Like her home of 40 years, like the ease with which she used to eat before dentures and the speed with which she used to hop out of a chair to reach a ringing telephone in time, Atallah misses the food she grew up eating, and she misses cooking it, too. She still stocks her fridge with labneh, fig jam and rosewater, and her cupboard with tahini.

And though the fattoush I’d brought was not the fattoush of memory, “I appreciate you bringing it,” she said. “It’s a good experience.”

Which was true for me, too. I lit the candle on the gingerbread I’d brought and sang her “Happy Birthday.” What did you wish for, I asked her.

“I made a wish to see you again,” she said, laughing.

Done.

Kareemi Atallah, very smartly turned out, at about age 25. “I had shoes, gloves, and hats to match every purse I had. I couldn’t have enough dresses,” she said. “I wish I knew what I did with that hat.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

BECOMING A COOK

Kareemi Atallah was born on Oct. 14, 1918, in Manchester, New Hampshire, to Lebanese parents, the middle child in a family of three girls. She doesn’t know what brought her parents to America.

“I never asked them. I guess they thought they were going to find riches here,” she said, laughing.

Her mother was a wonderful cook. Atallah still talks about her fattoush, her mujadara, her pita bread with za’atar, which as a girl Atallah helped bake. When Atallah was 14, her father forced her to drop out of school to take a job as a stitcher, sewing shoes.

At 29, she married – to escape her father, she said. It wasn’t much of an escape. She had three children (two have predeceased her; she still grieves them) but left the marriage just seven years later, raising the children herself and taking back her maiden name. She doesn’t mince words when it comes to her former husband, now dead. “My husband was a jerk,” she says. “He was a woman chaser.”

Over the years, Atallah delivered telephone books, volunteered with the PTA, served as a Girl Scout leader. “I’ve done every job in the book,” she said. “Where there is money, I got the job.”

What she did little of was traditional Lebanese cooking. For that, she relied on her mother, whom the family often spent time with when the children were small.

“My mother wasn’t as tuned into it,” Atallah’s son Tom Benzel, of Hopkinton, New Hampshire, remembers. “She wasn’t a great cook. As my grandmother got older, (my mother) got more involved, knowing if she wanted to do that food, she was going to have to learn it.”

Some of Atallah’s collection of cookbooks, most of them Greek and Middle Eastern. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Learn it she did. Eventually, Atallah accumulated shelves of Middle Eastern and Greek cookbooks – though her collection is much diminished today, it’s still impressive – and she began making the food herself, watching her mother and practicing until she “got it right,” she said. She moved to Maine in the early 1960s, launched her wholesale business and even achieved – briefly – her dream of opening a store selling prepared Lebanese food.

“She went ahead without a business plan, from her heart,” her son said. “She signed leases and bought equipment. She’s not really a business person. She knew how to make the food, and she knew people would buy it and like it. After a time, it wasn’t financially viable, and she had to shut it down and go back to making it at home.”

Atallah doesn’t dwell on it. A lot of things happen in 102 years. “I didn’t have traffic so I couldn’t make it,” she said.

In subsequent years, she befriended Ahmed Abbas, of Dina’s Cuisine on Forest Avenue in Portland, perhaps the sort of store she once envisioned for herself.

“Kareemi. Awesome!” Abbas said when I asked him about their friendship. “I wish her a very long life. She’s pretty healthy inside. She has a beautiful soul. She’s very cheerful.”

In November, I made hummus and brought it to Atallah, with pita I picked up at the store. By then, coronavirus case numbers were rising steeply in Maine. I dropped the food off, though Atallah had set the table for the two of us for lunch. I fled, too anxious about the pandemic to stay. The next week, though, she phoned me with her assessment.

“It’s pretty good,” she said. “It just needs more lemon. Once you use the lemon to what you want it, let (the hummus) sit a couple of hours. (The lemon) goes away. It dissolves. You need to add more later. But you did very well. You did a good job, and I’ll give you an A.”

I should have quit while I was ahead.

Atallah samples food editor Peggy Grodinsky’s mujadara. It does not pass muster. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

FAILING GRADE

Over the winter, I practiced making mujadara, a humble Middle Eastern comfort food made from rice or bulgur, lentils and lots of deeply caramelized onions. Atallah had mentioned it to me several times and tried to teach me how to pronounce its name correctly.

“You have to gurgle. You don’t have the gurgle,” she said, laughing at my attempt. “You can’t speak Arabic if you don’t have a gurgle.” (She also recited the Arabic alphabet to me – quickly. If she doesn’t say it fast, she said, she can’t remember it.)

In April, after I was vaccinated, I reached out to Atallah, worried as one is about any 102-year-old after a five-month gap, that I might be too late. I wasn’t. But would she even remember me? After a minute of confusion – Did I say my name was Heide? Was I the hairdresser calling about an appointment? – she got it: “Peggy from the newspaper!”

Atallah was as feisty, as funny and as with it as ever. (How does she manage that? “I do find a word. I do puzzles. I play Solitaire. Anything to keep my brain moving.”) I told her I’d been vaccinated and invited myself to lunch – with mujadara.

But hang on … she hadn’t been vaccinated. She wasn’t going to be vaccinated, either, thank you very much. She didn’t think the vaccine had been tested enough. She hadn’t gotten sick in 1918, the last time there was a pandemic (she was an infant and toddler at the time) and she did not intend to get sick now. But if she did, so be it. She was 102 years old “and six months. If I catch the virus and die, I’m old enough.”

Fine. We made a date for May. I told her that, in addition to the mujadara, I’d be bringing a photographer. “You can bring me American food, too,” she said, breaking my heart just a little.

Atallah met us in the lobby and led the way to her apartment. We sat down to lunch.

The drubbing Atallah gave to Baharat’s fattoush was nothing compared to her opinion of my mujadara. She hated it. It wasn’t even mujadara in her mind. When I insisted, that, yes, it was mujadara I’d made (maybe she couldn’t understand my pronunciation, still a work in progress?), she termed it “rice mix” and pronounced it “edible.” When I tried to explain that I’d used bulgur – it turned out she makes the dish with short-grain brown rice – I did not help matters any.

“If this is mujadara, that’s not how you make mujadara. Not the way my mother made mujadara.” So how do you make it? “I could tell you till doomsday and you wouldn’t know what to do.”

Ouch.

“Ben,” she said, turning to Press Herald photographer Ben McKenna, “when I make mujadara the next time, you’re gonna get some the way mujadara should be.”

When I called her son a few days later to ask him about his mother, he’d already been briefed. “She told about that and how terrible it was,” he said.

In my defense, I was busy working the morning of our lunch date. Running from desktop to stovetop, I forgot to turn the stove off under the mujadara, and it cooked and cooked and cooked to a soggy, unappealing mush. What to do? I was due at Atallah’s in 30 minutes. I packed it up, anyway, big mistake – maybe she wouldn’t notice? – along with a salad of homemade yogurt, cucumbers, garden mint and garlic (that, she liked). I never had time for the sesame cookies I meant to bake. Also a mistake. “Go back and finish them!” Atallah teased me. “Just kidding.”

McKenna took a lot of photographs. “Are you going to make me a celebrity?” she said, laughing merrily. “Am I celebrity stuff?” (Probably.) She told McKenna she’d had a long affair with a much younger man. She asked him if he was a woman chaser. I’m married, he replied, reddening. “Well you can still be chasing,” she said. Was she flirting with him? If so, it was all good fun, as men, she said, are “too much trouble.”

Atallah reads the paper every day and follows the news. Over the 10 months I’ve come to know her a little, we’ve touched on former President Trump (she voted for him in 2016, but didn’t vote in 2020), the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the wildfires in California. She is a fan of Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz.

The first time we met, she asked me about him as I was walking out that door. “You tell Bill Nemitz if he wants a good story, he should call.”

I beat him to it.

Atallah at lunch in her apartment, which houses her cookbook and camel collections. “I’m definitely Mideast even though I was born here. I love that culture.” Atallah has never visited Lebanon. “I wished I could. I didn’t have the money. I had kids. I had to work. I’ve been to Canada. That’s out of town,” she laughed. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Mujadara with Crispy Onions

The recipe is from “Rose Water & Orange Blossoms: Fresh & Classic Recipes from My Lebanese Kitchen” by Maureen Abood, a friend of mine. I want to assure  her that it was user error, not a recipe problem, that led Kareemi Atallah to pronounce the dish merely “edible.” I sometimes add a little ground cumin with the onions.

Makes 8 servings

1 cup small brown or green lentils, sorted and rinsed
4 cups water, divided
1/4 cup safflower or canola oil
2 large onions, diced (4 cups)
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 cup coarse bulgur (#3 or #4) or long-grain white rice
Few grinds black pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

FOR THE FRIED ONION GARNISH (optional):
Safflower or canola oil, for frying
1 large yellow onion, cut in very thin rings

Place the lentils in a small saucepan with 2 cups of the water. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, and then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the lentils are par-cooked (al dente to the bite; they will finish cooking in a later step), 10-12 minutes. Remove from the heat and set the lentils in their cooking liquid aside.

In a large sauce pan with a lid, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the diced onions and cook until the onions are dark golden brown (darker than typical caramelized onions), about 40 minutes, stirring frequently. Sprinkle the onions with a teaspoon of salt as they cook.

Carefully pour in the remaining 2 cups of water. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, and then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 minutes.

Stir the bulgur and par-cooked lentils with their liquid into the onion mixture. Cover and bring back to a boil. Stir in a healthy pinch of salt and the black pepper. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the liquid has been absorbed and the bulgur and lentils are cooked through, about 20 minutes. The texture of the cooked bulgur and lentils will be slightly al dente. Remove from the heat and season to taste with more salt and pepper, if needed. Serve the mujadara hot, warm, or room temperature, drizzled with olive oil.

For the fried onion garnish, heat the oil over medium-high heat to 375 degrees F in a small saucepan. When a small piece of onion dropped in the oil bubbles vigorously, the oil is ready. Fry the onion in batches until they are golden brown. Transfer the onions to a paper towel-lined plate, then arrange them on top of the mujadara.


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