In my 40th year, I finally made pita bread

Good food is worth a thousand words, sometimes more. In My family recipea writer shares the story of a single dish that makes sense to them and their loved ones.

* * *

I grab my favorite apron, the light blue with the thin red and white stripes, worn soft by decades of cooking. I tie the ropes around my waist, first at the back and then at the front, securing them with a knot. It hugs my body like a second skin, like a favorite worn-out t-shirt.

When my grandmother Mary died at 98, I was 34, eight months pregnant and unable to fly to Michigan for her funeral. It was my Lebanese-American grandmother on my mother’s side; we called her Sita. After the funeral, my mother collected some things from Sita for me: her Fiestaware dinnerware set, a bread server and two aprons.

When I wear Sita’s aprons in my kitchen, I feel like a more confident cook. Over the years wearing these aprons I’ve made perfectly seared scallops, replicated my husband’s favorite English stew with Yorkshire pudding and baked strawberry cake for my daughter’s birthday. When I finally tackled sourdough in the summer of 2020, I was struck by the nature of mixing, kneading and shaping the dough, as if my hands held tacit knowledge. It reminded me of Sita making pita.

Growing up, we would visit Sita’s house every summer, no matter where my family was living at the time – Paris, Aberdeen, Jakarta. Every evening during these holidays, we would gather for a home-cooked meal, the garlic-scented air sizzling in olive oil. Often there were freshly baked pita breads to accompany Sita’s Lebanese soul food feasts. Sita stacked the loaves, carrying them to the table wrapped in a napkin or stored in a cloth-lined basket. We used bread as a second utensil, to slip in bites of hummus, scoop up tabbouleh or sandwich vine leaves. Sita’s table was a safe harbor, a place to drop anchor every June. Here I was comforted by the sight of her in the kitchen, the smell of her flour-dusted aprons, the feeling of being full.

* * *

The act of cooking and feeding the family has always been my love language, and the one I am fluent in. But over the past two years, a sense of fatigue has simmered, sometimes bubbling to the surface with bubbling resentment. I’d like to blame the pandemic for exacerbating my exhaustion, but the truth is that in my family, cooking and housekeeping has historically fallen to women.

When Sita was growing up, she and her four sisters took care of household chores, while her five brothers worked in their father’s shoe shop. Sita was first in charge of washing clothes, then baking bread, which she learned from her mother and grandmother. Money was tight; Sometimes Sita looked for dandelion greens in the garden to make a salad. But there was still pita on the table. Kneading, patting and squeezing round after round, Sita has helped feed her family with little means.

Now that I’m a mother and wife, not to mention a food writer, the responsibility of producing the dinner, in an almost unspoken pact, falls to me. When you factor in the unseen work of meal planning, inventory and grocery shopping, and the juggling act of balancing work and childcare, it’s not hard to see how or why I have become so tired and resentful. Yet, because of my dissatisfaction, I found it difficult to relinquish my responsibility. After all, who was I if I didn’t put on an apron and cook dinner to show my family how much I love them? I was beginning to see that this internal wrestling match was tied to my self-esteem and my need for approval, and so I knew I had to reclaim my relationship with food, family, and cooking. And that journey had to start in my kitchen.

Earlier this year, I decided to embark on the adventure. I identified 40 recipes that I would make for the first time, and all of them before I turned 40. These were recipes that I had found too daunting or time-consuming, including handmade pasta, saffron risotto, baklava, and Sita pita. So, four months before turning 40, I tied Sita’s apron, recipe in hand, and got to work.

In addition to her recipes and aprons, I also realized that I had inherited Sita’s perfectionism. Before I could even measure the flour, I had to admit that I had been waiting to make this recipe because I feared failure, and that part of me was worried that the recipe wouldn’t work for me. The recipe I started with was included in a little spiral family cookbook my Uncle Ben had put together for Sita’s 90th birthday. Like many home cooks of her generation, Sita rarely wrote down recipes; she gauged instinctively. So the recipe was part oral history, part complete guesswork.

The dough was, in a word, punitive. The high gluten content of whole wheat flour (all six cups), coupled with ignoring my intuition to add more water, made it dry and inflexible. My joints were raw from the kneading, my abs ached from standing on my tiptoes to get enough strength to press down on the dough. “Cooking is a labor of love,” Sita would say. I let the dough rise, divided it into balls, flattened them with a rolling pin and baked them in batches on baking sheets. The time settings for cooking and flipping seemed wide, so I experimented with different times, carefully noting minutes cooked per side as well as appearance, texture, and flavor. Some loaves were thin; others have risen well, others still I pulled too early to try to obtain a softer crumb.

“It looks like a pita graveyard here,” my husband said, pointing to a plate with my first tries. “Those are pita chips!” I say happily sweeping away the shards.

Then I tried one of the instructions for cooking using the grill, not realizing that Sita’s oven had a bottom grill (mine was top mounted). These specimens were softer, charred, and bubbling around the edges, like a Neapolitan pizza crust. They were tasty, but they weren’t my Sita’s pita. My shoulders slumped in disappointment, but I said nothing. My five-year-old daughter was sitting at the kitchen table coloring. I chirped, “It’s okay not to get it right the first time!”

After a morning of baking bread, I was starving. I took a jar of hummus (store bought; sorry, Sita) out of the fridge and dunked some of the pita directly into the jar. Not perfect, but tasty. I put some hummus on a plate next to some canned grape leaves and ate quietly. Even when the loaves had cooled and become stiffer, they had a nice chewiness. Yet, not quite there.

That evening, quite unexpectedly, my mother texted me a picture of an index card with a handwritten recipe for pita bread: “Gram’s pita bread recipe in his own handwriting. I just discover it in my Lebanese cookbook!” Sita’s cursive handwriting was unmistakable. And it needed a mix of white and whole wheat flours. I knew it! I immediately called my mom to recount my own bread-making adventures, lamenting my pita graveyard and describing the oblong, inconsistent shapes of the loaves.

“When Gram first learned to bake bread, her sisters teased her. They called it ‘crackers’ bread or ‘geometric bread,'” mum said reassuringly.

I decided to make the bread again, this time incorporating bits of the handwritten recipe. I took my mom’s advice to pat the dough, instead of rolling it out, to help keep the air in and make the bread rise. She also told me how Sita flattened the balls of dough with her fingertips, working from top to bottom, then up around the edges.

I heated the oven with a pizza stone this time – a helpful tip from my brother Will – then tapped out a circle and set it on the stone. I FaceTimed my mom for moral support, holding my breath as I pulled the first loaf of the second batch out of the oven.

“It looks so good!” I exhaled admiring the toasted golden flecks of the puffed bread. When I cut it in half, there was a distinct pocket and a discernible fluffy crumb.

“That’s it, darling!” My mother’s eyes widened. “Ohhh, we used to eat it hot from the oven with butter.”

I retrieved Sita’s butter dish from the fridge, ripped off a piece of pita bread and anointed it with a generous pat of butter, lifting it skyward in honor of Sita.

“Smallah,” my mom said, beaming from my phone screen.

“What does it mean?”

“It means blessings,” she said. “If only they could see you, the fifth generation, carrying on the family tradition.”

I served my pita bread with dinner that night, nestling the loaves in a Fiestaware bowl lined with Sita’s bread napkin. I thought of how Sita’s loaves had fed generations of our family, of the imprints of Sita’s fingertips in the dough – and how she is imprinted on me too. Before I mustered up the courage to make the pita, I think part of me knew the magnitude of continuing the family tradition. But wearing Sita’s apron, equipped with her recipes and my mother’s support, I felt more connected to my family than ever.

A few weeks later, my husband, daughter and I were at our table eating spaghetti bolognese for supper..

“You know what would be nice with that? asked my husband. “Pita bread.”

“I was thinking the same thing! There are some loaves in the freezer.”

My husband warmed a loaf in the toaster, brought it to the table and handed it to me; I didn’t mind the blistering heat at my fingertips, ripping it into three pieces. It was just as crispy on the outside and soft on the inside as when I first took it out of the oven. And it was perfect for mopping up the sauce that was building up on my plate.

“You should do that again, mom,” Ava said, holding her piece in both hands and chewing thoughtfully. “Yes, I think I will. I would really like that.”

Recipe: Sita pita bread