With handmade fans painted to look like lotus leaves and martini glasses encircled by papier-mâché serpents, artist Nadia Roden creates an Egyptian fantasy to fête her mother, legendary cookbook author Claudia Roden.
Births, graduations and weddings are all important in the life of a family, but there are other moments that are less obviously but equally significant. One is the day a child begins giving birthday parties for a parent. Nadia Roden recently reached this turning point when she set out to commemorate her mother's 67th birthday.
Anyone would be humbled by the challenge, but think about how much more pressure there'd be if your mother was legendary author Claudia Roden. With her Book of Middle Eastern Food, first published in the United States in 1972, Claudia popularized Middle Eastern cuisine in the West in much the same way that Julia Child got all of America simmering French stocks. Where do you even start preparing a feast for such a woman?
An accomplished artist, Nadia has created textile designs for the Metropolitan Opera and Guggenheim Museum in New York City and has done animation for Sesame Street; she also recently took up the family business, writing and illustrating the cookbook Granita Magic. "People sometimes ask, 'Are you intimidated to be cooking for your mum?'" says Nadia, who lives in a loft on the edge of Manhattan's Chinatown. "But funnily enough, it's the opposite. She's given me enormous confidence. She's never, ever said, 'Get out of the kitchen.'"
"Nadia has tremendous taste," Claudia says. "I always ask her to try whatever I'm cooking." This was true whether Claudia was teaching her famous London classes, for which Nadia and her siblings were put to work as kitchen assistants; perfecting recipes for one of her eight books; or preparing for the parties the Rodens constantly threw.
"We've always loved festivities," Claudia says, "and we take advantage of any opportunityJewish holidays, Christian holidays, Nadia coming to visit. I came from a large family in Egypt and grew up with the idea that staying together meant eating together." Given how often Claudia moved, those meals were critical. The child of a prosperous Jewish family with roots in the Syrian culinary capital of Aleppo, Claudia grew up in Cairo, was educated in Paris, then moved to London, where she raised her three children. She and Nadia's father, Paul Roden, were divorced when Nadia was 11. For parties at the Rodens', Nadia and her siblings were conscripted to make dozens of lamb meatballs to be fried with sour cherries for a dish from Aleppo called lahma bel karaz, or to roll phyllo dough into Turkish cigars stuffed with meat or cheese.
The Rodens' home was one in which the culinary and visual arts were intertwined. Claudia originally moved to London to study art. (One of her canvases hangs over Nadia's kitchen sink.) But as Nadia developed her own interest in art, Claudia ceded authority to her on all visual matters. "I never move even a single vase while she's away," Claudia says. "Last time she was in London, she completely redecorated our house." Nadia rolls her eyes. "The walls were so bare," she teases.
"We once threw Nadia a surprise party," Claudia says. "I've never seen her sadder, because she didn't get to decorate."
For Nadia, cooking and art tap into the same kind of creativity. Take the fiery carrot dip, a Tunisian dish that was served at the party. "It's an excuse to throw in as many spices as I can. It's like mixing colorsI see how many I can add without it all exploding." She feels the same about her Spanish mackerel in charmoula, a blend of garlic, cilantro and cumin.
"I act on hunches," Nadia says. "My mother is more focused. She plans everything out in advance."
Claudia laughs. "Nadia's just undaunted," she says.
Nadia's party plan was typically ambitious. While the menu evoked the foods of her childhood in London, the decorations were inspired by Claudia's life in Egypt. On a huge canvas backdrop, Nadia painted a fantasy of cobalt blue skies and golden light over the Nile, with ancient statuary reminiscent of the Temple of Luxor and traditional boats called feluccasjust like the ones her mother used to see from her balcony.
"Remember the puppet theater with the changing backdrops that you made me as a child?" Nadia asks Claudia. "I realized that that's where I got the inspiration to make muralsI discovered that you can transform an entire space with a backdrop."
Once the guests gather, carrying the fans Nadia made in the shape of lotus leaves, they take seats on cushions around a low table next to which Nadia has set a pewter basin with a flotilla of mini feluccas. Then comes the meal, which includes the meatballs in sour-cherry sauce and the mackerel in charmoula; a robust eggplant salad with parsley, cilantro and garlic; chicken cooked with honey and almonds; and grapefruit-and-star-anise granita in martini glasses decorated with papier-mâché serpents that Nadia designed. Afterward, there's one more surprise: a diplomat, a confection of mocha cream, ladyfingers and pralines that was Claudia's father's favorite cake.
The dinner is a triumph. Claudia is delighted. The dishes, she allows, are not precise re-creations of her own. "But I've always encouraged Nadia to invent," she saysproud that the party has not only celebrated her own life, but also the life she shares with her daughter.
Brett Martin, a former editor at Time Out New York, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.