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Feast Your Eyes: Food of the Middle East

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The following is a  guest post for the Feast Your Eyes series by Arden Alexander, Cataloging Specialist, Prints and Photographs Division.

Numerous photographs in the Prints and Photographs Division’s over 75,000 historical images of the Middle East show the people of the region harvesting, preparing, cooking, selling and enjoying food and drink.  Included in these are images which document Middle Eastern food traditions brought by immigrants to the United States.

This photograph shows men gathered at a restaurant in what was known as “Little Syria” in lower Manhattan, New York City, around 1910-1915. The residents of this neighborhood were mostly Arab Americans, including Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians from areas which were part of the Ottoman Empire at the time.

Pastry counter — Syrian restaurant. Photo by Bain News Service, between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915.

Pans of food rest on a long counter where employees wearing aprons serve the hungry customers. The first three pans in the front look like baklava, a multi-layered pastry. Many variants of this treat exist, but baklava is usually made with thin sheets of buttered dough (called filo or phyllo) which alternate with layers of chopped walnuts, pistachios or other nuts.  A cold sugar or honey syrup, sometimes flavored with rosewater or lemon juice, is poured over the hot pastry after it comes out of the oven. This delicious dessert is common throughout the Middle East and other places including Greece, Armenia and Central Asia.

Here is a sample of more Middle East food images, taken in the early to mid-20th century:

Iraq. (Mesopotamia). Baghdad. River scenes on the Tigris. Barges of watermelons with typical Iraqi boys. Photo by American Colony (Jerusalem) Photo Dept., [1932].
Old City bread seller. Photo by American Colony (Jerusalem) Photo Dept., between 1934 and 1939.
Kamar ed Din [i.e. qamar el din – apricot paste] Series. Damascus – August. Girls on roof-top spread out damp sheets for further drying. Photo, 1938 from the “Diary in Photos, Vol. IV, 1938”, by John D. Whiting.
The vintage season Zikh’ron Ya’aqov, July 24, 1939. Filling baskets of grapes (in the vineyards). Photo by American Colony (Jerusalem) Photo Dept., July 24, 1939.
Adwan–Louzi tribes. Sheik Majid’s tent. Roasting coffee. Photo, between 1934 and 1935, from album “Bedouins in Jordan and other locations” by John D. Whiting.
Detail of Maiden picking olives from branches. Photo by American Colony (Jerusalem) Photo Dept., approximately 1900 to 1920.

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  1. Fascinating; the sheets of ‘kamar ed din’, apricot paste, must be a precursor of our fruit roll-ups!

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