By Farhana Islam
The twelfth day was the most difficult. It is always the hardest day. I was starving. In the holy month of Ramadan when food and water, among other things were forbidden, it was a month that required piety, patience and pardon the term, ‘Zen-like’ grace, but I was miserable. I didn’t care who knew it. I was unashamed of my suffering. Like every Muslim child, I was taught earlier of the significance of this important month. I understood the gravity.
However, the daily compliance was arduous. I had long ago adapted the observance of fasting into my secular life. My co-workers were already well aware why I did not join them on coffee breaks. Oh, coffee. How I miss you! For me, the twelfth day of Ramadan was the equivalent of a marathoner’s ‘wall’. On the 26.2-mile journey if a runner is smart, he will have ingested enough carbohydrates (usually in the form of pasta) to be converted into glycogen by the liver and muscles. This, in turn will supply him with enough energy to endure the grueling length of the race.
When glycogen levels run low, the body must rely on stored fat as a secondary energy source, which coincidentally does not burn as well. Of course, a runner worth his salt will not have much of this auxiliary fuel and will therefore ‘hit a wall’ of extreme fatigue. Where was I going with this?
Oh yes, this twelfth day is my ‘wall’. You may argue the point that as I am not a runner, I must surely have a tidy sum of stored fat which my body can draw strength from. Yes, but I will counter the point that fasting is nonetheless exhausting.
Oddly, today I was not craving coffee. No, today I was craving pizza. As I live in the culinary capital of the world, it was not just any kind of pizza that I yearned for. I was craving authentic New York style pizza: Flat, foldable and dripping with hot, saucy oil. I began constructing it on the most fundamental level, every aspect of this mythical pizza. The ratio of sauce to cheese was meticulously metered out.
To all of my non-Muslim readers: The simplicity of what I want to convey about Ramadan is that there is a point in the day when the core of my very being is obsessed with food. It could be of the meal that will be enjoyed forthwith; it could be a meal that is entirely elusive. Perhaps this is the true beauty of this important tenet of my faith. It recalibrated my focus on one of the most basic necessities in life: sustenance. Intrigue, drama, gossip all fall by the wayside in favor of nourishment with which to break fast when the sun sets. It may not be possible to have more clarity or focus in my life that at this time.
Nonetheless, it hits me at different times of the day every day. Today, it was at work sitting at my desk. Years earlier, when I lived in Midwood, Brooklyn I remembered this legendary pizza shop on Avenue J. The owner rolled his own dough, prepared his homemade sauce and with a sheer stroke of genius, he used scissors to cut the fresh basil directly on the pie that was nearly volcanic with three cheeses. When it came straight from the oven all hot, gussied and bubbly I would be nearly insane with anticipation.
It is rumored that perhaps the reason why New York pizzas are arguably the best in the world is because of the tap water that is used in the dough. Good dough will produce a base crust that can only be described as light and chewy at the same time. If, in the course of enjoying your pizza, your incisors are used to saw through the slick cheese, the moist, pillow-y upper layer and the charred, roasted crust then my friend; you are experiencing a true thing of beauty.
I walked into my neighborhood pizzeria, which is perhaps as famous as my beloved shop in Brooklyn. It is a family-run business and a favorite among the blue-collar crowd; therefore the setting is strictly no frills. The bright booths were clean and well stocked with napkins and condiments. Other patrons were talking with their companions in jovial tones enjoying the simple pleasure of eating delicious food in good company. I smiled as I observed the obligatory pictures of the proprietors with famous actors and athletes who schlepped from the outer boroughs to enjoy a heavenly slice; be it Grandma, Sicilian or regular.
I perused the menu. As this is a cash-only establishment and I had limited funds in my wallet, I frowned at the price of a large Grandma style pie. It was outside my range. Even the medium was. On any given day, truth be told, the Grandma style pie was my true love. It is earthy and rustic, not unlike the kind of pizza you would be served at a farmhouse in Tuscany. It is a lovely marriage of the portly Sicilian and traditional flat New York style pizza. However, as I had insufficient funds, I focused on the next best option: A large regular. At work, I had imagined that my dream pizza would have just one amazing topping. I thought of jalapenos, but in my older age my system is not as agile at absorbing violent stomach acid so I passed. Black olives would render the pie too briny. The green onion route struck me as too odoriferous.
After being asked twice how I could be helped, I smiled weakly shaking my head, indicating that I wasn’t ready yet. This was a very important decision that I was making. I settled on plump, white mushrooms. Yes, a large pie with mushrooms! I stepped forward, confident and giddy at the thought of my dinner. The handsome clerk explained: “It’ll be about 15 to 20 minutes, Sweetheart. We make our pies from scratch”. He added a cheeky wink for good measure.
I smiled and nodded. I took a seat the pub style table and chair against the partition of the restaurant. There appeared to be no strict enforcement of a ‘no cell-phone policy’ posted, so I proceeded to catch up on my texts and phone calls. There was a heady umami perfume in the air. I peered around the corner and I saw the cook roughly chop with his chef’s knife a small cube of butter into a black cast iron skillet. His dark, weathered hands then sliced delicate mushrooms in a thin, uniform pattern. He fanned them on the cutting board and attended to his sizzling fat to which he added dark green olive oil. After the pan started to smoke, the heat was lowered and the mushrooms were tossed in and sautéed.
I felt as if I was a part of an important ritual, witnessing my pizza being assembled before my eyes. It was the culmination of all that I had wanted. Perhaps, it was more.
After paying, I carried the hot cardboard box of pizza home and I thought of all the temptations I had avoided that day. I thought how, in a way my fasting had fostered a stronger bond with God and perhaps the universe. I thought of how incredibly lucky I was for having been born and living the good life that I do. Lucky that I understood how those who were less fortunate felt every day without food. I was lucky for being employed.
And being happy.
And being in love.
I thought perhaps the thirteenth day would be better.
I thought: tomorrow, I want Greek.
Top image courtesy of Gaby’s Pizza