the grub street diet

Myriam Ben Salah Longs for the Food of Tunisia

“It’s like a Proustian madeleine to me, triggering memories from home.”

Myriam Ben Salah floating among the harissa tubes. Illustration: Margalit Cutler
Myriam Ben Salah floating among the harissa tubes. Illustration: Margalit Cutler

The art curator Myriam Ben Salah has spent the past few years splitting her time between Paris, Los Angeles, and, now, Chicago, where she is the executive director and chief curator of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. But her palate belongs to Tunis, where she was born and raised. And she counts on friends like the artist Rafram Chaddad, who she saw recently, to share the food she misses. “He brought this amazing homemade harissa from Djerba,” she says of a recent visit. “When you try that you realize the rest is a fraud — the jarred harissa you buy in the supermarket is not harissa. It’s a spicy sauce.” Friendship has also been on her mind quite a bit lately because it’s the focus of her first exhibition, in September. “I give a really great importance to conviviality and hosting,” she explains, “and I’m very lucky because I have lots of friends who are really into that and extremely generous with their time and cooking resources.”

Tuesday, June 15
I usually don’t do coffee. I went off it two years ago, not because I was a huge coffee drinker — I’d have just one big cup in the morning, but I realized I was addicted to that cup and could not function without it. I don’t like depending on things, a little bit of my freedom that goes away. So, I decided to stop coffee altogether, went through a week in hell with crazy migraines, and then it was all gone. Since then, I’ve been enjoying coffee from time to time, either when I have a deadline and need to be sharp and very focused, or for pleasure because it’s delicious and because I love the ceremony around it. Grinding the beans, humming, filling the Bialetti moka pot, hearing the noise the bubbles make when the coffee reaches the top. I usually have a coffee on Sunday, in bed, with a croissant. That’s my ritual. I change my sheets on Sundays so I don’t have to worry about getting croissant flakes all over them. Anyway, that morning I had coffee because I hadn’t slept enough and needed a kick.

I had my coffee with bsissa which is an ancient Mediterranean food we eat a lot in Tunisia, especially in the Sahel region where my grandparents are from. It is a mix of roasted cereals ground with chickpeas, cumin, marjoram, fenugreek, sorghum, and nuts. It is a powder that you mix with olive oil until it becomes a paste. You can add honey. It is so rich you can only have a few spoons. Nomads used to take it on their journeys since it’s super healthy and easy to transport as a powder. When I lived in Paris my Mom would send it to me with whomever would travel to town. Now that I’m in Chicago, I get it from Atef Boulaabi, the owner of SOS Chef, who sends it to me from the East Village. We call Atef the Embassy of Tunisia, every Tunisian in the U.S. goes to her, and that’s where we get our fixes of homemade harissa, brick dough, olive oil …

Before coming to the U.S., bsissa was something I never really thought about. I think this past year, and, again, probably because I moved here, I felt even more attached to it.

When it comes to food, I’m a pretty fresh-off-the-boat kind of girl. It wasn’t always like that. I left Tunisia when I was 18 with zero regrets and no sense of nostalgia. I did not value my people’s food for a long time, although my Mom is an excellent cook, my grandfather used to make the best fish couscous in the universe. Now it’s like a Proustian madeleine to me, triggering memories from home I guess. I read this beautiful text recently by Mary McCarthy recounting her friend Hanna Arendt’s obsession for anchovy paste at breakfast. An ersatz of her European childhood and a detail so personal and intimate that Arendt would feel vulnerable sharing it. Bsissa is my anchovy paste.

I’ve been reading a lot about friendship lately because the first exhibition I’m organizing at the Renaissance Society in September takes friendship as a premise. Friendship as “a desire-in-uneasiness,” to quote Foucault — I’m interested in the amorphousness of friendship and the way it escapes institutional models of relationships. From a purely platonic desire to spend time with someone, to negotiating having bodies alongside one another. I’m interested in this anomalistic bond within a society focused on the “self,” how it can be a condition, a model, and a metaphor for art. Ideas of longing, desire, support, care, alienation will run through the show, and sentimentality too, as a narrative mode for the post-COVID moment. I guess it makes sense after a year of isolation to be thinking about those things. A lot of friendship happens around food, too.

I had a lunch meeting at the Ralph Lauren restaurant. I ordered the chopped-vegetable salad with chicken. Obviously regretted and was eyeing my neighbors’ burger and lobster roll. Won’t happen again. I am still thinking about that burger.

In the evening I made a makeshift Niçoise salad. Boiled some potatoes, mixed with greens, El Manar tuna that my friend Lina sent me from Tunis — the best canned tuna if you ask me — black olives, tomatoes, eggs, and added some harissa paste, because why not. Also preserved lemons.

Wednesday, June 16
Okay, the reason I did not order the burger at Ralph Lauren is because I started seeing a trainer. I stopped working out this past year during the pandemic, and even before that because I was traveling nonstop between Paris and Los Angeles, which made it hard to have a routine. And you know, I’m Mediterranean, if I don’t move, I end up looking like a little ball of fried bread, which is tasty but not very healthy.

Anyway, I started seeing this trainer, who is great, with one caveat: He wants me to send him pictures of everything I eat, which honestly seems more intimate than sending nudes! I’m prudish when it comes to food. But I did do it, reluctantly. I started by sending a picture of my typical breakfast: a kiwi, a piece of crispy baguette with salted Isigny French butter and raspberry and pomegranate jam + tea. And he’d be like: “Where is protein? This is carb and fat. Add egg.” Hum, okay!

So this morning I sent him a picture of my breakfast: two eggs sunny-side up, a sliced cucumber, three green olives, labneh with a drizzle of olive oil and zaatar, a piece of bread. I got a “Solid.” What can I say, I just like pleasing people?

I’m trying to be serious this week because I splurged during the weekend. We had a joint birthday celebration with my friend M-L that Laila Gohar organized on the sidewalk in front of her studio in Chinatown. Laila is the most gracious and punk hostess: She just knows how to throw a party, no muss no fuss. Loren Abramovitch, the chef from LEV, cooked. We made a fire on the sidewalk and Lor braised some lamb, cabbage, baked incredible flat bread and served everything topped with tasty herbs. We also had perfectly cooked potatoes to dip in hummus, olives, and pickled okra. Very simple. Heaven.

Laila made a sort of divine strawberry mille-feuille and her friend Hailey cracked fireworks. It was a very special night. It’s cheesy, but one thing I learned during the pandemic is: Don’t pace yourself when it comes to nice moments. Make them happen while you can. My trainer’s head must have exploded that night. He stopped responding. So yeah, I decided to get back on track when I got back to Chicago.

For lunch, I had salmon that I threw in the oven with a bit of honey and toasted sesame, green rice, and a seaweed salad with pickled ginger. It’s a recipe I got from  my friend Vanessa, it’s easy and tasty (and trainer compatible). Because I got stuck in Los Angeles during COVID, and all my things were still in Paris I’ve lived with many of my friends who were generous enough to have me, and I learned their recipes. Whenever I miss them, I make their food.

I worked late that day, prepared a class I’m teaching to MFA students at the Art Center, and I did not have dinner.I just had a Fage Greek yogurt that I topped with Manuka honey and za’atar. I can usually skip dinner when I don’t see people. To me it’s more of a social activity. I can’t live without breakfast, I need lunch to function, but dinner is truly a luxury, a pleasure, not utilitarian at all.

Thursday, June 17
I had a shake in the morning. Banana, strawberries, blueberries, kiwi, spinach, almond milk. Then I worked out. I had a meeting about books at the Ren. We’re working on some exciting books for next year. It’s really an important part of what we do, allowing artists to have not only a trace of their exhibition but also another platform to engage with.

For lunch I made grilled chicken with tarragon and parsley, and I blanched some broccolini that I drizzled with olive oil and lemon. I added some labneh. I eat everything with labneh. It makes everything better. Especially rice dishes.

My friend Alicia called in the afternoon to chat about a new project she’s working on. She’s a filmmaker and we also talked a lot about Renaissance TV, a new moving-image platform we launched last year. While we were on the phone, I cleaned a few strawberries and dipped them in orange-blossom water. Orange-blossom water is also something I put on everything: fruit, drinks, whipped cream.

I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner but finished work too late. We were going to go around the corner from my house. There is this neighborhood bistro that I like, Gemini. I don’t like it only because it is my astral sign, they have a lovely outdoor space, it’s simple, not too loud. And they have the best chocolate sorbet in the world. I can’t even describe it.

I’m still digging into the food scene in Chicago. My friend T has been taking me around. Usually when I find the right restaurant, I just go there nonstop. In Paris, I spent three years going to Déviant like three times a week. I would take everyone there. It really became an extension of my dining room (probably because I had no dining room). It was just a tiny bar and they served delicious wine and Pierre Touitou’s exquisite food. In Chicago there is a place called Verve that reminds me of that a bit. Their chef, Ryan Epp, is very talented. On the South Side there is Virtue, a neighborhood staple with the best cornbread I’ve ever had.

Anyway, so no restaurant for me that night, but I needed a bit more than a yogurt. I made kookoo sabzi; it’s a Persian frittata. There are many Iranian divas in my life, I love them and their food. Kookoo sabzi can seem a bit tedious because you have to slice all of the herbs (dill, parsley, coriander, basil, chives and a lot of tarragon because I love it) but it’s actually relaxing. I love re-watching Deleuze Abecedaire while I do tedious kitchen chores or listening to podcasts. Red Scare when I feel cynico-depressed, or some French literary stuff to stay in touch. That night I listened to a podcast about Virginie Despentes and Monique Wittig. The herbs got sliced just fine. You fry the herbs, mix them with eggs, start cooking the frittata on the stove and then slide it in the oven. I had it with labneh, obviously. I finished the last chapter of What Love Means by Mathieu Lindon, a beautiful book on friendship, and went to bed, too late.

Friday, June 18
Breakfast: scrambled eggs and Charlie Trotter’s citrus-cured smoked salmon. I perfected my scrambled eggs technique. I spend a lot of time almost whipping them while cooking, on very low heat, and they become super creamy. I usually add salt, pepper, and dill. And I had a tea called Perfect Energy, which is kind of lame.

Lunch: swiss chard sautéed with garlic (something I picked up from one of my Swiss friends, weirdly), a roasted cauliflower with tahini sauce, a piece of Gruyère cheese, strawberries.

I’ve been eating a lot of strawberries lately. I was spoiled in L.A. because you can find Harry’s Berries pretty easily, but I can’t find them here. The strawberries I get at the Lincoln Park Sunday farmers market are pretty good. I’ve been eating them a lot. It’s just good summer food. I’ve been able to find good produce in Chicago. People talk a lot about how L.A. is good for food, but I don’t find it that fascinating. Yeah, there is good produce, but it’s not the Mediterranean. People ask me if I miss the food from L.A. and I’m like, mmmm, no.

My friend Negar called for potato-cooking advice. She does not eat potatoes, but she was hosting carb-eaters that night. You boil them until they are done, with bay leaves. Then you put them in the oven until they become crispy. Honestly, I don’t understand how one cannot eat potatoes. My friend Hugo in Paris exclusively eats potatoes. He’s still alive and pretty smart, a good catch.

My friend T was having a Juneteenth celebration at his studio on the South Side of Chicago that night. There was a set of performances and then dinner. T doesn’t fuck with food. We had asparagus topped with crab, salmon with sweet potato purée, lemon-infused orzo, almond/phyllo pastries with milky ice cream and honey. Our friend Dieter played some tunes from T’s vinyl collection, and we danced.

Saturday, June 19
Usually on Saturdays I skip breakfast and I make a big shakshuka for lunch and friends come over around noon and stay the whole afternoon. It’s a tradition my friends Jay and Max started in L.A., and I exported it. It became a thing when I went back to France last fall, and every week I would have people over and make a big shakshuka, and everyone would bring pastries, breads, and wine. The city was under lockdown and we couldn’t go anywhere, so it was kind of the best possible way to spend a weekend.

But I had other plans that day, so I had a yogurt with apricots and honey and nuts, and some tea. My friend Julia who works for Blank Forms texted me that genius musician Angel Bat Dawid was playing at the New Mt. Pilgrim Baptist church on Chicago’s West Side. I jumped in an overpriced Uber and went there. Definitely worth it. It was amazing, Cornel West was there. Then my friend Jordan was having people over in his garden, so I passed by, nibbled on tortilla chips, and went back home.

I went for a run. I live near the lake, so it’s been a new habit. When I got back, I made a ricotta and lemon pasta from this collaged cookbook that Hedi el Kholti made out of New York Times recipes. I never asked him, but I think it was inspired by Roland Barthe’s take on the French Elle magazine recipe section in Mythologies. Pasta is my absolute love. I like it super al dente.

Then that night, my trainer texted: “Can I share pictures of your food with another client, as an example?”

Never. A major faux pas. We broke up.

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