Ten Points in Praise of Sumac

The Awl’s holiday series on flavors and spices.

Image: Steven Jackson via Flickr

  1. Sumac is a berry that tastes like a powdery lemon, a soft bright lime, a sour flower.
  2. Sumac is the flavor of the Midwest. My Midwest, anyway. Southeast Michigan has America’s most concentrated population of Arab-Americans, and small Middle Eastern restaurants can be found in any grubby strip mall. Order mana’eesh or hummus or grilled lamb and odds are it will come sprinkled with powdered sumac, a little tang to offset the earth of the rest. When I moved to Seattle, people asked if I missed the Midwest. “I miss the food,” I said, and they gave me funny looks.
  3. Sumac is red, but not a trite red. It’s a little purple and a little brown, too. I love red lipstick but fear looking costumed, like I am going to see my sailor off to war, or selling ten-cent dances. Sumac is not that kind of red. It’s moody verging on difficult, a quality I like in colors and mouths.
  4. Here are some things to do with sumac: sprinkle it on popcorn or cantaloupe or roasted Brussels sprouts. Mix it into yogurt and use it as a sauce for chicken or vegetables. Put it on your finger and lick it off. Stick your tongue in the bottle. Sumac is best raw. Do something raw with it.
  5. They say lemon zest mixed with salt is a good substitute for sumac. They lie.
  6. I resent that liking Middle Eastern food feels like a political statement now. Like saying “Check me out, I didn’t vote for Trump!” I didn’t vote for Trump. I think Islam is as fine a religion as any. I don’t love Middle Eastern food the way a teenager loves French cigarettes. I love it because I am hungry and it is beautiful.
  7. My cousin in Mississippi is a textile artist. She sent me a photo of three vats of dye she made from foraged plants: sumac, privet berry, black walnut. Looking at them, I got swept up in longing to be the kind of person who can transform plants into entirely new things.
  8. Sumac backwards spells Camus, which has to count for something.
  9. Sumac bushes are sometimes called Lemonade Trees, because you can squeeze and strain the berries into a tart, pink drink. But wouldn’t you rather imagine plucking glasses of lemonade straight from the branches, like the Lollipop Woods or Gumdrop Mountains in Candyland? I’d rather imagine it that way.
  10. Once my husband and I were kicking around vacation ideas. Amsterdam, Prague, Seville. “Or wait, what about Tehran?” I said. “Tehran?” my husband replied. “I heard it’s very tourist-friendly!” I said. A moment later he held up his phone. “There is an actual State Department warning about jaunting off to Iran on holiday,” he said. This was during the Obama administration, when it seemed like government statements had some sort of reasoning behind them. We went to Paris and ate falafel in the Marais. But I fully intend to eat my way through Tehran some day. I’m going there.