How women displaced by the Grenfell Tower fire came together, with Meghan Markle, to write a cookbook.
Last month, the Duchess of Sussex made her debut as a cookbook author. Well, a cookbook-foreword author. Meghan Markle spearheaded the production of (and wrote the introduction to) Together: Our Community Cookbook, a compilation of recipes from women who began cooking together at the Al Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre after the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire displaced them.
When Markle began visiting the group of women at Al Manaar in the wake of the devastating fire, she learned that they lacked the funding to use the kitchen more than twice a week. They tell the story here:
Together, which was an instant bestseller on Amazon, contains over 50 recipes for dishes from the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and the Eastern Mediterranean. As its name suggests, it's a beautiful tribute to the friendship and togetherness fostered by the community, both before and after the fire.
We got the chance to chat with cookbook writer and recipe developer Maria Zizka, who helped to ensure the recipes in Together were standardized for American home kitchens. Here's what she had to say:
ELLA QUITTNER: I’ve read quite a lot about Together, and am looking forward to cooking from it! How did the book come together?
MARIA ZIZKA: It is such a special cookbook! I am incredibly honored and proud to have been part of the team that brought it to life. Meghan Markle does a beautiful job of telling the story of how the book came about in the foreword she wrote for it. Here’s the short version: In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, women affected by the tragedy started gathering together to cook food for their families, friends, and neighbors in a kitchen at the Al Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in West London, a space now named the Hubb Community Kitchen. (Hubb means “love” in Arabic.)
When Meghan first began going there to help, the kitchen was only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She asked Zahira, who oversees much of the coordination at the kitchen, "Why isn't this open seven days a week?" Her response: "Funding." Proceeds from the sales of this cookbook will go toward supporting the important work of the Hubb Community Kitchen.
EQ: What was your role, with the book? What was it like to work on it?
MZ: I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating on many kinds of cookbooks. Mostly, I have worked with chefs to co-author restaurant books (like Tartine All Day, Everything I Want to Eat, and This Is Camino). For those books, I see my role as translating recipes from the restaurant kitchen to the home kitchen. When the restaurant is not in the United States, part of that work is adjusting the recipes for American audiences. Happily, I’ve become a go-to person for what is usually called Americanizing. Beyond just measurement conversions, there are many other considerations to think about, including the differences between ingredients and how they will affect a recipe. For example, in the U.K., they have several kinds of cream (very civilized!), whereas here in the U.S., we only have one kind: heavy cream. The publisher of Together found me because of my previous work on Yotam Ottolenghi’s books. I was elated to be asked to be involved with this project.
The British royal family is, of course, very private and, because of the sensitive nature of this project, I had to keep my work on it secret for months. I didn’t even tell my husband! At one point, I went over to my parents’ house for dinner and my mom was reading a People magazine that had a photo of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on the cover. I was dying to tell her about the cookbook, but somehow, I managed to keep quiet.
EQ: What was it like to work with Meghan Markle? Her passion for this project is so evident in her foreword—can you tell me more about how this was manifest throughout the book-writing process?
MZ: I admire Meghan enormously and was a huge fan of hers way before this project. I woke up early to live-stream hers and Prince Harry’s wedding, and I teared up as if I were one of the lucky guests sitting in St. George’s Chapel. The book came together very quickly, and unfortunately I never had a chance to meet Meghan in person. In my head, I feel like we’re best friends (I think a lot of people probably feel this way), but in reality, I just keep hoping that one day we’ll cook together.
EQ: What are your favorite recipes from the book?
MZ: All the recipes in Together come from the women of the Hubb Community Kitchen. Each recipe has its own story, and many have been passed down through generations. To me, one of the remarkable qualities these recipes share is that they really do work reliably in a home kitchen, because that’s precisely where they originated and where they have been perfected over the years.
I was fascinated by Cherine Mallah’s Tuna, Olive & Sun-Dried Tomato Cake (page 78). As you’d guess from the title, it’s a savory cake, but it is baked in a loaf pan and almost looks as if it could be a sweet fruitcake, although turmeric gives it a wonderful orange glow. I love how simple it is to make and how it tastes like a new take on tuna casserole.
When I pulled Ahlam Saeid’s Sweet Puff Pastries (page 113) out of the oven, my whole apartment filled with the heavenly scent of rose water and cream cheese and baked buttery dough. It took a lot of willpower to not eat all 15 of them in one sitting.
Also, I really loved the one-side-only cooking technique used for Moroccan Pancakes (page 21) and Ricotta-Filled Pancakes (page 116). The side of the pancake that never touches the hot skillet cooks through but remains a little bit tacky, so you can spoon some ricotta in the middle, wrap the pancake around it in the shape of cannoli, and press the pancake to itself—like magic, it sticks!
EQ: What will happen with the proceeds from the book?
MZ: Proceeds from the sales of this cookbook will go toward supporting the important work of the Hubb Community Kitchen. I very much hope that the profits allow the women of the Hubb Community Kitchen to continue providing a sense of home through cooking and eating together. I believe it’s crucially important for women to share their stories, and one of my hopes for this cookbook is that it empowers other women around the world to do just that.
EQ: We are, of course, so excited by the news about the royal baby! What are your thoughts? Do you have any suggestions or ideas for names?
MZ: I am so very excited, too! It is such wonderful news! I’m thrilled for Meghan, Harry, and their family, and I will be eagerly following every single news story and bump photo (along with everybody else, I am sure!). As for names, I bet they’ll come up with something brilliant.
EQ: I know you have an independent cookbook coming out next year, which we’re really looking forward to. Can you tell me about that project?
MZ: Yes, hooray! My first solo cookbook, The Newlywed Table, will be published by Artisan on April 2, 2019. It’s all about learning to cook as a couple and it has more than 100 recipes, plus tips on everything from cooking outdoors to setting up your home bar to putting together an extraordinary cheese plate. One of the sweetest parts of the process has been working with my husband, Graham. He’s the book’s designer! Just wait 'til you see how beautiful he made it. We met in college and have been dreaming about collaborating on a cookbook for about a decade. I can hardly believe this book will be out in the world next year and I can’t wait to share it with you.