Through Photographing the Egyptian Food of Her Family, Mira Zaki Became More Connected to Her Heritage

Grape leaves inspired her 2013 James Beard House show, which still influences her career.

Yes! I got a spot in the Greenhouse Gallery at the James Beard House!

I actually squealed out loud and jumped for joy on the street when I hung up my phone.

Then the dread set in. What was I going to display? After being a photographer for the James Beard House dinners and events for a few years, it was finally going to be my photos on display—my photos that hundreds of food experts, chefs, restaurateurs, PR people, their families, loved ones and guests would see; my photos that I would pass by several nights a week as I made my way up and down the stairs of James Beard’s brownstone photographing the most important parts of the evening.

I had finally arrived in my industry, right? But what was I going to hang up in the gallery? An existing project? Something from photography college? No, I couldn’t do that. This was legitimate, and I needed to step it up and share something meaningful, gloriously beautiful and impactful. I have a million ideas at any given time of the day, and like a labyrinth with no exit, I sometimes have a hard time focusing on one particular idea to act upon and create a story about. Everything was a possibility in my mind. How would I ever narrow this down? I needed some input, and I was meeting my friend Mark — a remarkably talented, award-winning art director and one of my favorite food friends for dinner at the uncomfortably small, but delectably addictive Italian wine bar in my neighborhood. He would definitely know what to do.

We sat down and looked over the menu together. We normally ordered three to five dishes and split them. Within two minutes, and before we decided on which types of pasta we wanted to share, Mark helped me decide on my project, one that was new, meaningful and a story that would heal a part of my cultural identity crisis in the process.

I have never given a lot of thought to my heritage. It was something I felt completely disconnected from, not having been born in Egypt, not speaking or understanding Arabic and not interacting with other Egyptian people aside from my immediate family members. I was unable to relate to the defining features of that culture; I don’t share any common belief systems or interests, it seemed. But over that glass of white wine, my conversation with Mark went like this:

Me: I need your help deciding on my theme for my gallery show at the James Beard House!
Mark: What’s most important to you?
Me: Food.
Mark: What about it?
Me: Everything. The process, farm to table, macro photographs of food, the details, the colors, the experience of food, all of the senses related to the holidays and the accompanying food. Oh, yeah—and no one in New York knows how to make proper grape leaves.
Mark: There’s your story.

It’s rare that I am gobsmacked, and I was completely so at how simple it was, and how much pride I would take in creating this project.

After dinner, I emailed my mom and asked her for all her classic Egyptian recipes, all the food I grew up eating, because I’m never more connected to my Middle Eastern heritage than I am when I am talking about, thinking about or eating their food. The emails continued day and night, which turned into long, frequent conversations on the phone, a few visits to Southern California to hone in on the details of the recipes, endless emails with old photos attached, recipe testing, meetings, storyboarding, selecting props, dreaming about color combinations and layouts, and finally the long-awaited shoot day.

We shot a few weeks before my gallery show was to debut. I always marvel at how much can be accomplished in the stress of the last minute, an area in which I excel. The photo shoot was like a marathon; my crew set up two dishes at a time on two different sets, so we could take full advantage of the gorgeous daylight coming in from the windows. I remember feeling like I was running a marathon, though that’s something I’ve never done before — the pressure of time, the impending doom of needing to not only finish, but clean up by 6 p.m., and the need to shoot all 12 dishes in nine hours was an ambitious and unrealistic goal. Thankfully, we were able to achieve it! I emailed my printer the same evening of the photo shoot to start printing the photos and dashed to the Lower East Side to retrieve them as soon as they were ready. I then ran to my local framing store to complete the project, and precociously thought I would be able to hang these photos up on my own. Thank goodness for the kindness of the James Beard House staff.

The photos were on display from November 2013 through January 2014. This was my first major personal project, and the impetus to start writing my first memoir. I was never able to articulate how important food was to me, how it is a massive part of my identity, and how it helped me to discover my cultural identity; my camera has always been my best form of expression, and I’ll never forget the pride I felt at the completion of this project, the joy it brought to my family and the tears I shed on the night of my opening. I had 175 guests who came to support me. I went home with so many flowers, as well as leftover bottles of Prosecco and food.

I felt like I had just graduated, and in a way, I think I did: I graduated to a new part of my career and myself. I was also able to find a caterer to create a special Egyptian-themed menu that tried to match the actual photos: kofta (the Egyptian meatball); vegetarian grape leaves with yogurt salad; mini pita bread; two platters of crudité and hummus from Taïm (thank you, Einat Admony!); a hibiscus cooler non-alcoholic drink; Prosecco; and an Egyptian-flavored cupcake by the Robicellis.

With Mark art directing, and my chef and food stylist Jennifer bringing her expertise and experience, we came up with these photos that are my most treasured Egyptian recipes.

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