Eman Hayyat never thought she’d be engaged at 18. “I was not planning on that. It just kind of happened,” says the now-21-year-old University of Vermont global studies major. “He’s an awesome guy.”
The Middlebury native is talking about Alaa Bader, the 30-year-old engineer and lifelong family friend she married in a ceremony in Jordan in 2011. However, according to their cultural traditions, they’re not allowed to act like a married couple until after the celebration. Bader moved into the finished basement of Hayyat’s parents’ home in November, while she remains in Burlington for school.
“We’ve never lived in a house together. We’ve never done anything. It’s very much like it’s a dating period,” explains Hayyat, a smart, fast-talking young woman whose parents moved to the States from the West Bank in 1979. “I cannot wait to get our life situated.”
This spring, once Bader has found employment, the couple will finally hold their wedding reception. And the feasting will begin.
Like many New Americans, Hayyat’s family won’t order her wedding meal from a caterer or restaurant. For all the Vietnamese restaurants that have cropped up in Vermont in recent years, there’s still a dearth of catering options for immigrants from Africa, the Himalayas and the Middle East who seek traditional meals. And that’s where family comes in.
Hayyat says she plans to incorporate some Western traditions and Vermont touches into her ceremony; homely Mason jars, for instance, will get Jordanian flair from her own hand-painted henna designs. But the bulk of the ceremony — and the food — will be thoroughly Middle Eastern. That’s why Hayyat is enlisting her mother, Salwa, to do the cooking, and her brother, a local restaurateur, to assist.
Salwa Hayyat knows her way around the kitchen; she grew up in the restaurant business. Her father owned a restaurant in her native Jordan, and her mother helped him do the cooking. “I wanted to help, but he’d say, ‘No, it’s hard job,’” Salwa remembers. Her brother now has his own eatery in Jordan. Her son, Usamah Hayyat, who goes by Sama, carries on the family tradition; he’s chef-owner of Middlebury Market and Sama’s Café, and of locally focused Sweet Marie’s Bistro, also in Middlebury.
Family-prepared wedding meals aren’t uncommon in the Middle East. Salwa’s husband, ophthalmic technician and optometrist Mahmoud Hayyat, says catering and wedding halls have recently become more popular in both Jordan and his native Palestine, but mostly among city dwellers. When he and Salwa wed in 1972, their war-torn countries weren’t celebration-friendly. They marked their nuptials with a simple family dinner. Salwa was given permission by the government to move to the Palestinian West Bank city of Ramallah with her husband, where she became a teacher, while he commuted to a Jerusalem eye hospital.
There, Mahmoud Hayyat met American eye surgeon William Eichner and obtained a work visa to join Eichner in his Middlebury practice. The Hayyat family moved to Vermont on December 10, 1979, with their three sons. Two daughters would be born in the Green Mountains, including Eman, the youngest.
Sama, the second-eldest Hayyat child, was 4 when his family moved to Middlebury. When he married his wife, Marie, seven years ago, his mother was the clear choice to cater their ceremony at Colchester’s Islamic Society of Vermont, he recalls. (Sama also had a Western-style wedding on Block Island, R.I., where he and Marie once worked together, and planned a third celebration in Jordan that never materialized.)
“I’m a chef, but, obviously, I was the one getting married, so I didn’t want to do it myself,” Sama says. “[Salwa] loves cooking. It’s something she’s done for me my whole life, and she does a great job.”
Sama and Marie’s original guest list of about 150 for the celebration later jumped closer to 250. Salwa Hayyat had previously cooked in bulk for Ramadan celebrations at the Islamic Society (in which the family is active), but never on that scale.
In her daughter’s mind, Salwa passed the test with flying colors. The spread of roasted lamb, hummus, salads and a roasted chicken and rice dish called ouzi inspired a young Eman Hayyat. “It was a lot of food. It was awesome,” the bride recalls. “I still remember that huge leg of lamb. I just want to put the leg of lamb in the oven and let it roast for hours. That would just taste amazing.”
Now Eman plans to do just that, enlisting Sama and his café’s wood-burning oven, usually used for gourmet pizza, for the job. Sama says he plans to roast the beast for at least six hours.
The Johnson & Wales University-trained chef will also help with prep and sourcing the best ingredients. But he’ll remain sous-chef to mom Salwa. “I’ve always wanted my mom to cook for my wedding, because she is an amazing cook, and she taught me so much about food that I couldn’t think of anyone that would do it as well as her,” Eman says. That’s high praise, considering there’s a professional chef in the family.
The bride hasn’t yet chosen a venue, but she’s certain it will be in her native Addison County, and she’s seeking a mountain view to show off to Bader. The room will be decorated in Eman’s theme colors — lush Middle Eastern gold, maroon and purple — giving way to a buffet table laid out with all her favorite dishes, she says. The 70 guests will also be able to choose from homemade hummus and pita bread; falafel balls like those Eman serves in her weekend job at Sama’s; and salads such as labor-intensive tabbouleh, composed of finely chopped tomatoes, parsley, onion and garlic with bulgur.
Eman Hayyat isn’t a fan of cake, so she’s looking to replace the Western-style dessert with a two-tiered ice cream cake from Ben & Jerry’s. Her mother’s baklava will be the focus of the desserts, though. “Kanafeh, for sure, is going to have to be there,” she adds, referring to the goat-cheese-filled, rose-flavored pastry.
The Hayyat-Baders prefer to keep their vows private, but say they will partake in one traditional ritual before dining. On a stage, Bader will switch the thin gold bands he gave Hayyat from her right hand to her left. “I think it’s one of the cutest things ever,” Eman says of the tradition. The diamond ring she wears is her dowry and will not need to be moved to signify their marriage.
Islamic law forbids a champagne toast. Eman Hayyat says she’s seen Pepsi served at other Jordanian weddings, but she envisions replacing it with sparkling nonalcoholic cider. Following another religious dictate, Hayyat and her bridesmaids will wear “evil eye” jewelry to ward off bad luck — though Hayyat admits she doesn’t believe in that.
Once wed and living with her husband, Eman Hayyat says she looks forward to following in her mother’s and brother’s culinary footsteps. “At this stage, I can’t wait to get my own place,” she says with a smile. “I can’t wait to start cooking in my own kitchen.”
The print version of this article was headlined "Feasting, Home Style".