Sharing memories through food: A Q&A with Calvin alum and New York Times Bestselling author Suzy Karadsheh

What began as both a hobby and a way for Suzy Karadsheh to share recipes with her two daughters has become one of the most popular Mediterranean food blogs in existence, with recipes that have been featured on national networks like Food Network, Good Housekeeping and Today. Karadsheh visited Calvin’s campus to give a talk on her recently published and critically acclaimed cookbook, “The Mediterranean Dish,” on Dec. 1. 

In the talk, she aimed to emphasize the importance of inspiring joy in the kitchen. Chimes had the opportunity to sit down with Karadsheh and ask her a few questions about her journey to creating a successful food platform, as well as how her upbringing and time at Calvin influenced her cooking journey.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chimes: I read on your blog that cooking has been a key part of your life since childhood. What inspired you to pursue food and cooking as your career?

Karadsheh:  I did not plan on being in this industry at all. I worked at Calvin for many years before I moved from Grand Rapids, but my mother is a very good cook, so I remember that being a big part of my upbringing. I grew up in Egypt, in Port Said, right on the Mediterranean, and I think the inspiration for cooking and sharing about food came from my upbringing and Mediterranean hospitality. 

I think lessons about food, in general, were planted early on, because of that, but also just about community and people.

Both my parents were very big on having more people around the table, so we’ve always had a big table of people, and I think probably my earliest memories of food have to do with my father, who took me with him to the “souk,” that is, the open market. He took such passion, and he took such interest in sharing with me as a child, what it looked like: to select the ingredients, and more importantly, the people behind them … he would visit the market to visit with the merchants. He would hear their stories, so it was never a hurried experience for him. It was never about collecting ingredients or checking off his grocery list; it was more about the people. 

I think lessons about food, in general, were planted early on, because of that, but also just about community and people. And so for him, it was not so much about the lists. He never had a list, which I’m not quite sure why. But we would just go on a hunt for whatever it is that the farmers and merchants were selling then. Both my parents had a straightforward approach to life, to cooking and sharing and that has always been a part of who I am. If I had to think of the inspiration for what I do today, it was those moments as a child. 

It was never about collecting ingredients or checking off his grocery list; it was more about the people. 

Chimes: I wanted to talk about your blog, The Mediterranean Dish, which is extremely popular. What events led to the creation and success of this blog?

Karadsheh: So I started the site in 2014, and it was more of a place for me to document the recipes for my two daughters, who were born here in Michigan. And the food is a really good way to pass on a piece of yourself, a piece of who you are and your culture. A lot of lessons happen around the table. 

So I started documenting the recipes for my daughters, and it was a time that I was in transition, between working at Calvin for many years and leaving in 2011 to follow my husband’s career. I was in limbo for a time, and I did some consulting, but ultimately, I needed something to do. 

It was a really hard time, moving to where we were living in Iowa at the time, and it was my husband’s idea to start a site, just simply for me to have something to do. And so I did that, and by 2016, I started to hear from other people, about how they were using these recipes to follow the Mediterranean diet, to eat healthier, to follow doctor’s recommendations or one thing or another. When I started hearing from people that this blog had made a difference, I decided that I would maybe just give it a shot as something I would do more consistently. 

I picked up a camera, I learned how to do food photography, and I started to educate myself on all things digital media related. The site was a new thing that was coming out at the time, so I did not seek to make it what it is today, but it happened, and eight years later, it’s the largest online publication for Mediterranean cooking and lifestyle. We have a lot more people now than me working on it. So, I’m not the only one responsible for what it is today. 

Chimes: During your time at Calvin, did you maintain your relationship with food and cooking? And if so, how did this look on a college campus? Because I know from on-campus experience that a student’s relationship with food can be different than before college.

Karadsheh: Yes, and it’s complicated, right? Because you come from homecooked meals, now you have to make some intelligent choices about what you eat. I will be honest, my freshman year, I gained more than 30 pounds. It was very difficult at first, but when I went back home to Egypt, during the summer, I would lose it all without trying. This shows the difference between the Mediterranean and Western diets. 

By junior year, I had begun to consider cooking, because I was living in the apartments. And there was a kitchen I could try, so my roommates – bless their hearts – were willing to let me play and make a mess. I had started to play with food, and cook some things kind of from memory. So in my junior and senior years, I did a bit of cooking, and I got more and more into it when I got married and had a family. 

I do think that food is one of the more challenging things for all students. It doesn’t matter if you’re international or whatever, but you are coming with the homecooked meals and learning to cook with the flavors you grew up with can help you live on campus. So a lot of us would make transitions, such as these big transitions in life: coming here to school and leaving that behind. It’s no wonder that people think of Thanksgiving as their biggest, you know, where vivid memories happen, at the table. 

Chimes: With the release of “The Mediterranean Dish” cookbook, what were you hoping to accomplish in your cookbook, as your blog continues to experience success?

Karadsheh: I started to write the cookbook in 2019 in July. It does take a couple of years to turn around a cookbook. I did not imagine making the New York Times Bestselling List, and I did not imagine it would make an Amazon top list, but I did want to do something. I did want to close one particular gap in the Mediterranean food space. 

What I was seeing out there were cookbooks written by chefs from parts of the Mediterranean that were very “chefy” and very difficult. They write beautiful books, but unless you were a really capable cook, it would be hard for you to implement the recipes. People would write to me because of my site and say, “When are you going to come out with a book? I have all these other books, but I never picked them up to cook from because they are beautiful and almost unattainable.” On the other side of the spectrum, there were a lot of Mediterranean cookbooks written by places like America’s Test Kitchen and others are great, great resources. But what was missing from those books was the cultural element that comes from that part of the world. 

The gap between these two kinds of cookbooks is where I felt that I could contribute, with an attainable cookbook that has approachable recipes that the average North American can cook. You don’t need to be chefy to make these recipes. You just need to have a sense of fun and be willing to experiment. 

But at the same time, I wanted to write a book that had the cultural element and the stories and was something that represented the sunshine of the Mediterranean, from an authentic Mediterranean voice. So the book is not just Egyptian from my childhood necessarily, but it has flavors from across the Mediterranean. 

Chimes: One of your talking points for your talk on Calvin’s campus is how you work to inspire joy in the kitchen. What does inspiring joy look like to you?

Karadsheh: To me, joy in the kitchen is doing away with expectations, playing with the ingredients and seeing what you can put on the table for your family. 

The other portion of it would just be inspiring the idea that perhaps the one thing that maybe COVID had given people back was more time with families, and more time at the table. Because people didn’t go out much to eat, they were forced to feed themselves, right? And they were forced to be at the table with their families. And I think that part of the joy of food, probably the biggest part of it, is being able to share it with somebody. So that’s something I try to talk about in terms of the Mediterranean way of eating and all of the values that embody it, especially hospitality. A big portion of that is making room, and to share that meal, no matter how humble it is. So those are the two things that inspire joy for me: the ease in the kitchen, and the ability to share that joy with other people. 

So those are the two things that inspire joy for me: the ease in the kitchen, and the ability to share that joy with other people. 

Chimes: Do you have any tips on how to make good food in the dorms or on a college budget?

Karadsheh: Yes, absolutely, because my kid is a college kid, and she is a third-year student, so now she is living on her own. And I almost always get a text from her saying, “I’m browsing, which of these recipes shall I make?” So she’s in your shoes.

First of all, try not to go out to eat so much. That will save a ton of your budget. It’s great to go out but think about making your meal at home, then going out to do something else with your friends. I think you can get so much more bang for your buck if you eat at home. 

Second, when I go shopping, to save money, I always go around the perimeter of the store. I don’t stop in the main area immediately, because that’s where they put the expensive stuff at times, and that’s where they put the stuff they want to promote. So I’m not pressured by that; I go around and spend most of my time in the produce section. I look at what is available and what is in season, because in-season foods are going to be cheaper and better.

From there, I feel like if you can find a resource, obviously we each have what we love, we each have favorites, find a resource that speaks to that. If your passion is Asian food, Mediterranean, or whatever, find a resource, because everything is accessible online. Look for those recipes and try to use what you have on hand to accomplish the recipes, but oftentimes, it’s just fun to play. But I would say, shop mostly in the produce, and add on from there. 

Another thing that is very budget friendly and is the way that the Mediterranean people eat is to rely a lot more on things like chickpeas and beans. They give a lot of protein and fiber without paying for meat. Meat is very expensive, and chicken is getting up there now, and you can make a nice one pot meal with just some lentils, chickpeas and produce. And for — I don’t know, ten dollars — to feed a family, to think about that for a college kid, with your roommates, I think you could pull together some resources and have a fun night making a meal once in a while together. My daughter likes to make “fun bowls.” She’ll toss together some chickpeas, and then she’ll go in the fridge and find any leftovers, assemble them in the bowl and maybe make a dressing, and then this becomes a way to use your leftovers. Add some leafy greens on top, and then you’ve got yourself a salad of everything but the kitchen sink, and it’s usually glorious. We make our dressings because it’s so much cheaper and healthier, so that sort of thing.