by Meredith Bethune • Photography by Kate LeSueur
Artistic Director Allison Orr might be the creative powerhouse behind Forklift Danceworks—a local nonprofit that creates innovative, often breathtaking, dance performances inspired by the movement of everyday life—but it’s her husband Blake Trabulsi who wears the creative genius hat in their home kitchen. As co-owner of local firm Zocalo Design, Trabulsi says that cooking is how he unwinds after work. “He grew up in a Lebanese family in Houston who cooked big family meals every Sunday,” Orr explains. “So he has a natural love of cooking, and confidence in the kitchen.”
In contrast, Orr describes her title within their Travis Heights bungalow as “Lead Manager on the Domestic Front.” And though she credits help from family and babysitters for her ability to manage the household’s frenetic schedule, her mellow yet dynamic temperament clearly contributes to the family’s balanced hum. That said, Orr’s home life and work obligations often overlap.
For example, observing crack-of-dawn city workers in order to create some of her company’s most famous productions required early mornings for Orr’s family; the couple’s 3-year-old son JoJo recently attended multiple baseball games to prepare for Forklift Dancework’s “Play Ball”; and 8-year-old daughter Genevieve recently performed as a batgirl in this same celebration of the historic Downs Field in East Austin. “Forklift Danceworks is really a family project for the kids and Blake,” Orr says. “It’s twenty-four-seven when we’re in production.”
Soon, a collaboration with Japan’s Kyoto Arts Center will take the production, as well as the entire family, on a new adventure; but travel isn’t foreign to Orr or Trabulsi, who met on a public health project in Paraguay. The couple has also visited several fabulous food destinations such as Mexico and Italy, but their most memorable meals were enjoyed in Trabulsi’s ancestral homeland. “The food that we had in Lebanon was unbelievable!” Orr exclaims, as she recalls dishes such as the crispy, torpedo-shaped croquettes known as kibbeh, the savory stuffed squashes and the impossibly smooth and rich hummus.
That trip eventually inspired Orr to learn a handful of simple Trabulsi family recipes. In fact, majadra, a Lebanese lentil and onion stew, was Genevieve’s first solid food. But like many children Genevieve’s age, onions and certain textures—like vegetable peels—aren’t on the list of favorites. “My kids are a little picky,” Orr says with a chuckle while JoJo helps her peel a cucumber from a neighbor’s garden.
“Everyone knows I don’t really cook, so I’m asked, on occasion, just to bring along this salad to events,” Orr continues. She starts by tearing two heads of lettuce from the farmers market into bite-sized pieces and placing them in a large bowl. “Blake’s mom always cuts the cucumber into little bites,” she notes, while sectioning the vegetable into triangle-shaped morsels. She adds them to the bowl of lettuce, along with thick wedges of tomato and strings of red onion. After adding ample chunks of avocado, Orr begins rolling a lemon between her hand and the kitchen counter—another trick she learned from her mother-in-law. After explaining to JoJo that it softens the fruit and makes it easier to juice, she hands it to him and asks, “Do you want to give it a try?” Then she pulls a sunny lemon squeezer from the kitchen drawer and proclaims, “Now, these are important! Everyone in the family has one. It made me feel like I had arrived when Blake’s mom gave it to me.”
After adding the lemon juice, Orr pours a couple of generous glugs of olive oil over the salad—noting that the Trabulsi family prefers mild-tasting oil. The final ingredients—two tablespoons of dried mint and about one tablespoon of salt—are crucial according to Orr. “You have to taste the salad to know that you’ve added enough,” she explains. “You should feel the presence of the mint, but when it doesn’t turn out right, it’s usually because someone was timid with the salt.”
After tossing the salad, the avocado should gently coat the components of this bright and exceptionally satisfying dish. “The avocado is what makes it rich and substantial,” Orr says with confidence. But minutes later, while flipping through the Lebanese cookbook that’s another family staple, Orr notices that avocado isn’t listed in the salad’s ingredients. She and her husband look at each other in disbelief, pause and start laughing. They realize that Trabulsi’s grandmother, who never used recipes, must have added avocado to the salad long ago and not bothered to mention the adjustment. “Well…this must be a HOUSTON Lebanese salad, then,” Orr declares with pride and a pleasant, resigned smile.