A Muslim cook

A Muslim cook wanted to stop the hate. So she started inviting strangers to dinner.

Her face framed by a delicate floral-print headscarf, Amanda Saab stepped into a Safeway. Ninety minutes later, the cashier rang up her groceries: $218.45 between Amanda’s brimming cart and the one steered by her husband, Hussein. The couple called an Uber and loaded the bags into the trunk. The driver asked their plans.

A dinner party, Amanda replied: “Would you like to come?”

Inviting strangers was one point of the feasts that Saab, 28, prepares for what she calls “Dinner With Your Muslim Neighbor.” She cooks — often in her own home and sometimes, as on this vacation trip, in a borrowed kitchen — and the couple answers any questions guests might have about their religion.

Amanda has had exposure to such questions, and the uncomfortable rise in fears about Islam, on a national stage. She’s learned that the answers — and any changes to hearts and minds — best unfold one tableful at a time.

Reality TV devotees know the cooking part would be a breeze for Amanda, a fan favorite on Season 6 of Fox’s “MasterChef” in 2015. Friends and relatives knew it, too. Advancing from an Easy-Bake Oven at age 5 to a Kitchen­Aid mixer at 16, she baked tiered cakes and piles of pastries for her extended family’s weekly gatherings in her home town near Detroit, where the Muslim population is among the nation’s largest. On weekends, she stayed up past her bedtime to watch “Iron Chef America.”

Her religion seemed no more a public issue than anyone else’s when Hussein, 30, saw the “Master­Chef” casting call. “You would rock at this,” he told her, and judges agreed after tasting her baklava blood-orange cheesecake at the open auditions.
When she survived the first rounds, viewers wrote about the joy of finally seeing a “hijabi” woman on an American cooking show, a fellow “Muslimah” who represented them so beautifully. They praised her favorite comfort food (kibbeneeyah, made with raw beef) and noted her graciousness and generosity as she baked turmeric-date cakes and French toast (with the first bacon she had ever fried, though she didn’t eat it). They asked where she bought her dainty headscarves (everywhere from Target to Haute Hijab).

On the flip side came suspicious social-media posts and hurtful ones; she recalls viewers calling her oppressed, asking if she needed the permission of Hussein, a Boeing employee, to appear on the show, questioning her “true” motivations.

“It made me realize: Just my existence in the world is bothersome to some people.”

Ultimately, she was eliminated because of an underbaked cake. Home in Seattle when the episode aired, she decorated five fancy cakes and delivered them to a local food bank, moving forward.