Thursday, 31 January 2013

FCC: Food and the Middle East

After a successful start to our second semester of the Food and Culture Colloquium, we continued our exploration of food and culture with a focus on connections between food and the Middle East. Yesterday, we welcomed Hanada Al-Masri (Assistant Professor of Arabic in the Department of Modern Languages), Jessica Elsayed and Saliba Ishaq of the Middle Eastern Cultural Organization (MECO), and Fadhel Kaboub (Assistant Professor in the Economics Department).

To help set the gastronomic tone, Fadhel brought enough za'atar to share with the colloquium participants. What I had initially pegged as being a Middle Eastern variant of thyme, it turns out it's anything but just thyme. As Max Falkowitz (Editor of Serious Eats: New York) writes:

Besides a spice blend, a wild herb, a dip, a condiment, and a snacking equivalent of popcorn, it's an ancient cultural institution, a symbol of national identity, and a personal watermark. Za'atar represents what I love most about spices: it grants insight into the foodways of generations past and introduces us to people we may otherwise never meet. It also tastes really, really good.
In contrast to how I initially tasted the za'atar (i.e. sprinkled over extra virgin olive oil), a more typical serving of this blend (which includes but is certainly not limited to thyme, sesame seeds and sumac) is first spooned onto the plate, onto which the extra virgin olive oil should then be added. Either way you mix it, the combination of flavours soaks very well into the requisite baguette, the Western "foreign" bread that was quite fittingly the subject matter for the first half of this module.

Jessica first began by talking about bread from her regional, familial context of northern Africa (and more specifically, Egypt), bread of which forms the backbone of Egyptian cuisine as evidenced in the fact that it's eaten with any meal of the day. In contrast to the baguette which served as our principal focal point of this session, the local bread in Egypt comes in the form of a hearty, thick and gluten-heavy pita bread called aish baladi. And while the modern standard Arabic word for bread is called khobz (e.g., of the Moroccan variant), the Egyptian dialect refers to it as aish (AHY-yish), the root of which means "life, way of living, livelihood." In this way, especially, it should be no surprise that bread indeed plays a central role in Egyptian life. As Fadhel would soon talk about, as well, Jessica explained that bread (both in term of production and consumption) is subsidised in Egypt: as meat is "very expensive for most Egyptians throughout history and even more so now, having bread provides the carbohydrate and much of the protein in the Egyptian diet." In addition to such dishes as ful medames, much of Egyptian cuisine includes cooked vegetables and dishes made with a base of tomatoes and onions, making bread an especially useful eating utensil. From the theoretical to the practical, bread is clearly an important commodity and is treated with respect; politically, Jessica suggested the availability of bread (or even lack thereof) is an indicator of government performance. And in terms of social movements, bread even made an audible appearance as part of the Revolution of January 25th (2011) with the chant "Aish, Horreya, Adala Egtima'eya!" ("Bread, Freedom, Social Justice").

Jessica's conclusion of her segment of this session ended with a brief discussion of agnaby (foreigner) bread as an indicator of socioeconomic class, of which the baguette is a primary example of the colonial legacy in the northern African region and the focus of Fadhel's presentation. From this picture from the first of this week's suggested readings to this one where the baguette is a weapon and symbol of revolution and a sense of fearlessness, the baguette itself represents both the slow integration of French influence throughout such countries as Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, and the extent to which regional culinary and social identities are defined by it. Indeed, along with oil and water (which don't mix... except in the Middle East), bread is the least discussed but nevertheless equally important item in the political economy of the region. Traditionally, the baguette also represents a shift, a shift from couscous and hard wheat to the foreign crop of soft wheat; what was once seen as shameful and justifiable to hide from public view is now a source of pride and a symbol of modernity. As is the case with Egypt, for example, Tunisia saw the baguette throughout the country's period of industrialisation and the women's liberation movement. From the farmlands to the coastal cities, food culture would forever be changed at the hand of fast foods and foreign cuisines, particularly as they were unquestionably quicker to prepare and consume (for this reason, couscous became a weekend dish due to its longer preparation time, compared to a sandwich made of the foreign, soft wheat). Because soft wheat cannot be produced locally, the Middle East has seen an increase in the trade deficit in the form of the massive importation of grain; and as the cost is so high, there is little choice but for the government to heavily subsidise foreign bread just so they can be accessible to consumers. Eventually, the financial balance tips over, as evidenced by the bread riots of the 1980s; in response, and because shock therapy and heavy cuts to government subsidies simply wouldn't work, the price of bread has slightly increased a few cents a year while bread has gradually been shrunk in size. It should be no surprise then that cheap bread is now the staple (and foreign bread continues to exist as a marker for socioeconomic status, especially as the cost of living continues to rise). This intimate relationship between food and access again reveals the enduring legacy of colonialism. And as such, it is difficult to imagine the complete disappearance of French gastronomic influence from its former colonies, i.e., no one's giving up their baguette for couscous as the staple any time soon. It's gone so far, in fact, that the baguette symbolises revolution, to be defended and protected over the head of the government.

With daily food culture in mind, Saliba was up next and talked us through typical meals and foods that comprise the Levantine diet, of which his family more or less continues to follow today. With breakfast at 6am and lunch after work (3 or 4pm), breakfast needs to get one through the day; as such, the typical Levantine breakfast table might very well include: olives, labneh, eggs, ful (the fava beans noted earlier), pita bread, falafel and sesame seeds fresh from the oven. For lunch (the biggest meal of the ay), the table usually has a stew made with 1 or 2 vegetables (e.g., green beans and tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant), rice, bulgar wheat, a protein of some kind (beef, chicken, lamb or fish), and labneh. From this list alone, it's rather easy to imagine the amount of time and energy that would need to be put into preparing a meal such as the aforementioned; it should be no surprise then that the growing number of women in the labour force has indicated a shift from traditional, time-consuming meal preparations (usually prepared by women) to less time-consuming ones. I should be clear here though that this has not meant the end of traditional Middle Eastern cuisine and authentic meals at home, but rather a return to and active preservation of food culture, or if nothing else the need to prepare well in advance.

Focusing on food representation in Arab-American literature, Hanada concluded the formal presentation portion of this module. Generally speaking, there have been three waves of immigrants from Arab states into the U.S. (pre-WWI, specifically before 1878, with Christian Arabs; post-WWII, 1948-1966, with Muslim Arabs; and 1967 onward, following the Arab-Israeli War), with particular influxes of Lebanese, Syrian and most recently Iraqi immigrants. Referencing, then, Jordanian-American author Diana Abu-Jaber's Crescent. An associate professor in the Department of English at Portland State University, Abu-Jaber focuses in her novels (including Arabian Jazz, 1993; The Language of Baklava, 2005, and Origin, 2007) on the overarching theme of ethnic identity and the in-betweeness/hyphenated experience, the experience of ethnicity and the immigrant condition of searching for and belonging to a new sense of "home." Going through a series of passages in Crescent, wherein food represents identity, memory and story telling, Hanada's synthesis of the text paralleled with the larger theme of the immigrant experience (through food) throughout this genre.

While the Arab-American experience is rightfully unique, it goes without saying (though I'll type it anyway) that the hyphenated experience in particular is a shared though nuanced one outside of ethnicity, in which food continues to play a key role in helping us to negotiate our multiple identities. Interestingly enough, next week's module will ask our participants (the students in particular) to consider their own food identity, a hyphenated one that brings into question the extent to which our local, campus food culture has altered/reshaped (if at all) each person's food identity off campus.

Suggested readings for this session: 
"The Baguettes of War" (Anna Badhken, 2011)
"Eat, Drink, Protest" (Annia Ciezadlo, 2011)

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the growing album of photos from our colloquium sessions, click here

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