HOLIDAY FOOD – Share or Sustain

28 Sep 2004

A decisive step in the evolution of humankind was probably made when food ceased no longer simply to sustain, but began to be shared too. This was a social and relational act.

As a macrobiotic cook, I sometimes visit patients to help them with ‘healing food’. A visit I made recently to a cancer patient in a remote village lost in the proud Atlas mountains in Algeria was a ‘sustaining’ experience.

I tended Omar, a school administrator, for four days, staying in the empty kindergarten of his school. He died early in morning of the fifth day and all his family and friends came to his home.

Great moments of sadness or joy are moments of sharing and, for these true, traditional men, sharing takes place around a table. Just after closing the eyes of the dead, everybody was running in all directions … to prepare food.

Omar’s grandmother and the old women of the family had already been around for a few days. Quickly, the rest of family and friends came along too. In Arabic ‘aahell’ means both family and close friends.

The kitchen was set (no need to add fast or like magic) in one of the classrooms: the desks had been removed, the floor was washed and the room was set with huge single burners (each with its own gas jar). Barrels of water were arranged on one side, fresh vegetable were kept near the entrance alongside bags of semolina. All was perfectly prepared and managed. Before the cooking began, another important ingredient arrived, walking on four legs-the lamb.

Sacrifices serve to mark big moments, too. Men slaughtered the lamb, cleaned it and delivered it, bit by bit to the women, who spiced it and cook it in water.

Meanwhile, the kitchen was like a beehive. All the women sat on the floor, and their equipment was limited to burners, huge pots and just as huge mixing bowls. Seeing such limited needs made me wonder about the real necessity for all the gadgets and utensils we burden ourselves with in our kitchens. These women possessed so little, but had so much good will, love and belief to share.

The kitchen (that kitchen for one day) was perfectly arranged into distinct islands. First thing in the morning the bread was kneaded, rolled with oil and butter, baked on a thick steel plaque and heated with one of the volcano big burners. This crepe-like bread will not to be served, but will be given to the tomb diggers, as has always been the tradition.

Women sat on the floor at the entrance, busily peeling and chopping onions, garlic, potato, carrots and courgettes. The most important task was to dampen the couscous for steaming. As soon as the ‘tomb diggers’ bread’ was ready, the five volcano burners heated huge couscoussières filled with fine smelling vegetables and meat. Outside, more women were preparing, washing and slicing lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes. Others had the job of peeling and cutting watermelons.

All this is not just a description of a meal being cooked; it is also a way of praising and expressing amazement at people who celebrate sadness (or joy) through the ritual of food preparation. Food is no longer a vital ingredient to sustain life, but also a way of celebrating and an expression of emotion.

The sharing of moments was so wonderfully translated in the sharing of different tasks and even in the sharing of the same dish. The concept of the individual dish is inexistent, and couscous is served and eaten in communal saladierè-bowls. Four or five 4 people eat at the same time, each digging their spoon in on their side of the bowl.

Tradition is time: it is everything that humankind has gathered as knowledge and adapted through their living space, religious rituals, eating habits and values.

The ceremony I describe was a celebration of a sad event. What is amazing is that the same would be done for a joyous celebration too. The setting would be exactly the same; only the mood would differ.

Share or sustain. Those who have lost the sharing value of food may also have lost a great deal of humanity. I am not a bird, a lion or an almond tree that needs to be fed, I am more than that … I need to be fed of food and feelings.

Kamal Mouzawak is a contributor toSaveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, Lebanon’s most important f&w monthly.

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