“But I long for the day when I’ll have new birth / Still I love the livin’ here on earth”
Yet another Spring, Nowruz (Persian New Year), and Easter are upon us. Renewal is all around, which for some of us brings to mind the other side of rebirth, unpleasant as the topic may be: death and our finitude. No, this certainly will not be a rumination on such unpleasant topics such as death and human finitude, because who has time for that! But, that ever-present shadow of mortality, however much we try to blink it away, reminded me of the often quoted phrase: “you can’t take it with you.” To the grave, I presume. Well, that doesn’t seem to stop pretty much everyone you know including yourself (and certainly, me) from trying, striving, accumulating, always accumulating. Oh yes, and giving away, in order to accumulate more.
Along with all the other things we do as human beings, some of which seem all too paradoxically inhuman to us (e.g., murdering other human beings, whether as a state actor or as an individual or as part of an ideologically-motivated group), trying very, very hard to take it all with us, or at least fool ourselves into thinking we can, may just be one of those resident demons in our human DNA that we (at least, some of us) can only hope to reach a truce with. Slaying this demon altogether, may not be an option for most of us.
However, when it comes to food, trying to take something of your own or collective food culture or memory with you seems to be a less fraught proposition. You don’t know what I mean? If you’ve ever tried to sneak a candy bar, or an apple, or hot sauce, or (yes) chili pepper, where it’s prohibited or at least socially frowned upon, or if you’ve overpacked food in preparation for something (e.g., an impending journey or a storm), you know what I mean.
This desire to take it with you, when it comes to food, before the days of mechanized survival, often went to ridiculous extremes, at least for the well-resourced. I was reading Charles Dickens’s “American Notes for General Circulation” about his 1842 voyage to America because I wanted to get his astute take on the Atlantic crossing, as well as American life at the time, delivered in his signature effortlessly humorous style of course. In it, he describes how a group of deck hands “took in the milk” on board the ship by bringing a live cow on board. A live cow on an Atlantic ship crossing. A live cow. Poor cow.
I remember too shopping for food in 2012 before Hurricane Sandy, considered “one of the deadliest and most destructive hurricanes that year for the Atlantic hurricane season, and the second-costliest hurricane in United States history.” We all know that phenomenon of desperate shopping for food before a storm. What happens with all that milk and eggs? Do people “survive” on custards, milk shakes and omelettes for those few days, if that, while the storm blows over? Our case was a little different. We had all the rice and beans, milk and eggs too, and other provisions, frankly, to last a few months (remember, what I said about accumulation above). But, I found myself buying and eating copious amount of junk food (potato chips to be exact), which I almost never touch in my normal daily life, in anticipation of the storm that actually ended up bypassing our city altogether. And, I suspect, I was not alone in having binged on junk food for a storm that never came. Something about impending displacement (whether through a long journey or a storm) triggers some deep-seated desire to try to take calories with you, whether packed away or in your stomach.
So, I won’t tell you the story about how we once packed a car full of food to go to a cabin in the woods for a week, except that the cabin was near a town, and thus, grocery stores and restaurants. I think you get my point.
For those of us who like to eat well and have dietary restrictions (religious or otherwise), all this food travel starts to get very complicated. When we make a choice about food, including what to take with us and what to eat where and when, we make subtly profound micro-decisions about who we are, in that moment and in life (at least, as far as we know in that moment). We’re signaling to the world, this is who I am, this is who I’m not, this is who you are, I am not you, and you are not me. Some people, picky eaters to be exact, will go so far as to draw an uncompromising and uncrossable line in the sand when it comes to exercising control over food. Food is usually presented as a universally common denominator, which it is as a factual matter, because we all have to eat to survive. But, the proposition that food is some kind of grand unifier, as it’s often presented (specially in food writing, including in my own), is an ideologically driven proposition (based on a desire for diverse peoples to “get along” by eating each other’s food) that has little bearing on reality.
What we eat or don’t eat divides us as often, if not more often, as what we choose to eat unites us.
Matthew Brown argues in his though-proving article Picky Eating is a Moral Failing that
“[t]o be a picky eater is to have a signiﬁcant lack of openness to new experiences and to substantially hamper one’s development….As meals are perhaps the most pervasive of social experience, being a picky eater can violate your duties to others. I argue, not that everyone must attempt or pretend to like what your friends or what expert gourmands like, but that there are signiﬁcant obligations to openness, self-knowledge, accommodation, and gracefulness that should impact one’s food preferences.” Now, whether or not these obligations to other people “should” impact one’s preferences, wouldn’t it be nice if it actually did, at least once in a while?
Going back to traveling with food, I know that for me it comes from a concern that I may not be able to eat what is offered (e.g. on an international flight) or, or more controversially (at least, if we are open to the proposition that there are ethical dimensions to “picky eating”), I may not like what is offered or I may consider it unhealthy for me to eat (e.g., when traveling in an unfamiliar country). At a deeper level, this desire to travel with my kind of food, whatever that means for you (could be a nutrition bar, which is often the case for me), stems from a need to carry the familiar (in the form of a taste sensation in the brain) with you when setting out into the unknown (yes, even the humble, everyday unknown).
If you’re with me this far, as we read the news every day about the millions of people who are now displaced from their homes due to war, unrest and the effects of climate change, I wonder what they’re able to carry, if anything, with them to remind them of the food from a home that they’ve no certainty of ever returning to, specially when one comes from a place with a strong, food-centered traditional culture. And, once our memories fade or we never learned in the first place, what happens to us when we leave our foods behind? Who do we become? I know that we, by and large, adapt and survive, as migrants, refugees and immigrants always do, somehow. For example, here’s one hopeful story about Syrian refugees in Beirut making a place for themselves through cooking and serving their food, and here’s another about an immigrant, women run restaurant in London, but these exceptional cases are but points of light in what feels like a gradually looming darkness.
What would you take with you to remind you of home? For me, it’s a jar of Mr. Shutki, a Bengli-style fermented spicy shrimp paste in a jar available in London and introduced to me by my sister, that like the ancient Romans and their garum, if I could, I would take with me everywhere and add to almost everything (veggies, pasta, rice, eggs, meat, literally everything). However, since this fermented condiment paste has a distinctive antisocial aroma, for now, I refrain and restrict myself to only writing about it.
I’ll end as I began with the theme of the season by quoting one of the food authors I’ve learned the most from, Michael Pollan, here in an interview about his book Cooked:
“[F]ermentation puts us in touch with the ever-present tug in life, death….once you start studying fermentation, you’re acutely aware of the fact that everything that lives contains the seeds of its own decomposition and that living on in the same way that on the leaves of a cabbage at any given time are various bacteria species just waiting for a breach in the cell walls to leap in and digest and rot that cabbage, you’ve got a lot of bacteria on you and in you waiting for the same moment. And these bacteria are our friends, but when we die, they get – they make quick work of fermenting us. And – but, you know, you go around the world, and every culture has very important ferments. This is a cultural universal, it appears. And there’s a good reason for it.”