Revisiting our table…
By Christiane Dabdoub Nasser
The last five years or so have been an exercise in frustration for eclectic cooks who prefer a varied menu on their table and love to experiment with ingredients, condiments and herbs. I admit to being such a one. Over the years, I have assembled a repertoire of dishes based on French, Italian, Scandinavian, Asian and Indian cuisines, which I have integrated to my daily menu more or less successfully, but certainly enjoyably - for what is the value of cookery if one cannot enjoy planning for it, shopping for it, preparing it and sharing it with loved ones? But when such treats became no longer possible, I put away my scrap book, my own personal archive of the “better days" and fossilised culinary pleasures in the chambers of my memory indefinitely. I could not have been more wrong because this period of increasing penury has eventually helped me renew my relationship with the most basic foods, revisit old recipes and experiment with them in a variety of ways heretofore unthinkable. The incremental closures of the last few years, intermittent embargoes and an increasingly depressed economy have been looming factors in changing many people>s lives, including their eating habits, and the isolation of Jerusalem has been dramatic for aficionados of cosmopolitan cooking who can no longer shop for these little extras that add a touch of exoticism on their table. I am quite aware that gourmet experiences are not a priority when so many are deprived of the basic necessities of life, and am by no means trying to belittle the much graver existential concerns that arise as a result of the degradation of the political and economic situation, and the moral issues that have surfaced as a result of the erection of this ignominious Segregation Wall, which is scarring our landscape at the four points of the horizon. I am just pointing out to yet another threatened aspect of our quotidian, our culinary habits, which cannot be eluded or underestimated. Small as it is in the larger scheme of our national survival, this aspect of our life reflects in fact another instance of the erosion of our culture and a regression of the remarkable cosmopolitanism it has proudly cultivated over the centuries and which had distinguished it in the region. When all indications point towards the threatening growth of a monolithic, mono-vocal culture in our midst, then everything should be of concern, even our food practices. And this is not just food for thought. The flourishing of society within a culture is reflected by the eating practices of the various groups within it and can be measured to some extent by the development of its food culture: its food production, distribution and consumption methods. Yet I perceive a serious lag between the development of other aspects of our culture and those related to food. Insofar as serious research is concerned, there is much to be done at many levels, but we have yet to start investigating our food culture in both its practical and symbolic aspects; we have to draw a corpus of its components and examine its data synchronically and diachronically; we have to determine its dynamics as a form of expression among the different social groups; we have to determine its specificity; and only then can start understanding modifications in related practices and the symbolism emerging thereby.
" we have to realise that we still maintain a traditional relationship with food and have much to gain by preserving it "
In her widely-read book on Middle Eastern food practices, Claudia Roden, an icon of Middle Eastern cookery and a household name in gastronomic milieus, traces the familiar dishes of the modern kitchens of our region to three important periods. During the Sassanid Empire sumptuous living was the order of the day, especially during the peak period of the early seventh century when Antioch, Damascus, Jerusalem and Alexandria were conquered. After the arrival of the Arabs, who had very limited culinary traditions and followed strict rules of parsimony and restraint up until the coming of the Abbasid Caliphate - which established its capital Baghdad on Persian soil and where Persian culture and sophistication set the tone - the genius of creative cookery and the concept of haute cuisine were established and became integrated to Arab culture during the period between the eighth to the tenth centuries. The food of the Ottoman Empire was partly built on what had become by then a rich Arab cuisine and partly adopted from the new countries integrated within the Empire such as the Balkans. By the end of the Ottoman period, Middle Eastern food habits, already rich and varied, were further transformed with the arrival of many communities, such as the Greeks, French, Italians and British. All through this course, Palestinian cuisine was an expression of this diversity and manifold social and cultural make-up, and shouldered these tides through integration rather than rigid resistance. Because food production, preparation and eating habits have to do with one of the most fundamental aspects of human expression, I see that the current state of affairs is most likely to have far-reaching consequences on the longer term. We pride ourselves over maintaining the cooking traditions of our mothers, grandmothers and mothers-in-law but have done nothing to investigate this heritage in a way that would help us understand its workings. The questions of “how" and “what" relevant to eating habits are taken for granted because they are considered a given: we are born and reared within models of food consumption that remain unchanged except in cases of displacement to a different culture or due to deep social ruptures. Looking at our recent history, I can say that we have had our share of both many times over and it is therefore high time that we ask ourselves the right questions now that our “food social space," as Jean Pierre Corbeau puts it, is undergoing drastic transformations. For the post-industrial world, these questions arise as a result of the course of the development of their societies and the breaking up of the traditional relationship between individuals and their food. In our case, where traditional models of food consumption are still practised, the issue is one of survival and continuity on the one hand, and of facing-up to evidences of the erosion of our way of life, on the other. In the absence of traditional “pre-established" models of food consumption, a large part of the world is drowning under the fear, hardly exaggerated, of the globalization of food, widely termed as ‘mcdonaldisation,’ and as a result, there is a serious revisiting of traditional foods and a longing for the times when vegetables and fruits were seasonal, echoed by a nostalgic call for the eating habits of the days of yore. Whether we consider ourselves as part of the Mediterranean fold, and here reference to the ubiquitous and much praised olive oil, bread and vine of the Mediterranean diet is de rigueur, or as inheritors of the badia and its retrained strict diet, or a mixture of both, we have to realise that we still maintain a traditional relationship with food and have much to gain by preserving it. All we need to do is turn our givens into proactive assets and develop a course of our own design. In order to achieve that, however, sound thinking, sound planning and an unshakable resolution are essential ingredients.
Christiane Dabdoub Nasser is the author of Classic Palestinian Cookery, published in 2001 by Saqi Books, London. She can be reached at email@example.com.