When I was asked to make a selection of four Basque poets for Words Without Borders, my mind filled with possibilities. I thought: oh, my fellow coastal poet Kirmen Uribe and his seafaring poems, or what about the tortured Parisian Jon Mirande, the irreverently clever Ricardo Arregi, the always on-point Bernardo Atxaga, the fantastic love poet Padron Plazaola, the newbie Alaine Agirre and her raw, distraught poems, the richly oblique Felipe Juaristi, the difficult but rewarding Koldo Izagirre, or even the father of modern Basque poetry, Gabriel Aresti (whose works have just been published by University of Nevada Press.) There were others, too, names flew in and out of my mind: Itxaro Borda, Arantxa Urretabizkaia, Amaia Lasa, each poet a rich fragment of Basqueness. How to choose, how to represent.
And as is often the case when given strict delimitations, my mind focused. In the end, I thought, what do people know about Basque literature? Not much. So how could I provide a good sketch of Basque literature in four poets then? The idea of four made me think of the cardinal points: I come from fishing people, so I can’t help the tendency to think in terms of north, south, east, and west, the corresponding winds, what comes with each, what landmarks (seamarks) I see, where I stand with respect to each. (I don’t know many other people whose first gesture in entering a place they’re considering to rent is to flip open a compass). It’s in my blood to define territories, to craft maritime charts, to fish, to swim, to sail boats, and now, thanks to the new world, to European ideals about the free movement of peoples and the decline of the fishing worlds, I’ve translated the skills of my ancestors into this, this crafting of literary maps, this fishing for the next rewarding catch.
In the December 2015 Translator’s Relay, I wrote about the Basque language, about how old it is and how complex its history and literary traditions are—oral and written literary traditions in Basque follow two very distinct paths, both very rich and alive; the first is very old, and the other . . . a babe in arms. The paradox of this old but new literary world. For the purpose of giving context to my selection, I’ll need to explain that the first book in Basque was published in 1545 and that very little else was published in the following four hundred years and that the few things that were published in that time were produced by priests (mostly Franciscans and Jesuits). They wrote devotional books, translations of sections from the Bible, spiritual guides. This is no anomaly: for centuries and for better or worse, churchpeople have been the keepers of languages across cultures: annotating them, translating them, writing into their traditions (think of Saint John of the Cross, Teresa de Jesus, Julian of Norwich, even the patron of translators Saint Jerome). The Basque literary tradition has its own collection of writer-priests, starting with the first person to ever publish a book in Basque, Bernard Etxepare, the French-Basque vicar who wrote Linguae Vasconum Primitiae in 1545. But the Basque church’s monopoly in all matters literary began to wane in the twentieth century and, with that, the need for other manifestations of writing in Basque began to emerge.
And to understand this shift and how it manifested, we need to envision and understand mystical geographies.
There exists in the Basque Country a place that is a bit like Camelot. It sits in the middle of the most beautiful network of mountains and valleys, a hiker or horse-rider’s true paradise. It’s called Arantzazu and it’s a Franciscan sanctuary: in 1468 a shepherd claimed to have had the Virgin appear to him among the hawthorns (arantza means hawthorn) and, well, the usual rest ensued. It was declared a sacred site in 1885 by Pope Leo XIII, and in 1950 a huge, ambitious architectural undertaking started to develop on the site of the shrine. And this is where things start to get really interesting, because this apparently benign, tranquil, bucolic site of pilgrimage became the place where the soul and the brain of a new Basque revolution were forged. People forget, but the first few ETA [Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, "Basque Homeland and Liberty"] ideologues were Franciscan and Jesuit fathers (this was before ETA became a military organization—it was a purely political concept first), and it was precisely in Arantzazu, and during the years in which the Arantzazu Basilica was built, that the shift to Basque modern expression (in thought, in architecture, sculpture, literature and music; even the new standard Basque, euskara batua) coalesced. Keep in mind that these were the very harsh years of Franco’s dictatorship, when everything Basque was forbidden—what better place to plot the dawn of a new Basque era than a Franciscan Friary in a mythical site? No one was watching. The Virgin might have appeared in Arantzazu in 1468, but the Basque goddess Mayi and her forest, mountain, and river creatures were there already by the time the Virgin came along, and still are; those mountains are a magnet for magic, there’s a sense of being hidden and protected and left in peace in the ancient caves and steep forests that surround the basilica, on the rocky peaks enhancing the horizons. I rode a horse for the first time there, aged nine, a Basque pottoka (a long-haired, feral mountain horse—they’re as cute as they’re stubborn, and will take you wherever they please) who, over the years and in my many visits to Arantzazu, taught me to trust the wisdom of his meanderings. His name was Gorri ("Red," for his mane).
So here we are, 1950s and 60s, in a radical sanctuary built by a pair of young architects who enlisted the help of the three most avant-garde Basque artists: Txillida, Oteiza, and Basterretxea. Txillida made the bronze doors (and called them the gates of hell); Oteiza sculpted the apostles (fourteen, because there were surely more than 12, and one was Mary Magdalene) and the pietá (Mary raging at the skies with a hole in her heart); Basterretxea painted frescoes in the crypt, which the Vatican ordered be destroyed. So, yes, a Catholic, Franciscan sanctuary . . . but a radical, mystical one, hyperaware of its own key role in the preservation and permutation of Basque culture and identity.
And it is in this contradictorily pagan, spiritual, political, and modernist context that we find Juan Mari Lekuona (1927–2005), an ordained priest who was a member of the Basque Academy of Letters and the first director of the Basque Society of Authors, and best friends with two key figures of Basque modern thought: the sculptor-philosopher Oteiza and Joxemiel Barandiaran, the linguist-anthropologist who largely designed the standard Basque (euskara batua) in use today. In this cardinal initiation to Basque poetry, Lekuona is North, because of the special role priests have had in the keeping and development of Basque literature, and because his poem, "Hand 3," was born in the years Oteiza was sculpting the frontispiece, the apostles, and the pietá in Arantzazu, and it is born of Lekuona’s conversations with the sculptor-philosopher. I can’t help thinking "Hand 3" is about Oteiza’s hands, and about Oteiza and Lekuona’s conversations, and their attempts to create a new aesthetic-poetic interpretation of the Basque soul.
I mentioned earlier that Arantzazu was also key in the development of the ideology that would produce the ETA. In the context of Franco’s oppressive regime, Catholicism was an instrument of rule and coercion, but, in the Basque Country, it also became a means of hiding in plain sight. With the excuse of bringing the word of God to those unruly Basques, the Franciscans and Jesuits (who created the academic Camelotian equivalent to Arantzazu, the University of Deusto) aligned to shelter and protect the language, and educated a new generation of unapologetically Basque thinkers. Joseba Sarrionandia (1958) was one of them. In this clockwise literary trip, he is East, because he had to leave, and headed East, and in the process became the Morning Star of many politically engaged young Basques, who saw him both as a martyr and a beacon of light. He studied Basque philology at the University of Deusto, where he came across the early ETA ideologues. He became a member, and in 1980 he was sent to prison for twenty-two years for his affiliation with the terrorist band. By then, Sarrionandia was already one of a group of prominent new young Basque authors. Together with Bernardo Atxaga, Jon Juaristi, Ruper Ordorika, and other authors and musicians, they created a magazine, Pott, that brought together new works in Basque, the likes of which no one had ever seen or heard before. They were proponents of modernism and the avant-garde and eager to create new Basque literary territories where none had existed before. In today’s parlance, we understand someone like Sarrionandia as a cultural and political activist; in the burning years of the “transition to democracy,” he was somone to make an example of, the “unlucky one” in that group of like-minded writers. Luckily, in 1985 Sarrionandia made a legendary escape from the Martutene prison, hidden inside one of the speakers of a band who’d come to play a San Fermin concert on July 7, the first day of the famous festival. He has lived in exile since, unable to return to the Basque Country. The life of the exile, the issues of banishment and colonization, therefore, loom large in his works. But he is also a literary translator: one of his first publications was an anthology of his translations of his favorite poems, Izkiriaturik aurkitu ditudan ene poemak (published in 1985, its title translates to “My Poems, Which I Found Already Written"). He is the translator of canonical works by Cavafy, Pessoa, T.S. Eliot, Coleridge, Schwob, and many others into Basque, and this worldliness bleeds into his work. Sarrionandia’s works ooze loss and world-weariness, a deep understanding of history, mythology and human nature, and sing with the defiance and the high moral ground of the honorable loser.
Miren Agur Meabe (1962), our South in this seacrossing, also studied Basque philology with the Jesuits, and is the most widely published and translated Basque female poet. I place her South in my selection because the South is my favorite destination, and I’d like to put all known and unknown female Basque writers there. The history of Basque literature has not reserved much of a place for women (all those priests), but things are beginning to change and Miren Agur Meabe leads the charge with the unashamed femaleness of her writing. She writes from the body, from the certainty of her here and now lived experience, and from the void of female representation in Basque letters—she is also a member of the Basque Academy of Letters (she told me there were no female restrooms in the building when she was made a member in 2006—think about that). She anchors her tradition to that of the universal female writers and poets that preceed her, and writes from a perspective of defiance. Making sure she writes everything a good Basque Catholic girl brought up by nuns and priests should not write, using the most beautiful, lyrical Basque. Writing the female everything that isn’t there in Basque letters. The chain of kitchen and family, the trauma of religion, the rawness of sex, the disappointment of imposed limitations, the words that just aren’t there, or aren’t said: menopause, orgasm, desire. Hers is a woman’s struggle to voice and claim an artistic discourse while writing in a tradition with few literary forebears—none of whom are female. I just finished translating A Glass Eye, her memoir of disappointed love and writing and her own glass eye as metaphors for transcending pain (it’ll be published this summer). When I first heard Miren Agur Meabe had written this book, I was surprised, and scared for her—with that protective instinct of friendship. I’ve known this author for fifteen years, we are friends, we come from similar backgrounds (we’re from neighboring fishing villages, fishermen’s daughters), and in all this time she never told me what happened to her eye. I accepted her glass eye as part of who she was, learned to look into her “good” eye when we spoke, and thought that she would tell me about her “bad” one in her own time. With this book, she tells the world what her eye has taught her, what her glass eye has molded her into, what life looks like through a glass eye. My initial fear, I understand now, emerged from the fact that I had perceived her glass eye as a weakness, a disability, something that made her vulnerable. Instead, I now know that her glass eye is her strength, the golden anchor to her otherness. The compass that leads her to claim new territories in an old tongue.
Harkaitz Cano (1975) is West, then, the spirit of dusk, a writer who famously writes through the night with his eyes firmly on seen and unseen horizons, and who belongs to the first generation of Basque children who were able to go to school and be taught entirely in Basque. He is an avant-garde writer who mixes genres and often works in collaborations with other artists (musicians, painters, chefs—including his brilliant culinary-literary-musical experiment with Mugaritz’s iconic chef Andoni Aduriz, BSO). Cano’s works are hard to classify. His slim novel Blade of Light imagines Hitler won World War II and conquered Manhattan, which he rules from a golden tower (ahem). Hitler’s archenemies and the greatest threat to his newly imposed world order are Charlie Chaplin, whom he’s kidnapped and beaten half to death (he escapes), and Hollywood. I’ll confess that in these last few months the prescience of that little book I translated in the hallowed rooms of New York Public Library in the summer of 2010 has haunted me: it’s a great ode to the power of the word, cinema, and imagination in the face of fascism. Another main character in Blade of Light is a dispossessed French stevedore who, after loading the Statue of Liberty into the ship, hides inside the head in her journey from France to NY to make a new life for himself in the new world. Really, everyone in the US needs to read Blade of Light. It’s not a book about the Basques, but only a Basque could have written it. Twist, however, Cano’s latest novel, forthcoming in English translation [in October), is definitely a book about the Basques. A novel about a very famous case, the Lasa and Zabala case: two very young members of ETA (affiliated with the band but without blood crimes on them), were “disappeared” by a paramilitary group organized by the Spanish government to fight against ETA. Lasa and Zabala’s bodies resurfaced ten years after their disappearance, and the legal process that ensued unraveled a network of police corruption and political complicity in the assassination of Basques that brought down large sections of the Spanish political apparatus that existed to support the government-sanctioned GAL paramilitary group. For obvious reasons, all the names of the real-life characters in this story have been changed in Twist, but the events are there in all their gory detail. Twist is surreal and ironic and deals with hard, hard facts (assassinations, kidnappings, survivor’s guilt, the tangled mess of Basque identity and politics) to weave a dark, gripping, sometimes hallucinatory tale (the bones wake up in their shallow grave) that takes you places you didn’t want to go to. And yet, once there, you can’t look away. In fact, you want to stay.
And so, here we are, almost at the end of the journey. Looking West, the sky aflame. Literature and revolution. Bearing witness, torch in hand. In my meandering, Gorri-influenced ways, I’ve led you here. I wanted to give you four characters for this trip, this quick visit: the priest writer, the terrorist-activist writer, the fallen female Catholic rebel writer, the young avant-garde writer who’s written a book (Twist) that contains all of the above characters in it. To explain what cannot be explained but must be explained: the parallel burdens of pride and guilt, of shame and duty, of history and identity; and the joyful, painful mandate of carrying on, regardless, of carrying forward, regardless, of carrying over, regardless, this old language of ours. As far as it will go. Because it’s very much needed still, in this new world.
© 2017 by Amaia Gabantxo. All rights reserved.
Never mind how it got here.
If the previous tenant left it behind thoughtlessly or on purpose,
if it sneaked in through a window while we weren’t looking,
if, maybe, the neighbor who hates our vinyl collection put it here to fuck us over
or was it maybe the man in the blue overalls
who comes monthly to check
the water, the gas, the electricity meters.
I’ve consulted my favorite thinkers: Wittgenstein, Cioran, Steiner,
but they have no answers.
All I know is there is a tiger in our midst.
Even when days pass without a sighting
we no longer voice the hope that he might be gone,
like we used to,
because we know he’ll return and he does, he does.
A tiger is not a cat, so it’s hard to know
if his lives have run out at last.
Often the mere thought of him out there can make it hard to leave the bed.
The tiger should have awakened our desire to hunt, but… nope.
So many siblings we were yet we aren’t all here now,
but, can we blame the tiger?
There was always a fight just before
each one of them left forever but,
we couldn’t be sure of his guilt,
even though it can be handy sometimes
to have a tiger at home
to pin the blame on.
Late for work, we tell ourselves: it’s all because of the tiger.
Sometimes it’s true, others… not really.
Clocks run slow when you live with a tiger,
it seems so early that, suddenly, you realize, it’s very late.
It’s never as early as you think.
It seems impossible that a tiger, with such paws,
could move the hands of a clock.
It’s a grandiose statement but it’s true: tigers can stop time.
Maybe we didn’t interpret the signs correctly:
the food missing from the fridge, the wardrobes in a mess,
all the torn-up clothes.
You have to be watchful with a tiger in your midst.
He’s not a tiger cub anymore,
although maybe he was younger once.
Did he grow up with us? Was he an adult tiger from the start?
Maybe he isn’t just one tiger? Maybe there are two? Three, you say?
We can never be certain; it’s a mystery.
At home, we never agree,
because we have rarely seen all of him:
sometimes he is only a vague presence behind us,
something that breathes, something that stinks:
he spies on us when we party,
he scrutinizes our dreams,
he’s jealous of our laughter,
our tears intrigue him, he wonders what causes them.
We turn our heads to just catch a glimpse of his tail all velvety sneaking away.
Paw prints on the carpet,
creaking wooden floors,
little trails, practically invisible,
signs that he’s still there.
I hear the experts on the radio:
the tiger this, the tiger that, the tiger blah blah blah…
And I tell myself: “You wouldn’t say that
if you had a tiger at home.”
We taught our youngest to walk very soon
because we worried the tiger wouldn’t take kindly to
seeing someone else
walk on all fours.
Hardly anyone comes to visit when you live with a tiger.
Often we forget that we have a tiger with us,
we forget him for days until, damn,
he is suddenly right there
one thoroughly uneventful day:
let’s say a Wednesday, let’s say in the Fall,
let’s say on our way back from work,
Some tigers are noble, you say?
Tigers are tigers. I’d hesitate to say much else.
This isn’t government housing but we shelter a tiger here all the same.
We’ve thought about it: sell the house, say nothing to the buyer,
open all doors, wait for him to leave,
open all faucets, get the hell out.
All possibilities have crossed our minds but, you know what, in the end,
we just got used to living with this tiger.
Can love for a tiger happen, and then grow?
It can happen and it can grow, but a tiger is a tiger,
he’ll never lose his stripes.
Is he male or female? Is he fifty years old?
Fifteen? Seventy-two? Five hundred?
After dinner, while we munch on the few walnuts he didn’t eat,
we ponder the tiger’s age, quietly:
Has he aged at all? Did he get softer, or sharper instead?
Could it all be a lie?
Could he, maybe, be a devil wearing
a tiger’s mask?
I would like to write clearly and concisely on the tiger’s oblique stripes.
I look at people in the street and dare not ask:
Do you live with a tiger? Tell me the truth: doesn’t everyone?
Isn’t Gash the name of the nation we all live in?
Isn’t it true, what they say, that all men and women are alike?
I live with a tiger and, honestly,
I don’t know
I’d make sense of life
without one now.
"tigre batekin bizi" © Harkaitz Cano. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Amaia Abantxo. All rights reserved.
If I had to choose a poem it’d be by W.H. Auden,
the one called Musée des Beaux Arts,
which mentions Pieter Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus,
where Icarus is but a tiny almost invisible figure
falling into the sea. The old masters understood suffering well,
says W.H. Auden,
how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window
or just walking dully along.
Everything turns away, walks away quite leisurely,
oblivious, practically, to the disaster.
The pain of someone’s life almost never touches someone else.
Almost no one cares for the wounds of others.
The English poem references a Flemish painting,
the Flemish painting a Greek myth and
the Greek myth who knows what: I’m by the window waiting
for Icarus to fall.
I’d get a good view from here, as the clouds float northward
soft, docile, without a care in the world.
If he falls, his wings will hit the antennae on the roofs,
there’s danger in those power lines too.
If we were to join in everyone’s suffering
life would be impossible,
but I’m waiting for Icarus and I’m gonna help,
I’ll collect the pieces of his broken wings,
and give him shelter, when he falls the way I fell,
like a chicken.
© Joseba Sarrionaindia. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Amaia Gabantxo. All rights reserved.
They told us to be careful, that men would do nasty things to us at the smallest slip-up. The saying carried the sound of sewer waters, of something dirty, and dark, like forest tracks. Despite this, we let it nestle in our mouths, to have a feel of its viscous, foreign nature.
In hallways, sprawled under weak light bulbs, the hard coldness of the floor tiles traveled up our buttocks, and we pressed our legs tight to conjure up a spark from our rosy pearl. We checked the limpets on our chests. We licked teaspoons.
Right after we would pull up our white socks and run through the streets, schoolbook satchels to the wind. Our knees were trusting doves; the ribbons in our hair, delicious bait.
And we kept silent. We let the days pass is all, waited, until the moment came to let someone touch us.
"Oroitzapen bat" © Miren Agur Meabe. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Amaia Gabantxo. All rights reserved.
It’s like a moving bud,
a five-spiked plow,
a beaten down root reinforced with claws,
a carrion bird defending life,
truly, an eagle in flight:
who watches, fearless, and waits to attack.
Impulsive like blood, brave like the spirit;
a soldier during great battles,
those that happen on sidewalks.
Everything, including life,
ends when the hands give up.
In its stubborn clasp the hand keeps
whatever time old stars have
and turns it into a burning brand
that lifts the paralyzed from the pool,
that senses in the piano’s teeth
the inner sonata we all hide.
Who is the concert’s dream for,
the cheironomia of pigeons in between the beeches?
I feel in my fingertips, like a blind man,
the workings of my soul
stealing daylight from the hours.
How not to sense
in the daily grind of our working life,
the hammering night that hovers above.
caress with your dry kisses
the features of the face,
and, in closing the others’ eyes,
in touching those delicate eyelids,
offer up the sky.
Ores from red mines,
reinvigorate the hand,
the veins that knot up in a fist.
From faraway woods darkness comes,
and five fingers like five dwarves,
work from sunup to sundown,
in the underbrush of life’s work.
And they are a comet’s tail,
tiny firmaments turned inside out;
receptacles of bloody winds;
only milk falls into them,
and they capture nothing but death
across the waves of the quotidian.
© Juan Mari Lekuona. Translation © 2017 by Amaia Gabantxo. All rights reserved.
“The proper progression of courses in a dinner is from the most substantial to the lightest.”
Though I’m happy to disregard this prescription in both life and in food, it still feels meet to invoke it here, a tutelary quote from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste. This injunction is from the book’s prefatory list of the Professor’s aphorisms. It’s become de rigueur for food writing of any seriousness to invoke Brillat-Savarin, whose most cited observation, undoubtedly, is that the discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star.
It’s a spectacular notion: larded with imprecation against the lack of curiosity so inherent in man’s daily life that he could overlook the sublime in front of his nose in favor of the distant vision of a shining cloud of gas.
The compelling curiosity about The Physiology of Taste, though, is that while it deals generously in other such lofty axioms, it is equally peppered with stuff that’s alternatingly prosaic and exasperating. To wit, the author’s excursus on the therapeutic benefit of wearing a constraining girdle, which he calls an “anti-fat belt,” whose main goal is to aid in the working of a low-fat diet by supporting the belly “at the same time that it modestly confines it.”
Bill Buford does a fine job of redeeming the wide discrepancy between the elevated and the fatuous of Brillat-Savarin when he says, in an introduction to a recent edition, about food in Brillat-Savarin’s estimation, “It is the earth. It is our family, our philosophy, our past. It is the most important matter in our lives. It is more than its ingredients. It is transcendent. Brillat understood that. But it is also just dinner.”
It’s a delight for me to introduce this issue of Words without Borders dedicated to food writing from around the world. Food fascinates me in all its aspects—the sublime, the monumental, the petty, the unpleasant. Food is made of the stuff of life—the people who make it, the people it’s made for, the customs, expectations, and significations that undergird it are the very things of culture and civilization. It may just be dinner, but oh, what a feast it can be—from the most substantial to the lightest and back again.
Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, the late, beloved Spanish writer of detective fiction, poetry, and food journalism, understood well how the trivial and the sublime work together in the enjoyment and understanding of food. In an extract from his book Robinson’s Reflections Concerning a Cod, he reimagines Robinson Crusoe as a shipwrecked gastronome, stranded on a desert island with only his pontifications and the memories of past meals to keep him company. He begins his discourse on food, memory, and salt cod with a collection of platitudes that would have made the Professor himself proud. How bitter is his fate, he laments:
Dreadful is the condition of the castaway better schooled in gastrosophy than shipwreckology. For, predisposed to survive on what lies in my reach and my acquaintance, should I long for oven-roasted oysters with zucchini, a rock lobster with fresh favas, striped bass with celery, cabbage, and vinegar, red mullet filets with oysters, even a little dish of oysters Girardet, what materials do I have to attain a legitimate result?
His predicament isn’t made evil only by his ill-victualed island larder. Any aspect of art, civilization, humor, and sybarism can only flail and wither in this place where all the elements of comfort—water, food, sun, shelter—exist only in forms hostile to his imagination. He pines for the humanness that he has lost, evoking Terence when he says, “Animus est in patinis”: my soul was in my dishes.
But one needn’t be abandoned on a lonely rock to feel bereavement at the passing away of familiar things. Prasanta Mridha creates a testament to occupations that have slowly vanished from the cities and towns of Bangladesh: the sellers of traditional sweet treats and the purveyors of homemade ghee. Once standard fixtures in the human landscape of the country, they are now only seen in fond recollection or in the rare stray figure who appears almost as if in magical contravention of the passage of years. Mridha evokes the plasticity of time, language, and memory when he recalls the sellers of delbahar and muses on the curious provenance of the name of this once-popular sweet:
The conjunction of two Persian words, dil or del and bahar, creates the word delbahar. Dil means heart, mind, soul. And bahar means beauty or splendor, or grandeur, or glitz. Another meaning of bahar is spring. Delbahar can mean the beauty of the heart. Or perhaps the splendor of the mind. Or, going a bit further, the spring of the heart.
Its meaning shifts from heart to mind to soul, skips between beauty, splendor, grandeur, and spring. It is one of the evasive virtues of a phantom that it lacks insistence: in its own absence its meaning becomes both profound and general. The delbahar sellers and their ghostly cry have escaped into the hinterland inhabited by savors, sounds, and words that have already begun to disappear from the world and thence from memory. Silence and stillness are both the enemy of memory and a route to its proper contemplation. The Korean writer Jeon Sungtae recalls in his story the time he spent in a monastery as a young man, seeking respite from the tumult of life. He initially rejects the simple, unfamiliar food at the temple. The greens, he complains, are bland, and the rice tastes of incense. But as he gets immersed in the silence of his surroundings, he comes to a realization that changes the way he looks at the simple food he’s eating and makes him review the way he sees his place at the temple:
I had never before paid so much attention to the act of eating. But I guess that’s what temples are about. Maybe they’re not where you go to listen to lofty thoughts, but rather where you go to face your own soul, which stands up taller, grows more distinct, amid the stillness.
But, as with life, food embodies opposites, and the noise and the fulsomeness of life come through nowhere so clearly as in Mariana Enriquez’s history of the checkered history of the asado, the famed Argentine pastime of grilling meat. Enriquez recalls a chilling assignment she had to endure as a young journalist. A cattle transport had tipped over outside Buenos Aires in front of one of the villas, the improvised shantytowns that had sprung up to accommodate the poor who were forced to live on the margins of the city. The road is awash in blood when she arrives, the driver is weeping. She describes a scene in which horror is shot through with celebration. The residents of the villa, long deprived of a good asado, or any reason for festivity, have raided the truck of ten of its cows, which they have butchered in the middle of the highway:
The villa’s passageways were one big party, a happy massacre. The meat was cooking on sheet metal or on grills, it was being stored in freezers, savage knives were merrily carving it up.
Though Enriquez’s memories of that day are blurred by the intensity of her experience, the rank desperation of the crowds, the frustration boiling over into violence evoke for her the surge of resentment and powerlessness that seemed to be spreading through the country at the time. Animus est in patinis, as Montalbán’s Crusoe would say.
Enriquez’s account underscores an aspect of the universality of food that is often ignored—that it serves equally as a lens into the beautiful and the sordid aspects of life and human nature. The Mauritian writer Ananda Devi concocts a stew of all these painful ingredients in “Kari Disan,” a story of family, loathing, and estrangement. The curry of the story’s title is a grotesquerie of offal—feet, heads, intestines, tripe, kidneys, blood, and brains—that was invented by the narrator’s grandmother and that her father now makes at his small restaurant for the dockworkers who haul heavy sacks of sugar all day in the blazing sun. The narrator imbues the dish with resentments about her family’s infamy for being the creators of this vile, humble workman’s food, her fury that the smell of cooking tripe never leaves her clothes, her hair. When she is finally entrusted to the task of making the dish, she attacks her assignment with cruel zeal. If this seething cauldron is all of miserable life itself, then why spare any ingredient that might go into it. She writes almost in the frenzied heat of a dream:
I came across young stags hidden in the underbrush, their skinny bodies shivering in exhaustion and fear. My eyes fixated on theirs, I attacked their gilded flanks with pure hatred. I buried my knife in their soft flesh, their bony knees, their bared, tender necks. I massacred them. There had to be nothing left that could thicken an unspeakable curry or fill a man’s belly.
Though food may fail to broker communication, this is often one of its major supposed roles. As often as food serves as a way to express loathing, it also serves as a way of conveying love and affection—as well as everything in between. In Kanako Nishi’s essay on table manners, the author scrutinizes the simple gestures involved in being at table, and how fraught they can be with meaning. Nishi admits that she herself has less than admirable table manners. “I spill food,” she says. “I talk with my mouth full, I’m the first to try to eat with my hands—my table manners are certainly nothing to brag about.” And, yet, no one person’s pet peeves are necessarily anyone else’s. And so the table becomes a stage for an unspoken and confounding palaver between people who all have some particularity in their dining comportment that is bound to drive someone else crazy: the guy who is obsessed with the proper etiquette for getting his chopsticks from his dominant hand onto their rest; the doctor who broke off his engagement with his fiancée because of the way she slurped her soba noodles; the woman who primly dabs at her mouth with her napkin. One needn’t have a burbling cauldron of organ meats to reflect inner turmoil or resentment—the simplest gestures and rituals can conceal the most fiery emotion.
These gestures written out on a large scale begin to take on the form of even more significant rituals. Whenever strangers meet—whether at the table or at border crossings—it is these customs that inform the endless rites and obstacles of assimilation, exile, and otherness. Moshe Sakal tells the story of his family’s many displacements through the food they ate and cooked along the way. His mother’s family, who lived in Cairo before arriving in Tel Aviv, were wealthy émigré tradespeople from Europe. In Egypt they cloister themselves against the influences of the Cairene table; their cooking remains unchanged by their sojourn in the country, so that when they finally arrive in Tel Aviv, penniless, their family cuisine bears little trace of its Egyptian sojourn. Sakal dwells on this tendency and weighs it against his own experience of traveling the world and eating widely. How does the amalgamated, acquisitive nature of Israeli food affect his own view on food, culture, family, and memory? He says of the food of the Israel he grew up in:
It is an ingathering of exiles, a merging of East and West, a diffusion and mutual influence between diverse cultures and locales—and also not. Israeli cuisine is a mystery, a black hole, a utopia. A no-place.
But even out of a no-place can something arise. The piece, in its wry commentary on the contradictions of Israeli food, builds something bursting with life out of those very contradictions.
And it is in a bid to bind together these contradictions that food finds one of its most daunting exercises. In the midst of the refugee crisis in Greece, displaced families struggle to make ends meet in a new and unfamiliar country. These are the precise circumstances under which most would expect the ritual niceties of cuisine and dining to be abandoned. Yet Greek cooking authority Diana Farr Louis reports from kitchens, community centers, squats, and warehouses around Athens where food plays a crucial role in bringing people together, forging a sense of belonging among the displaced, and applying a salve to battered relations between established communities and recent refugees. She partakes of the generous hospitality of men and women working hard to keep their families together with culinary tokens of the past. If every person had the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a stranger, to taste the world through their food, it would be an incredible help in easing tensions between those who long to build walls and those who struggle to build bridges. “People who eat together,” she concludes, looking back on the kindness and hospitality she has been shown, “cannot hate.”
I leave you with the opportunity to delve deeply into the world of food that this fantastic company of writers has created. I can’t account for the magic that draws me to all of them. They each furnish an ineffable pleasure that you’ll have to experience firsthand by reading the issue from one end to the next. I hope they'll leave you with a hunger for more, for the strange and quiet pleasures of all the things about food that are about more than just food. I wish you happy repast.
© 2017 Rohan Kamicheril. All rights reserved.
1 kilo goat kid’s blood, goat kid liver, lungs, and fat, goat kid ribs and bones
a full glass of oil
1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
chopped mint leaves
chopped cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon aniseed
chopped green chili
3 tablespoons garam masala
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
In a large cast-iron pot, heat the oil. Brown shallots, ginger-garlic paste, mint, and cilantro, aniseed, cumin, and turmeric. Add bones and cubed lungs, fat, and liver. Brown over high heat. Add two glasses of water. Lower the heat and simmer for an hour. Once the sauce has thickened, add coagulated kid’s blood, diced, and the green chili to the sauce. Simmer for one more hour. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the garam masala. After turning off the heat, garnish with fresh cilantro leaves. Serve hot with steamed rice, passion fruit chutney, and rhum agricole.
The sauce was so thick that, rather than flowing from the ladle, it stuck enough that it took a proper shake to be dislodged. The blood had hardened into gleaming black clots with the consistency of rubber. The bits of lung, liver, and fat gave the dish its particular texture and color. Soft, thick, hard, slippery, sour, fresh, raw, cooked: it was a journey into the shadows of flavor.
The dockworkers adored this blood curry.
They ate it up by the bowlful, sucking air through their teeth to offset the chilies’ burn and hurriedly took great gulps of rum for another kind of burn. The insides of their mouths darkened under these salvos of flavor. They sweated—I was about to say, tongue in cheek—blood and water.
When they were finished, it was like they’d run a marathon. It hadn’t been a gastronomic experience so much as an obstacle course.
This meal seeped into their blood. It instilled in them a legendary courage. By the time they’d finished eating, they’d become superheroes.
How odd that a meal assembled out of trimmings should be a dish of the gods.
I was ten years old. Up to that point, I had only the faintest idea of the dishes my father prepared. At home, he and my mother didn’t say the words “tavern” or “joint” or “hole in the wall”; they only said “the restaurant.” So I told my classmates that my father ran a restaurant. That gave some respectability to our lives, which let through water like a slotted spoon while picking up smelly dregs that perfumed our house, our clothes, even our bodies. I never went into the back room where my mother gutted and cleaned the meat and fish my father had brought back from the market. This part of the courtyard seemed like an open-air cesspit. My mother did her best to rinse it all thoroughly, but sticky residue clung stubbornly to the floor and walls. They took on the color of a stagnant pond. The smell that lingered above everything else was guts.
As long as I could escape the house to go to school or walk with friends during school vacations, I didn’t feel any urge to figure out what my mother dealt with in her kitchen, or my father in his restaurant. I washed myself off several times a day with harsh soap, sprayed on some cologne, and changed my clothes as soon as they took on the faintest smell from the kitchen.
But my shame at my father’s work was born the day a teacher, leaning over me to check my homework, sniffed loudly and declared: “Hmmph, you smell just like tripe!”
The bursts of laughter from all the kids in class still echo in my ears today. For as long as I was in school, I was known by the nickname of kari trip. And so I understood that my family was an object of contempt and a target of mockery for all the well-bred children because my father ran a tavern in one of the Port-Louis ghettos and his customers were the poorest of the poor. But that wasn’t all.
I have to explain what my father cooked: in the past, his family had been forced by near-complete destitution to eat the unwanted parts of animals, the cheapest cuts that butchers would sell them for a few sous or those their neighbors would give them instead of throwing out: feet, heads, intestines, tripe, kidneys, blood, and brains. My grandmother had to use all her culinary know-how to make something out of the unappetizing flavor and scent of this offal; she redoubled her efforts. She made her own masalas, sun-drying cilantro, cumin, anise, and mustard seeds on wicker trays before crushing them with mortar and pestle to make a paste. These spices, along with asafetida, fenugreek, turmeric, cardamom, star anise, and dozens of other aromatics, allowed her to concoct an infinite combination of sauces so she could marinate giblets for hours on end. These spices impregnated the animal matter, winning out over the harshest odors and ultimately transforming the odds and ends into tiny miracles of sweetmeats. The parents and friends who visited her delighted in savoring her blood and tripe curries.
And so, when my father decided to open his tavern, he bestowed upon it, with no small measure of irony, the rather unpalatable name Kari Disan. He knew that his clientele, mainly dockworkers or construction workers, needed heavy, rich meals to sustain them through long days of work and fortify their bellies against the swigs of rum they took without stopping. So he followed his mother’s tradition, serving the same curried meats and brain fritters and goat-foot soups. It was all served with mazavarou, that red-chili paste that burned palates and throats like a delicious acid.
I tried to distance myself from everything connected to my father’s restaurant. I washed myself and perfumed myself and left the house at dawn and only came back late at night. I made a life for myself elsewhere, a seemingly bearable life where I could actually smell extraordinary summer flowers; spend time in the rivers teeming with the mullets my father would later pan-fry, but which I let swim freely here, free to play and twist around me without any fear, sleek and free to be and live without having to please any man’s belly; dream of another existence far from the house on the Rue du Pouce and even farther from this crummy “restaurant” that barely disguised its real role as charnel house.
Alas, this freedom came to an end the year I turned ten. At the start of summer vacation, my father abruptly told me I was coming with him to help in the restaurant. I tried to protest and tell him that I had plans with my friends, that we were going to climb Pieter Both, but there was no swaying him, there never had been. Then I turned to my mother, but despite her sympathetic gaze, she didn’t take my side. “It’s time for you to help your father,” she said quietly. I was furious she couldn’t muster the courage to say no to him. It would be many years before I realized that her illness had already taken hold and that she had known it was just a matter of time until I was the only one who could help my father.
The tavern, not far from the central market, was tiny: just a narrow hallway with the kitchen at the end, separated by a plywood partition from the seating area. Some Formica-topped tables, some plastic chairs, and a bar lined with rum bottles, Phoenix beer, and that Eureka wine bottle filled with a wine that bore no connection to what was described on its label—that was the sum total of the furniture. As for the kitchen, it was a furnace where massive cauldrons sat all day atop lit burners, where the air grew thick with the miasmas of the particular cuisine my father was preparing. Plastic tubs hanging by hooks from the ceiling held scraps of meat and fish. Bundles of rice, onions, garlic, and ginger were piled up under the work surface, and other plastic bags hanging from the ceiling contained chilies and the various spices about to be drowned in bubbling oil.
Everything was carefully organized. I watched, immobile, as my father moved from one thing to the next, here taking a pinch of pepper, there a few cloves, elsewhere a handful of sliced onions, sprinkling them all in the cast-iron pot, almost without even looking. He collected the other condiments while half-listening to the rhythms around him. As the sizzling subsided into a murmur, he added the other ingredients and stirred the mixture with a large metal spoon. He was like an orchestra conductor somehow also playing all the instruments. In his soaking gray sleeveless T-shirt and jogging shorts, with his bald scalp and his heavy, hairy paunch, he wasn’t a pretty sight. But I have to admit that there was some elegance in his movements. I didn’t see it when I was ten, of course. I was too busy hating him. But later on, when I’d taken the reins, I realized that this economy of gestures, this innate grace, had allowed him to save some strength and achieve a state where everything became instinctual without any need for second-guessing, his body a perfect partner to his mind. In this mouse hole that served as kitchen, he never bumped into anything and he never burned himself. I would burn myself so many times with oil spluttering in the pans and bump against the corners of the countertops that I eventually realized he’d made his work a form of art.
I had to serve dishes. I brought out the plates to drunk dockworkers; their hulking shapes and braying laughs scared me so much that I made myself as small as I could, I set down the food and darted away immediately, unless they caught me by the collar to ask for mazavarou or another carafe of rum. I hid and watched them, dumbfounded by the sheer amount of food they crammed down their throats. They also filled five-kilo jam jars with steamed rice for their lunch. When I asked my father how they could eat so much rice, he told me their work was the kind moral men could never do. They had to carry fifty or eighty kilos on their backs, he said. All day, under the Port-Louis sun, they unloaded trucks, carried sacks to the granaries, and loaded up barges. This wasn’t work normal men could accomplish. Their bodies were their motors, they had to feed it, and rice was their fuel. I couldn’t hide my horror as I watched their muscular arms, their massive chests, their long, strong legs. I couldn’t imagine doing the work they did (I was small for my age, and sickly). They managed to laugh and have fun, but the surface of that extraordinarily smooth skin barely contained fury and revolt. My father, in his solitary dance, oiled the machine, but at the end of the night, the men leaving his hole in the wall, swaying like sailors on dry land, were ticking bombs.
When the State decided to mechanize these processes of loading and transporting sugar, all this bonhomie vanished, but that was still to come:
Fifteen and I dreamed of going far away.
Sixteen and those dreams all came crashing down.
Seventeen and we dreamed of murder.
Eighteen and we became a dormant volcano with lava boiling deep within.
My father had beat the game. My mother died after a long illness—but I know it’s because she spent all her days stewing in fear. I became his sous chef, his fellow sufferer, a symbol of all his life’s failures. We spent long hours side by side, hardly talking to one another, him giving me terse orders and me carrying them out while gritting my teeth so I wouldn’t bite his head off. This sticky proximity only increased my certainty that he’d sentenced me for life. Imagine a place that assaults all your senses, where your skin burns, your ears ring, your nostrils twitch, your lips tremble, and your eyes dart everywhere. No gentleness, no freshness, no beauty. You’re drained empty, you want to go numb, you want your senses to disconnect, your nerves to melt, your sensory organs to fall apart simultaneously.
But, day after day, your body resists; you survive so that, the next day, the torture goes on. All your spirit’s fortifications are breached by these deleterious odors. I spent these long hours of work traveling. To what dark countries, through what terrifying chasms, I couldn’t have said. What filled my thoughts was a teeming universe of violence. My body sticky with sweat, my cheeks aflame, I imagined myself climbing battered landscapes full of strange trees, my only weapon a saber. I wanted to slay every creature that crossed my path—animal and human alike. I gave no quarter to anybody. I was a hunter, a marauder borne by white-hot rage. As I chopped, minced, sliced, and stirred, I made my way through this ruined land in search of victims. I came across young stags hidden in the underbrush, their skinny bodies shivering in exhaustion and fear. My eyes fixated on theirs, I attacked their gilded flanks with pure hatred. I buried my knife in their soft flesh, their bony knees, their bared, tender necks. I massacred them. There had to be nothing left that could thicken an unspeakable curry or fill a man’s belly. Their deaths were as pure as my hatred. To die so as not to suffer the ignominy of being chewed, swallowed, digested, and excreted in foul heaps—all that we do to these magnificent beasts.
I was not vegetarian. I kept on eating normally, not my father’s curries but more typical dishes. Rolls with Plume Rouge butter and Kraft cheese were my favorite meal. I didn't know why my father’s cuisine was such an unbearable debasement of animals. Heads, feet, tongues, tripe, hearts, brains? Did we need to use every part of them? Couldn’t we let them undergo the normal process of decomposition, rather than turning them into shit?
I know there’s no use trying to make sense of it. I was just living in the same terror my father had. A horrible fear that I might, in turn, become a pitiful pawn.
So I massacred these animals I’d have saved otherwise.
So I trod through my landscape of shifting sands and midnight-dark shadows. A hunter with a saber running on long, slender legs like those of the animals he was hunting. This dangerous evasion allowed me to believe that some nobility remained in my body, even as my busy hands sliced, carved, minced, trimmed, and divided.
I held a kid goat’s head over open flames to burn away the hairs, and, as I inhaled the charnel smell of burned hair, I leaned away so I wouldn’t remember and especially recognize that that thing I had been handling had once been a living creature and imagine that these eyes had once, wholly new to life, opened between its mother’s hooves. The hairs crackled momentarily over the blazing fire before burning away. I turned the entire head in my hands, efficiently, to expose each side to the flame. When the narrow snout was pointed at me, I looked away to avoid its gaze. The bones were so small, but so solid, so hard. And I would shatter them in just a minute with a cleaver. I’d open it like an egg and carefully extricate the brain so as not to damage it. I’d hold it as a hard-won offering to my father, who would cook it with scrambled eggs; it would be fried into a fritter with tomatoes, onions, and chilies before being coated in beaten egg yolk and some flour.
The shattered head would lend its flavor to the red broth gleaming with moulouktani spices.
At night, I’d dream of that kid goat’s eyes gazing sternly at me. Its hoof raised up to crack my skull. What does a human’s brain smell like, it asked, with all the cruelty it holds?
My father did it on purpose. He’d found a way to torture me through food. He’d ruined any love and even desire I might have had for anything beyond the blandest kind of food. I’d come to actually like those horrible poutous made with ration rice and rancid coconuts that the old women at the market made; it filled me with a sort of moldiness infinitely tastier than my father’s heavily spiced earthquakes. The tavern was the nexus of my devastation. A place where physical and mental wounds no longer carried any weight. My hands took on a cartography of scars. My arms and legs, a constellation of burns. My skin didn’t scar over easily, so these marks stayed visible, paler than my untouched skin, with odd shapes that were sometimes circular, sometimes oblong, sometimes jagged as if I had been bitten, mangled, and murdered by a wild beast. Which I had; the wild beast was my father.
When we came back home after sundown, nothing human was left of us. We were ghosts climbing the empty streets of Port-Louis, dead souls the infrequent passersby shielded themselves against by crossing themselves or clutching their tabeez, savage-looking wolves that remained undaunted, because we’d spent the whole day kneading the raw matter of nightmares.
In the house, we each went our own way: me to the shower with my bar of caustic-soda soap, scrubbing and scouring my body to erase my father’s smells; he to his bed with a bottle of rum he’d nearly finish before falling asleep.
Under the hot water, I only heard one sentence: “You smell like tripe.” I’d never forgotten it. Like an echo, when I got out of the shower, I heard my father saying: “Tomorrow we’ll make tripe curry.” I went into his room.
“Did you hear me?” he asked.
I nodded. Washing intestines is one of the jobs I hate the most. I’ll have to get going at sunup and spend more than an hour scraping every hint of shit off these crappy tripe. I’ll have to . . .
My father was asleep already. In his heavy belly, meters on meters of intestines twist and gurgle with all the food he’s gulped down that day. When he eats tripe tomorrow, he’ll feed his guts with guts. And he’ll force me to reek, once again, of tripe.
Food is how I’ll get my revenge. One day, I suggest that he let me prepare some dishes. He irritatedly gives his OK, convinced our customers won’t eat my grub and will just clamor for his. There’s no end to his one-upmanship.
I start by making the same dishes he does, but with a few subtle changes. It’s as good a way as any to destroy him. To make myself visible. To claim the place he’s staked out with his belly and his bulk.
A pinch of sugar or fenugreek, some sprigs of wild thyme, some bits of turmeric for a burst of yellow, one vanilla bean in a salty dish or bits of chili in the stronger, more savory ones: any of those can alter a plate and set guests down an unexpected path. It occurs to me to add rum to the base of a sauce, and even if guests don’t notice it, it’s a perverse, addictive addition that leads them to beg for more. Little by little, I perfect my concoctions and ensnare my clientele: the orders increase. I marinate whole chickens’ feet overnight in Rodrigues honey, molasses, coarse salt, vinegar, and chilies, and I fry them until they’re perfectly crunchy, sugary, bitter, and tart all at once. I slice up kid-goat kidneys and sear them lightly as I can, so their raw flavor and supple texture comes through with every bite. Each dish has a fragrance redolent of meat, so rich and tempting that my guests’ mouths start watering immediately.
I start to take on those dancer’s motions my father always had. I notice how the spices call to me, how they’re the ones to dictate the sequence, the amount, the proportions, so I don’t have to reflect, it’s already been decided even before my hand reaches to them.
My father eats my meals with a grudging appetite: he never compliments me, but he no longer criticizes me. I notice how he starts eating more and more, double and then three times what he did before. And he gets heavier. Heavier and heavier, he can’t stop eating and he can’t stop getting heavier. Soon he’s so fat that he can’t even get into the kitchen. He stays put in the other room, yelling out orders I ignore, acting like he’s still the chef. He hasn’t been for ages. It’s my food the dockworkers are now coming to eat. I’m the one who’s become their hero and not the fat sack sitting beside them and acting just like any other customer, eating, no, devouring whatever I set before him.
I’ve studied animal entrails so thoroughly that I know exactly what’s happening at this specific moment in my father’s body: the thick layer of yellowish fat has been growing little by little around his organs like a starving parasite. His artery walls are thickening and slowing his blood’s circulation. There’s a gradual increase in arterial tension. He’s losing the ability to metabolize sugars. His liver is hardening. All his vital functions are diminishing, progressively, so insidiously that he doesn’t even realize it; he goes on eating and drinking like before, even more than before, while I’m slowly killing him.
I dream one night of him falling down and exploding, like a stranded seal, revealing his organs swollen with fat.
My solitude is perfect. I don’t have any friends. My mother is dead. There’s just that beast watching me, so certain of his power over me, who doesn’t even realize that I’ve become the hunter and he the hunted.
One morning, I know I’m ready. Without saying a word, I head straight to the kitchen and wake it up with the clanging of pans and timbale molds. My knife works relentlessly: I’m preparing a dish against my father. I want to give a face, a texture to my disgust. A thick, practically solid soup, where hooves and lungs, halved kidneys and hearts, bone marrow, tongues, sweetbreads, and fat all float, accompanied with fingers of fried bitter margoze, sprinkled with asafetida and a vinegary tamarind satini. The gelatin made from the hooves will give this mixture a gluey appearance. The halved kidneys will be dead butterflies swimming on the surface. It’ll feel like glue and gristle in the mouth, sharp and cartilaginous. Will it even be possible to eat it? Yes, that’s the trick. No matter how revolting it might be, each mouthful will arouse a hunger for another. Much later, I’ll learn the laws of organoleptics. I’ll discover umami, that mysterious fifth taste known to the Japanese and found in glutamic acid, within the most unexpected ingredients. But that day, in the tavern, I’m only following my instinct: death and survival, rebellion and submission. I haven’t yet figured out how cuisine can be a mirror to our emotions. Not just the best ones, but all of them, the worst included. By distilling the bile of rancor, it’s possible to transform nourishment into poison.
The whole day, my soup burbles under low heat. The trimmings simmer slowly, their fibers loosening one by one, their muscles falling apart so they practically melt in the mouth. No need for knife or fork with this soup. Just a spoon to absorb this miracle of flavorful cholesterol.
I don’t worry about the customers, because their manual labor turns all food into sheer energy. It’s clear that only one eater will be unable to survive such a dish.
That night, the diners scowl at the anti-father soup. As they behold this dense, gelatinous, grayish soup, with such an acrid smell, they get furious, shout at my father, hurl insults and curses at me. It doesn’t affect me. I tell them to try it. They do. After a few spoonfuls, they stop whining. A somewhat religious silence falls over the space. I hear them coming to terms with this novelty. They chew on the cartilage, they suck out the marrow, they slurp up the thick broth, they listen as it dribbles down to their stomach and, between their eyes insisting the soup is inedible and their tongues declaring its deliciousness, they struggle with those contradictions. And so they digest in silence.
Standing at the kitchen door, I watch them with a smile. They eat. They’re wary, but something in this horrid meal satisfied a deep-seated desire. Not of these bombastic rages that blaze forth when they’re drunk, but something more insidious, steeping and suppurating in their bellies as they go on eating. They ask for more. They’re insatiable. More hoof soup, they beg, with a bit of shame, as if they knew it’s much more than that, as if they understood that my concoction so unlike anything they’d ever had was dangerous and would take them places they had never been before.
The next day Port-Louis was beset by a strike that paralyzed the entire country. Was it because of my soup? I can’t say. I had other aims.
The whole night, I kept on watching and feeding the soup. The hearts, still bloody, sank straight to the bottom; the kidneys released their ammoniacal flavors, the fat gave the entire kettle a gleaming coating.
The dockyard workers had gone.
Only one diner remained.
“More,” he called out. “More.”
From L’ambassadeur triste (Paris: Gallimard, 2015). © 2015 Gallimard. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Jeffrey Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
The Argentine national food is the asado. I won’t go on about its mystery and metaphors, because that tends to be mere decoration, sometimes exaggerated, other times just rubbernecking. Really, it’s a simple custom. You cook meat on a parrilla (grill), or on a disc, or even stuck onto metal spears if the asado is out in the open. In Argentina, we eat the whole cow. Its intestines, which we call chinchulines. Its glands, or sweetbreads, which we call mollejas and are exorbitantly priced, a delicacy for special events or fancy restaurants. Its kidneys, which need a little lemon to mask a bitter taste that I wouldn’t recommend thinking too much about. Its blood, in the form of morcilla sausage: a Spanish custom. A mishmash of all the rest, maybe even the eyes, go into chorizo sausages. The popular way to eat those is the choripán (chorizo on bread), a street-food sandwich that can be eaten anytime, but especially after a difficult task, or on an afternoon by the river, or during a soccer game, or a political protest—in Argentina these happen almost daily and they tend to be long: eating is key, and choripán is cheap.
Cuts of meat have their own names, often very graphic, and only some are typical in English. A sample might translate as: rump, flap meat, rib, strip, entrails (skirt steak), rump tail, oxtail, large intestine, udder. Treatises are written about how to achieve the perfect asado, and the country often participates in international competitions. Off they go, asadores dressed like gauchos in baggy trousers and black caps, and they always come back losers. The most recent World Barbecue Championship was held in Gothenburg, Sweden, and it was a tragedy: the Argentine team came in last, and to make matters worse, the British team won. Keep in mind that Argentina and England went to war in 1982 over who owned the Malvinas Islands. It was a cruel war, instigated by our dictator and by Margaret Thatcher. All the Argentine soldiers were new recruits, generally from very poor families and terribly young: in the infantry, few were older than twenty. The British soldiers were all professionals, and grown men. Some Argentines have no love for the British—in the abstract, of course, except for the palpable resentment of the ex-combatants and their families. And some British, very few, tend to do stupid, drunken things like setting an Argentine flag on fire while they’re vacationing in Patagonia. Now that will expose them to the risk of public lynching, but they’re usually lucky enough to just end up at a police station. In sum: if coming in last is bad, the British winning first is an absolute public shame.
Later, we found out that the fault lay with the Swedes: according to their rules, the meat had to be cooked for ten hours and the sauce—the only one allowed—had to be barbecue. We never use barbecue sauce. We use chimichurri (parsley, oregano, garlic, onion, pepper, vinegar, and oil) or salsa criollo (red bell pepper, tomato, onion, olive oil). Barbecue sauce is for gringos. And so, while last place was an embarrassment as is any affront to our carnivorous pride, the true ignorance lay with the northern Europeans, who have to disguise their inferior meat with a strong sauce (our condiments are added to taste, individually and in small quantities).
The British win took up hours of TV, made newspaper headlines, and was heatedly discussed in taxis. There were several women on the Argentine asado team, an inclusion that some found disconcerting. Because the asado is men's business. That’s the time-honored country tradition and it’s the same way now, at every asado—neighborhood gatherings, street-corner barbecues, professional asados and those held on summer terraces. The man tends the meat but eats very little, because the different cuts have varying cooking times and he has to serve them in batches. He sweats beside the grill, monitors the charcoal or the wood, calculates the amount of meat necessary to fill up all the diners. He’s always on his feet except at the end, once everyone has eaten and is smoking and relaxing. The asador is a complex discussion in terms of gender roles. Yes: women should tend the asado just as men do, and the esoteric knowledge of the grill is a form of power. But in the act of the asado, the male takes on the more traditionally feminine role: the one who cooks, who pleases, who serves, the one who receives a symbolic reward (he’s applauded at the end, if the meat was to everyone's liking), while the women wait, seated, knives in hand, like lords. In many cases they don’t even make the salad. It’s not very pleasant standing there beside the flames in the sweltering summer, just to reaffirm some macho who-knows-what. At the same time, it’s a world that must be entered, because nothing should be exclusive.
I don’t know any female asadoras. Or only one, really, but she has an electric parrilla, which is a synonym for inexperience and for horror. . . .
I’ve eaten so many asados, more than I could count. I’ve seen some tragic ones—burned meat, bickering couples—and others that were delicious, or forgettable, or overcrowded. But only one could really be called indelible.
I’ve worked as a journalist since I was twenty-one years old. One of my first jobs, an assignment from the newspaper I work for now, was to cover an accident involving a cargo truck that had been headed south carrying live cows, I suspect toward a slaughterhouse. It was 1997, I think—and I say “I think” because the article isn’t digitized, I didn’t save it, and looking for it in the newspaper’s archives is a task that exceeds my tolerance for bureaucracy. That year, there were already portents of the crisis that would fully explode in 2001: unemployment, anomie, an extraordinary rise in the number of people living in the street or in precarious housing. In Argentina there have been villas (shantytowns or slums) for eighty years, but those down-and-out neighborhoods really spread in the ’90s. That was when Carlos Menem imposed his corrupt neoliberalism, after the hyperinflation under Raúl Alfonsin, whose ethical administration was fundamental in recovering democracy after the dictatorship in 1976–83 but was disastrous when it came to economic policy. Among other disasters, hyperinflation reached 1000 percent annually.
The truck full of cows, most of which died on impact, had crashed south of Buenos Aires in the city of Quilmes. It’s one of the most populous and intense areas of what we call the Conurbano, or greater Buenos Aires. Quilmes is socially diverse, but the poor people who live close to the Río de la Plata do so in very adverse and unstable conditions: back then their houses, which they had built themselves on land that was government-owned and in a flood zone, weren’t even made of brick; most people had used wood or even cardboard. The news that spurred the paper to send me to cover the accident was that the people of the surrounding slums had butchered the animals and brought pieces of them—sometimes an entire animal—to their houses, and were grilling them up. I remember it was hot. I remember the driver who brought me to Quilmes spent the whole time complaining. I decided to ignore him with the help of earphones. The photographer rode in silence as well: we barely knew each other. When we arrived the police were there, and the truck driver—who was crying—and the street, the only paved one in the area, was covered in cow’s blood and feces. The smell was unbearable. The blood that flowed down the gently sloping road, the furious midday sun, the abandoned cow heads with their staring eyes: it was biblical. I had a little notebook with me; I should have saved it, but I didn’t. I don’t know what I wrote down. From the villa along the road wafted the delicious smell of cooking meat. The blue sky was painted with smoke, and I could hear children laughing. The photographer was frantic; he made children pose beside the heads of dead cows, he slid in the blood, took pictures of the animals that were still in the truck—because not all of them had been dragged off to the houses. They were heavy. The driver was terrified: he’d tried to defend his cargo, he said, but people had pulled guns on him. He was also shouting brutal, racist slurs. He had nothing but contempt for those people who, meters away, were throwing a banquet. I didn’t dare go into the villa alone, but the photographer—Martín—took me by the hand and said: “I’ll talk to them.” I watched from a distance as he negotiated with a potbellied man. With a movement of his hand, he ushered us in. The villa’s passageways were one big party, a happy massacre. The meat was cooking on sheet metal or on grills, it was being stored in freezers, savage knives were merrily carving it up. Martín worked a little, and I interviewed a young woman who explained what had happened: the truck turned over, and the cows, she said, were already dead or very unconscious, and several groups of people, men and women, had butchered them in the road. They took around ten animals from the truck. What they couldn’t eat, they stored in their freezers—the neighborhood was illegally connected to a nearby electricity post.
“You know how long it’s been since we’ve eaten a good asadito around here?” she said.
And then she invited me to eat with her family. I said no, mainly because I had to go back to the newspaper to write the story. Martín stayed: I don’t remember what he said about it later when he returned to the editorial office. I think he had a good time.
My story about the cow butchering, which in a way anticipated the social crisis that would erupt in a few years, was published without a byline: I had just started working and hadn’t been paying my dues long enough for an article to carry my name. I remember that the photo, in black and white, didn’t in any way convey that red, blue, and gray afternoon. Nor did it transmit in the slightest the barbarity, the joy, the death, the smell of blood and shit, the shaken air in the moments after the upset, the knives sinking into hide, the crunch of ribs, the moribund moos of the besieged animals.
One of the earliest short stories in Argentine history is El Matadero (The Slaughteryard), by Esteban Echeverría, written between 1838 and 1840. It takes on the brutality of president Juan Manuel de Rosas’s government, and it culminates with the horrible assassination of a political resister. The action takes place in a slaughterhouse in the south of the city. Echeverría describes it this way:
The flayed bodies of forty-nine cattle were hanging over their hides, and some two hundred people tracked through that muddy floor spattered with the blood that poured from their arteries. Around each beast stood a group of human figures of various skin colors and races. The most prominent member of each group was the butcher, knife in hand, naked arm and chest, long, unkempt hair, shirt and chiripá and face smeared with blood.
A rough simplification for those who haven’t read this classic text of Argentine literature: it’s a political tale in which the butcher’s brutality is equated with the government’s persecutions and crimes. Echeverría opposed Rosas. I won’t go into the details of this story because not even I, who studied it—in school and because I wanted to—can understand them entirely. But I will say that the asado and political violence are linked in Argentina. During the dictatorship of 1976–1983, the most ruthless of many my country has suffered, the torture table was called the “parrilla.” Interrogators laid prisoners out, poured water over them, and applied an electric prod—a device that looks like a microphone and emits electric shocks. In 2013, some government functionaries of the Human Rights office held an asado in the ex-ESMA. The ESMA was the Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics, an enormous property in the city of Buenos Aires that had been used as a concentration camp. Very few people who were held at ESMA survived. The place had a maternity ward for pregnant detainees, and in most cases those children were stolen and “adopted” (i.e., appropriated) by families close to the military officers in government. Many detainees were thrown from planes into the river close by. They were thrown out alive: the military thought that was a more merciful death. Others were murdered in the most diverse ways. Now the ESMA is a cultural center and memorial; the Ministry of Education’s TV channel is also housed there. In sum: in 2013, some functionaries organized an open-air asado. The attendees included a representative who was born there in the ESMA concentration camp, who’d been stolen, and had recovered his identity thanks to a search carried out by human rights organizations. The whole thing was a scandal. The representative said that ESMA should be a space of joy and needed to be redefined. Some human rights leaders considered it a “trivialization,” and declared it was “like baking pastries in the Auschwitz ovens.” They considered it a “sacrilege.” That the torture device was called a “parrilla” had something to do with it, of course. Also that in the jargon of that particular concentration camp, “having an asado” referred to the act of cremating a disappeared detainee to get rid of the body. I’m often asked if Argentine writers see themselves as obligated to write about the dictatorship and political violence. I don’t think so. But the truth is that reality offers plots, scenes, and metaphors that refer back to those years all the time, every day.
If I focus on the asado, it’s because the Argentine diet isn’t very diverse. After meat, favorite dishes include pizza, pasta, milanesas (fried, breaded meat) and empanadas (pastry dough filled with meat or chicken or vegetables). We can add baked chicken or chicken and rice. And pastel de papas, a kind of potato casserole. There’s not much more. The Argentine palate is strongly influenced by Italian immigration, and it mysteriously excludes the delicacies of Spanish cuisine. It’s an almost infantile palate. Over the past fifteen years, the gourmet boom that is already established in the rest of the world has made inroads in Buenos Aires, but certain things don’t change. I grew up with several tried-and-true bromides; for example, that French food is disgusting. “They eat orange duck,” repeated my parents and neighbors, and they said it as a demonstration of the absurd, like finding a sewing machine and an umbrella together on the dissection table—two things that could never coexist, much less be eaten together. Throughout my childhood, “sweet-n-sour” was a synonym for the extravagant, and also the inedible. Argentina is a country of immigrants, and its migratory laws are very generous. But it’s also a subtly discriminatory country. Not in its laws, quite the opposite: in attitude. The large Syrian-Lebanese, Japanese, Jewish, and Eastern European communities have never been given the chance to add their cuisines to our National Identity. I had no idea what the Japanese ate until recently. Many Japanese I know, for example, hate fish. Decades ago, of course, assimilation forced them to accept the minimal local offering. I first had hummus fifteen years ago, I think. Long after the first shawarma stands started to appear on the street. The same is true for sushi, which in any case is roundly rejected, because the idea of eating “raw fish” is unacceptable for a large portion of the population.
Not as unacceptable, of course, as the idea of eating something “spicy.” Finding spices in Buenos Aires, even today, involves a lot of investigation. Most of them, luckily, can be found in Chinatown. Chinese restaurants and the few spots in the city offering food from Southeast Asia greatly alter their dishes to adapt to the unadventurous porteño palate. The waiters always bring the spicy condiments separately. They don’t care if you tell them: “Please, I like it to burn.” They don’t believe you. They’ve had too many bad experiences.
I remember one gathering in particular, a small party I attended some years ago, maybe a decade. One of the guests, an upper-middle-class girl, derisively told a story about how a boy had invited her to have dinner at a Peruvian restaurant. “Imagine! Peruvian!” she said, and when she said “Peruvian” she wasn’t implying what we all know: that it’s one of the most extraordinary cuisines in the world. Rather, as she saw it, our Latin American neighbors could only own dreary restaurants, and of course could never possess an interesting cuisine worthy of exploring. That is the ignorance of discrimination: a girl educated at the most expensive schools in Buenos Aires who doesn’t know what any schlub could tell her: You’ll never eat better than in Peru, silly girl.
The Koreans settled thirty years ago in the south of the city, near my house. Koreatown is a somewhat dangerous place that often has problems with crime, but luckily its extraordinary restaurants close very early, before night falls—oh, in Argentina you usually eat around 10 p.m.—and it’s possible to eat in peace. In general the patrons are Koreans, plus a few foreigners who’ve been informed of this treasure’s existence. In many of the restaurants, if an Argentine comes calling they’re told “no, no.” Or they’re only admitted if they’re accompanied by another Korean. It’s not that the restaurant-owners are xenophobic: they’ve just had to fight too many times with Argentines who screamed like they were suffering industrial burns when their delicate tongues touched kimchi, with Argentines who don’t understand that they have to cook the food themselves at the table, with Argentines who ask for the pork to be served “less spicy.”
My cat’s veterinarian lives a block away from the Korean neighborhood. His own cat likes to roam, and one cold night he climbed into the body of a Korean neighbor’s car, between the wheel and the carriage near the motor: it must have seemed like a warm refuge. When the neighbor started his car in the morning to go to work, the wheel injured the cat; he ran yowling out of his hiding place with a wounded leg. The neighbor recognized the animal and ran to bring it to its owner’s house.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” he cried. “It was an accident! I wasn’t going to eat him!”
The veterinarian, when he told me this anecdote, said: “I felt guilty. I don’t think that about him or his community. But other people do. Shame on us that they know a lot of people think they steal pets to eat them.”
Shame on us. And more shame that the neighbors don’t visit their restaurants and their lovingly served buffets.
There are many people, in the atom-based world and on social media, who complain about foods they call weird. In some cases they’re reacting to dishes with snobbish names or hipster presentations or other silly excesses. But mostly it’s a purely conservative reaction, nothing more. They complain as if the country were overwhelmed with molecular cooking and Michelin stars, when in fact, the appearance of restaurants with nontraditional cuisines is very, very recent. At the same time, there are many closed-door restaurants, street fairs, and food trucks; there’s a surge in the appreciation of food from the provinces, and every week there’s a new place serving food from Taiwan, Croatia, Cameroon, Colombia, and Mexico. Caribbean arepas are in fashion now. Hopefully it will continue, hopefully there is finally a real and accessible alternative to muzarella pizza. It’s said that change provokes anxiety in Argentines, because they’ve been forced to suffer so many changes involuntarily—shifts in the economic, political, financial, and social rules—that anything new is viewed with apprehension and opprobrium. There are few areas where this anxiety can be seen more clearly than with food.
© Mariana Enríquez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Megan McDowell. All rights reserved.
Let’s see. I grew up in Tel Aviv, in a neighborhood where almost everyone was Ashkenazi. I remember a literature teacher at school who claimed that mothers in fiction control their children through food. And indeed, my childhood friend’s Polish-Jewish mother used to say: “If they want to eat—they’ll eat. If they don’t want to eat—they’ll also eat.” Another neighborhood mother would fling open the window and yell in a terrifying voice: “Shaulik, come home! Your omelet is on the table!”
But I had to make do without a Polish mother. Sometimes I wanted one—the kind of mother who would run after me with a sweater and an umbrella, chase me down the street with calf’s foot jelly or tzimmes or gefilte fish, who wouldn’t let me leave the table until I emptied my plate, who would cover the new living room furniture with plastic sheeting, and who would say to my brother’s new Indian girlfriend: “Why do you wear black? You’re black as it is.” I wanted that kind of mother, but I didn’t have one.
My mother was born in Tel Aviv, where her parents had immigrated from Egypt. In Cairo, the family had wholly rejected their Egyptian surroundings, existing in their own little world in that Middle Eastern city. Their mother tongue was French, not Arabic, and they viewed themselves as European. They were well-off tradespeople who lived in sizeable houses and employed local servants in both their city and country homes. They’d been born and raised in Egypt but they lived their lives there in exile. In denial. And so when they arrived in Israel, penniless (having left virtually all their belongings behind), they did not cook any Egyptian dishes: not molokhiya (a thick soup of cooked leaves from the plant known as “Jew’s mallow”), not taamiya (falafel made of fava beans), not a single one of the dishes I tasted in that dizzying city when I visited a few years ago on a belated roots journey, months before the revolution. No. They maintained their total estrangement.
There was, though, one crack in the wall between the Cairo life and the Israeli life of that side of my family: dessert. Each of the aunts had her own uniquely Egyptian confection. Grandma Judith baked konafa, Aunt Léoni was in charge of the riz au lait, Aunt Yvonne provided the basboussa, and Aunt Camille prepared orange knafeh with roasted pistachios. It was their fetish. Their little deviancy.
I can’t say what Grandma Judith ate during her sixty-five years in Israel after arriving from Cairo. What I mean is, I do not remember a single main dish she ever served at lunch or dinner. In the mornings it was toast with cottage cheese and mayonnaise, or a homemade spread of raw tahini mixed with honey. Every evening she took a spoonful of prune-spread to ward off constipation. And she was addicted to the plain cookies known as petit beurre (literally: “little butter”), which despite their name were in fact one hundred percent dairy-free in their Israeli iteration. In other words: butter cookies without butter. And that, perhaps, defines Grandma’s Tel Aviv existence in a nutshell.
II. Just a Hard-boiled Egg and a Glass of Water
The Syrian side of my family was a whole different story. My father’s parents were born and raised in Damascus, pure locals who had no desire to leave their homeland. Their wealth came from a few butcher shops owned by my Granny Ora’s family. Granny used to tell me about her grandfather, who at age seventy was widowed and remarried a twenty-year-old woman: “When I die,” he promised her, “you will get a thousand gold coins.” But he lived to be a hundred, and to his very last day he rode a horse and managed the family business.
Granny Ora told me about the slaughterhouses. She told me about the poor young men employed as "sheep inflaters," whose job was to pierce a hole in the slaughtered sheep’s leg and then inflate it, which made it easier to strip the wool. Ora herself stopped eating animals as a young girl, at a time when vegetarianism was practically unheard of. When she went to a restaurant with Grandfather, she would order “just a hard-boiled egg and a glass of water.”
When I think about it now, perhaps her forbearance had nothing to do with the vegetarianism. Perhaps those stories I always heard about Granny Ora, and how even when she sat on the Champs-Élysées with Grandfather years later she ordered “an egg and a glass of water,” are related more to her experience as an immigrant in Israel’s early years of statehood. In retrospect, she expressed all the anger and frustration over the alienation she felt in her adopted homeland through avoidance: of food, of human society, of life itself.
Nevertheless, Granny Ora was a wonderful Syrian cook. She made us kousa mahshi—zucchini stuffed with rice and meat; medias—eggplant with yogurt sauce; riz wa’hamoud—rice and potatoes in a tart gravy, served cold with celery; ma’ude—a casserole of meat and potatoes cooked for a whole day and night, like a Syrian cholent; and of course, kibbeh.
Today I think back on her fried kibbeh as a festive dish, but the truth is that it was considered simple food, something you ate on late Saturday mornings after coming home from synagogue. Here are the instructions for eating Granny Ora’s kibbeh: first, lop off the tip and scoop out the filling (ground meat and pine nuts) into a dish. Next, fill the emptied out kibbeh with tahini, vegetable salad, and said meat and pine nuts. Only then, take a bite.
Granny worshipped fried foods. She did bake and steam things, too, but her oft-repeated motto, a sort of eternal truth that she liked to proclaim with a sly smile, was: “Fried? How could it not be delicious!”
For dessert she made us crunchy ma’amul cookies filled with walnuts or dates, and halawat nesha—a starchy pudding topped with crushed nuts and cinnamon. In her old age, she had a live-in Filipina caregiver who prepared food under her watchful eye. The result was a peculiar combination of Filipino and Israeli cuisines, with a touch of the Damascene.
Granny died only two years ago, well into her late eighties. At first it seemed that all the Syrian dishes she used to cook for us had followed her to the grave. And not that the family hadn’t tried to learn them—quite the opposite. But Granny had completely confounded her daughters and daughters-in-law and granddaughters with her methods. Or perhaps it wasn’t the methods—for with these she was actually quite generous and fairly clear—but the quantities. Granny was reluctant to say how much of each ingredient went into a dish. When the relatives pressured, pleaded and even threatened, she would just flash her knowing smile and say dismissively: “What’s the problem? You put a little of this, a little of that, a little of this.”
But there was a flaw in Granny’s plan: her late-age child, my father, had spent his childhood perched on the kitchen counter while she cooked, and he saw everything. Dad revealed the secrets to Mom, and now at our holiday dinners we have a Syrian feast on the table, with dishes prepared by my parents in somewhat scaled-back magnitude. So something of the Syrian glory remains after all, despite Granny Ora’s best intentions.
III. One Hundred Hamburgers
Growing up in Tel Aviv, my mother fed us what might be termed "Israeli cuisine." But what is that? All and nothing. Both an amalgamation and a negation of everything, much like Israeli society itself. It contains testimony, it contains aromas and memories from other places and times, yet it is not all these things. It is an ingathering of exiles, a merging of East and West, a diffusion and mutual influence between diverse cultures and locales—and also not. Israeli cuisine is a mystery, a black hole, a utopia. A no-place.
We ate rice, pasta, chicken. We loved schnitzel. Sometimes we were allowed to get hamburgers at the local Burgeranch (a homegrown version of American fast-food burger joints) and later at McDonald’s, which opened its first Israeli branch when I was a teenager. At age twelve I won an outlandish prize for correctly answering a magazine’s trivia quiz: one hundred free hamburger vouchers for Burgeranch. At my local branch they seemed unaware of my big win, but after the bureaucracies were sorted out, I spent the next few months eating my way through the prize—sometimes with friends or family, sometimes alone. The employees soon got to know me, and we came to an arrangement whereby I could trade in two vouchers for fries and a "Bomba" (Israel’s answer to the Big Mac), or three vouchers for two burgers and a soft-serve ice cream, and so forth.
That was the summer when the stomachaches began. I was tormented with pain. My parents took me to the doctor, who sent me to specialists. What didn’t they put me through? They gave me inhalation and exhalation tests, made me swallow disgusting liquids so they could examine the organisms inside me. They shoved tubes into me and numbed me with sedatives. Those doctors dug deeper and deeper into a body that had only just begun to grow into a man's. Finally, they decreed: there’s nothing wrong. But my stomach still hurt—it hurt badly. Mom took me to a renowned professor of gastroenterology, who diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome. “What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?” he asked me at our consultation, and I told him: “I drink a glass of chocolate milk.” “Well,” he said, “don’t.”
I was declared lactose intolerant. No one had heard of lactose intolerance in those days in Israel, and since there were hardly any vegans around either (I had heard distant rumors of their existence, like a bizarre cult), it was difficult for me to adopt the doctor’s dietary recommendations.
Mom was busy with a career shift at the time. She was retraining as an insurance agent, which was considered a serious, stable occupation, and she left home early every morning and was gone all day. I was the oldest child. I had a sister and a brother a few years younger than me, and another brother who was just a tot. My parents hired a nanny whom we all called Mocha. Mocha was Yemenite, and she was a colorful character. She took pity on our tender digestive systems—we Syrian-Egyptians who had grown up in an Ashkenazi neighborhood—and did not cook Yemenite food for us. She tried once, and my lips burned for a whole day. No. Mocha served us "Israeli" food: pasta, schnitzel, chicken or beef burgers, and of course ptitim—toasted grain-shaped pasta that is a long-standing comfort food for Israeli kids, though now served by gourmet chefs in the West as "Israeli couscous." Mocha chopped vegetables into tiny dice for salad. And she was fanatical about our lunches. By the time my little brother was a teenager, Mocha had been released from all her household duties except cooking. And she then began to supervise our meals even more sternly. All of us children had to come straight home from school and sit down for lunch, while Mocha, wearing an apron, prodded us to eat more and more salad. She reacted with horror if I tried to add cottage cheese to my meal: she kept kosher, and got angry when I failed to observe the required number of hours that must pass between eating meat and dairy.
One day I informed Mocha that I would be having lunch at a friend’s house. I was eighteen. When I came home, Mocha threw a jealous fit. She wanted to know exactly what they’d served, interrogating me on the details of each and every dish. “And salad? Did they have salad?” she asked suspiciously. When I confessed they hadn’t, she grinned. I never dared miss lunch again.
But there was something else. In those days of spiraling self-hatred, I often sat at the dinner table for hours without taking a single bite. I would stare at my plate piled high with food the way one might glare at an adversary. I thought I was too thin, I hated my body, my wrists were spindly, my Adam’s apple—testament to my masculinity—stuck out like a turkey’s neck. But though I hated my thinness, I refused to eat. I had shed my happy childhood and left its slough behind me. My youth was difficult, with little comfort or love from outside. And I ate practically nothing.
IV. Salon International de l’Agriculture
At twenty-two, I left Tel Aviv for Paris. I lived with a friend from school in the attic of a four-hundred-year-old building in the Marais—historically the Jewish quarter, and more recently the gay quarter. (Shortly after I arrived, my mother asked me on the phone if I was “in touch with the community.” To which I answered, “Absolutely. But I’m not sure it’s the community you’re talking about.”) At first I bought meat at the kosher butcheries, but I soon stopped. My roommate was an Israeli of Austrian origin, and everything he made was full of butter and cream. My stomach ached. I ate little but plain rice for a long time. I couldn’t adapt.
I went back to Israel, and a year later I returned to Paris for a six-year stint. This time I avoided meat because of mad cow disease. One of my university lecturers—a man who wore a wig, rode a heavy motorcycle to campus, and before the exams displayed the books he’d written on his desk and offered them for sale to us students—died of mad cow disease. Or so rumor would have it.
I slowly became acquainted with the diversity of Parisian cuisine. One can certainly find fault with the French republican spirit, and it’s hard to deny that, despite all the multiculturalism, there is ultimately only one dominant voice in French society. Nevertheless, the country offers an abundance of a kind I had never known in Israel. An abundance of cultures, and of food. In Paris I ate Japanese food, Indian food, Vietnamese food, and of course French food from every region in the country. One of my favorite things to do with my partner, a Tel Avivi poet and translator whom I met in Paris, was to go to the Salon International de l’Agriculture every year. There we ogled the beasts, including roosters that looked like punks from the ’80s, and the other glories offered by the rural Frenchmen who come to the City of Light once a year to hawk their wares. Even the president of France visits the Salon every year for a photo-op, grinning while holding a sheep. After seeing the animals, we would visit the stalls around the fair and dine our hearts out on the plethora of dishes from all over France.
We always celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, at a former Israel friend’s place. Her mother—another insurance agent—arrived in Paris every year with a supply of dead carp in her carry-on luggage. She marched straight through security with the fish, looking perfectly innocent. In Paris she removed the carp from her bag and prepared magnificent gefilte fish, to the joy of us exiled Israelis.
After another prolonged bout of severe abdominal pain, I began to acknowledge that it might be caused by my habit of eating too quickly. I went to see a behavioral therapist who specialized in eating disorders. She took out a pen and paper and wrote down my life story, dwelling at length on my relationship with my parents, my childhood—the longing for a Polish mother who would force-feed me the finest Ashkenazi delicacies—and especially my long adolescence, which I had spent gazing at plates full of food I would not eat. At some point she burst out: “What is it with you Jews and all this guilt?!”
When the session was over, I stood in the doorway and asked softly: “What about the fast eating? Do you have any advice?” “Use chopsticks!” she snapped, and slammed the door behind me.
V. The Grand Feast
After six years, we came back to Israel and left the bittersweet days of exile behind us. We returned to laden tables at jam-packed family dinners. My parents’ aunts and uncles had now been replaced by my own, and by brothers- and sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews. The family was growing horizontally. Customs and foods that were once our lot had disappeared with hardly a thought. My mother still prepared the Syrian delicacies she had learned from my father, who had learned them from his mother, and so the eradication of generations of diaspora had been only partly successful. Yet something certainly had been forgotten.
In “The Good Years,” a story by Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon, the protagonist travels to Jerusalem to visit a friend, who holds a grand feast in his honor. During the feast, the host’s father arrives. The diners all stand in deference, and the father sits down in a corner and proceeds to eat nothing but plain bread, olives, and onions, which he washes down with a jug of water. The puzzled guest asks his host why they are all dining on fine food and good wine, while the father is given only bread, olives, onions and water. The father himself explains to the guest that he seems to hold a common misperception whereby dining on delicacies is an exalted act, whereas in fact it is a punishment. Agnon is speaking to a question that has troubled the minds of many writers, in both their lives and their work: How should one treat one’s parents? What is the appropriate way to follow the commandment to “honor thy father and thy mother”?
Confucius wrote the following about this imperative: “The filial piety of nowadays means the support of one’s parents. But dogs and horses likewise are able to do something in the way of support; without reverence, what is there to distinguish the one support from the other?” In other words, are we obliged to merely ensure that our parents do not starve, just as we would for our pets? Or should there be something more? If I have to provide my parents with food one day, I wonder, what sort of food will it be exactly? And what story will it tell? Perhaps I should come at this from a different angle: the next section in this essay should be about the food I will prepare for my future children. Yes. It’ll be Mediterranean cuisine with slight touches of French. It will include contemporary dishes, of course, like quinoa casserole and rice noodles with tofu. At home we will always have organic granola bars, and in between meals we will snack on almonds and walnuts. My future child will not be lactose-intolerant; the three generations between Damascus and Tel Aviv will have toughened up his or her gut and made it supremely resistant. At age twelve, my son or daughter will rebel by running off to the nearest McDonald’s. At thirteen, he or she will become a vegetarian. My child will have a difficult adolescence, but a peaceful young adulthood. At eighteen he or she will silently scrutinize my face with a knowing smile—not unlike Granny Ora’s—and think silently: “Look how he’s softened over the years.”
In my future child’s diary, this is what it will say:
“My father was born and raised in Israel, to a family originally from Cairo and Damascus. In his youth he was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, shortly after he answered a trivia quiz and won a hundred hamburgers. He spent a few exiled years in Paris, where he consulted with an eating disorder therapist who told him to use chopsticks. Since coming back to Israel, he has watched in trepidation as the family produces new generations, and wondered what his responsibilities will be. Dad cooks quinoa with vegetables for me, and a few Syrian dishes whose secrets he learned from his father, who learned them from his mother. My father was a pretty tough man during my childhood, but he’s softened in recent years. The irritable bowel troubles him less now, too, perhaps because he is aging. For his fifty-fifth birthday, I decided to sign Dad up for an Ashkenazi cooking course, where he will learn how to cook calf’s foot jelly, tzimmes, and of course—gefilte fish!”
© Moshe Sakal. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Jessica Cohen. All rights reserved.
The winter this year was harsh in Greece. Unprecedented snow fell on the Aegean islands, while temperatures in usually temperate Athens hovered around zero degrees centigrade for most of January. The television channels seemed to thrive on repeated footage of people’s hardships, but what made me shiver with horror were the scenes of refugees in flimsy clothes and sandals with only tents for shelter. Three on Lesbos even died in the blizzard.
Besides the pitiful films of refugees, the television news also featured images of Greeks clustered around a cauldron of bean soup in Monastiraki Square, hungry men and women shuffling in a long queue for a bowl of food at a municipal kitchen, jostling for sacks of free potatoes donated by generous farmers.
Suddenly, there did not appear to be many differences between foreign refugees and homeless, hungry natives, except that there were growing numbers of people volunteering to help and nurture both. Whereas shelter and safety must come first, the question of food is so fundamental. Yes, we all need enough to keep body and soul together, but if the body can subsist on handouts and scraps, what of the soul?
As the weather turned from glacial to mild, TV coverage of the dismal refugee situation focused on riots at Elliniko, the site of the old airport and one of the main camps in the Athens area. This time the men, women, and children, who are being housed in what looked like deplorable conditions, used the visit of the Minister for Immigration to protest what they called “inedible and unacceptable food.” The camera zoomed in on plastic containers of an unidentifiable mush that appeared to be spotted with mold. They landed, untouched, in the garbage.
These images contrasted with stories run in the papers just before Christmas, perhaps as a nod to the season, about a Syrian chef who was cooking his country’s cuisine at Café Rits, in the Ritsona camp about an hour’s drive northeast of Athens. Ritsona houses some 700 refugees, half of whom are children, and the café, funded by a former investment banker from the United States named Carolynn Rockafellow, offers locally-sourced produce cooked with flair and spice to supplement the bland rations provided by the official caterer hired by the military. The Greek military, which runs the official camps in uneasy collaboration with NGOs—and with varying degrees of success—typically hires a caterer to prepare free meals at a cost of six euros per person per day. But at Ritsona, which has its own Facebook page, one can see videos of smiling faces and a man dancing as he serves meals that some of the diners have helped with—a far cry from the angry mob at the airport.
Amazingly, there are no reliable statistics on the exact number of refugees in Greece, although over a million have passed through the country. Most reports put the number at “more than 60,000,” but even the number of camps that are meant to be sheltering them is unclear. An article that appeared in the Guardian in early March painted a picture of the many factors that make a census of refugees problematic: some camps have been abandoned, many have far fewer residents than advertised, an unknown number of refugees have simply “vanished,” while countless others live in squats scattered in and around Athens. It paints a grim picture of the failure of the Greek state and the UNHCR to coordinate efforts to improve conditions in the camps and put to good use the vast sums of money that have poured into the country in aid of vulnerable refugees and their families.
Always on the search for glimmers of hope in situations that are invariably presented as relentlessly grim, I asked friends who work with refugees for their opinions. A dear American friend who lives between Athens and New Hampshire told me about her experiences at Ritsona and Oinofyta, where she was teaching illiterate Afghan women English; an Iranian friend started me on my quest with a visit to shelters in Victoria Square; a total stranger, a friend of a friend’s English granddaughter, here for a two-month stint as a volunteer, introduced me to the team at Khora; and a Greek friend took me with her to Eleonas, where she had organized a summer school for kids. I discovered a volunteer network of extraordinary range and depth, as well as refugee communities where hope was still flickering.
The Eleonas camp is located in a dusty area of semi-abandoned factories and transport companies on the Iera Odos, the Sacred Way that still connects the center of Athens with the ancient pilgrimage site at Elefsis. It was the first camp to be created in the metropolitan area, in 2015, in an attempt to house refugees who were sleeping rough in Athenian parks.
The Eleonas camp. All photos by Diana Farr Louis
On a sunny Monday in early March, the complex of containers—looking not unlike a US trailer park without the trees and RVs—where perhaps 2,000 people live, did not seem as forbidding as I’d expected, having read about insufferable summer heat and winter chills. Instead, the main “street” had the open feeling of an island neighborhood. On one side, behind a row of plastic Christmas trees, some men were hunched over a backgammon board; people of all ages were strolling; young men were kicking a ball around a new bright-green soccer field (in better shape than those at most Greek public schools). A volunteer followed by a stream of kids invited us to a magic show in one of the big tents near the entrance.
Mahrooz, a slender seventeen-year-old from near Kabul, was waiting for my Greek friend and me. Poised, confident, and intelligent, she would be our interpreter. She confessed in fluent English that although she’d studied it in school, she’d only dared to start speaking it after she arrived in Greece—exactly 364 days earlier. It’s her fourth language after Pashto, Farsi, and Hindi. Mahrooz guided us to the container where Soraya, her compatriot, lives with her two young daughters and teenaged nephew.
We took off our shoes, padded up the two steps into the cozy kitchen and greeted Soraya, who was stirring a stew in an electric crockpot. A fridge stood in one corner of the room, flanking the bed. Across from the stove were a bin with onions and potatoes, a vacuum cleaner, and a pile of dolls and other toys. Anticipating our visit, Soraya had already fried a couple of flat, round Afghan cheese pies with a light sugar glaze. We tore off strips from one and asked how she’d made it. Soraya whisked a fat rolling pin from behind a door and mimed rolling dough out on the floor.
After boiling some water for tea in her electric kettle—she paid for all the appliances herself—Soraya “set the table,” laying a white cloth on the floor in the other room and placing dates and fruit on it, along with the cookies we had brought. Mahrooz told us, “In Afghanistan when guests drop in, it’s a rule, we have to put out everything we have.”
We settled ourselves around the cloth and continued talking about food. Yes, the camp does distribute packaged breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, but while the food isn’t moldy, it has “absolutely no taste . . . whether it’s lentils, spaghetti with tomato sauce, or white rice topped with white chicken and no sauce at all. We’ve stopped taking it. The only things we accept are the buns and juice they bring for breakfast.”
Most of the residents, Mahrooz told us, who get a monthly stipend from the International Rescue Committee (€90 for a single person, €270 for a family of four to six, and €330 for more than six), prefer to shop and cook for themselves. They enjoy taking the camp bus to Omonia Square in the heart of Athens and finding bargains at the Central Market. They can even buy most of the spices and chilies they love at the Pakistani shops on Menandrou Street in the same neighborhood.
“There was a rumor going round,” said Mahrooz, “that in March they’re going to stop making the food we don’t eat and give us the money instead, but we’re already into March and there’s no sign of that happening.”
We sipped our tea and tried not to devour the second pie. Soraya bought out a cabbage and, still sitting on the floor, proceeded to slice it with some carrots for a kind of Afghan cole slaw. Before long Mahrooz’s fourteen-year-old sister joined us and took over the mixing of the salad, to which Soraya added some mayonnaise and homemade yogurt, along with cumin, pepper, and dried mint.
Soraya stepped back into the kitchen to get her vegetable stew. Distraught when she learned we had to leave before lunch, she ladled out some for us—“at least to taste.” The zucchini, after long cooking with olive oil, onions, tomato, and some untranslatable spice, was so succulent we kept having just one more spoonful, in a fruitless attempt to identify the seasonings.
Before we left, the girls whipped out their phones for a round of group selfies. My first encounter with refugee women was more like a visit to an Afghan village than a camp. Our hostesses behaved as they would in their own country, giggling, offering hospitality, and showing off their kitchen arts and talents to guests.
If you have to be stuck in a camp, Eleonas is clearly one of the better ones. With complete freedom to come and go, residents are within easy reach of Athens and can keep their self-respect. Kids can go to school and plenty of programs exist for adults too.
Oinofyta, north of Athens, enjoys a similar reputation. The primarily Afghan population there has organized itself into a community and, with the help of volunteers, headed by a forceful American named Lisa Campbell, they have been able to regain their pride by doing things for themselves, from carpentry to cooking. Far from the city, they are almost as homogeneous and self-sufficient as a village in their own country. And they are safe.
Even so, perhaps the most fortunate refugees are those who have found a semblance of normalcy in their own housing, whether in squats—abandoned buildings—rented apartments, or even hotels. Besides having the luxury of being independent, they are close to the city’s amenities and to the special services set up expressly for them. Most of these seem to be in the vicinity of Victoria Square, which was where the refugees congregated after they arrived in Piraeus from the islands. At one point there were tales of so many refugees sleeping in doorways that Greek residents could barely enter their apartments. But this was before March 2016, when Macedonia closed its borders. Many of the refugees in Greece at the time considered themselves in transit, and were planning to push north in hopes of attaining the promised lands of Germany and Scandinavia.
With the Macedonian border closed and the route north effectively barricaded, more practical long-term accommodation had to be found to supplement the camp at Eleonas. The City Plaza hotel near Victoria Square had long lain empty, a victim of the Greek crisis, when a group of leftists/anarchists claimed it in the name of homeless refugees. As reported in Al Jazeera, since April 2016, the seven-story building has been sheltering some 400 people, almost half of them children, in a well-organized experiment that relies solely on private donations and is unaffiliated with any government ministry or NGO. A series of amusing YouTube videos with titles like “the fastest vegetable chopper/slicer in the world” help the residents raise money, as do the impressive meals cooked by guests and volunteers in the hotel kitchen.
In fact, around Victoria Square twenty places that provide assistance ranging from baby bathing to legal, medical, and psychological support are listed in an eight-page leaflet along with a map showing their location, languages spoken, and services offered in English with symbols anyone can understand. Even so, their efforts probably don’t reach a fraction of those in need.
Only a few of them provide food or deal with questions of food.
The international Catholic charity Caritas has been offering valuable social assistance to migrants and refugees in Athens since 1987. They run three different centers near Omonia Square, one of which houses a highly organized soup kitchen, where many of my friends and acquaintances volunteer.
But because I was looking for a place where refugees rather than long-time residents are actually cooking for each other, I turned to Khora Community Center, which opened in November 2016 in Exarchia. This district, despite having a well-deserved reputation for anarchist vandalism, has also become the center of a number of imaginative, alternative humanitarian ventures.
Stepping into Khora’s reception area on the ground floor of a seven-story former print shop, I was greeted by a bustling, congenial atmosphere. My young English “guide” waved from the other side of the room and took me on a tour. Everyone, regardless of origin, seemed to be wearing a smile, and many of the regulars embraced her as we passed on the stairs. Volunteers and refugees, who are always referred to as “guests,” mingled in the dining room on the third floor, hanging out over cups of tea between meals.
The floor below is given over to a spacious kitchen. Volunteers take turns peeling, chopping, cooking, and washing up. Six days a week, they prepare breakfast (for 60), an afternoon snack (for 80), and a main midday meal for some 300 to 400, a figure that once soared to 550. A whiteboard leaning against the far wall lists the week’s duties, menu, and chefs, who may be British or Czech, Syrian, Baluchi, or Afghan. Other volunteers serve guests at long blue, red, and orange tables upstairs, where the wall paintings—stars, kites, abstract patterns against a purple or turquoise background, for example—seemed designed to evoke freedom and joy.
A horizontal organization run by volunteers, Khora has no chiefs and relies solely on donations from individuals or organizations like Help Refugees, a UK charity, or Thighs of Steel, a cycling club that funded their rent for a year with sponsored rides from London to Athens and will do the same again this summer. Julia Shirley-Quirk, one of the young core members, explains: “No one person is in charge. About twenty of us are long-term volunteers, I don’t even know how many short-term people we have, and all of us do a hundred and one things, from organizing the kitchen to driving down to Elliniko, to the main warehouse [for nonperishable food supplies], and distributing it to the squats.”
Loading Khora’s van at the Elliniko warehouse.
The fresh fruit and vegetables are bought locally, from the farmers’ street market or the Central Market, and the meals are mostly vegetarian simply because costs can’t exceed twenty-five cents a portion.
The core group has experience feeding large numbers of people; many of them began as volunteers in England with the Bristol-based anti–food waste charity, Skipchen (Skip=Trash bin + Kitchen). Rescuing perfectly good produce from the skips, they cooked it and set up pop-up restaurants and “food ambulances” in that city, which dispensed meals to the hungry while creating community at the same time. Many of them also worked at the Jungle, the notorious refugee camp in Calais (since closed), before coming to Greece, where, with two other charities, Better Days and No Borders, they founded a camp in an olive grove in order to tend to the overflow from the nearby main camp of Moria.
When Moria was shut down and turned into a detention center, some of the Skipchen volunteers came to Athens and eventually discovered the abandoned printshop. They signed a lease, and went to work painting and fixing it up, concocting ad hoc solutions to problems as they arose, learning on the job. The brightly colored murals of flowers and animals in the rooms and in the stairwells contribute to the cheerful atmosphere, but most of the bonhomie comes from the apparently effortless good will, mutual respect, and genuine affection that seems to flourish between coworkers at Khora.
Jawed, a twenty-seven-year-old structural engineer from Kabul, tells me, “We are one family here, everyone does every job, and we are small. That’s why it works.”
Back home he used to cook for his mother on Fridays, “to give her a rest,” and his eyes light up when he describes the Afghan national dish, Qoboli, an elaborate festive pilaf with meat, raisins, nuts, caramelized carrots, and more, a version of which he’s made for lunch that day (without the meat).
His fellow guest chefs are all men. Afghan and Syrian women come to Khora for language classes, special activities for women with small children, the dentist, legal advice, even yoga, but they do not work in the kitchen. Fahad, from Syria, picked up his culinary expertise out of necessity: “I learned from life and intuition, living with a bunch of guys who knew nothing at all and working with No Borders charity on Lesbos.” His favorite dishes are stuffed vegetables and vegetable stews, to which, he tells me, he adds hot pepper, cinnamon, cumin, mint, coriander . . .
Everyone agrees that the Afghans like it hotter than most. And so do the Baluchis. Yunis and Samir, activists from Baluchistan, which is claimed, variously, by Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, loved to cook back home, where it’s traditionally a man’s job to prepare the food for wedding feasts and picnics. Both of them pull out their phones to show me photos of casseroles bubbling in a vacant lot, naan wrapped in foil for baking in hot coals, chicken ready to be baked in a clay pot sealed with dough. With mouth watering, I promise to come back another day and taste their chickpea stew and potato pie topped with seasoned yogurt (which proved to be as good as anticipated).
In a way Khora, whose name in Greek means “main town on an island,” is unique. The people who set it up and run it are almost all non-Greeks and very young (as opposed to the “mature” and retired expats and Greeks more typically found at other organizations)—many are still in their twenties. They are playful, optimistic, and overwhelmingly positive, not to mention tireless, putting in twelve-hour days and using their savings to pay for the privilege and pleasure of helping others in a land foreign to both.
One of the tasks undertaken by the young volunteers is driving the battered but capacious former Skipchen van down to the old airport at Elliniko, on the south coast of the city, to pick up supplies from the main warehouse there. Twice a week they collect dry foodstuffs and other essentials for Khora but also for some of the squats that don’t have their own means of transport. One morning I decided to join them, tipped off by a Bosnian volunteer who’d been a refugee herself during the siege of Sarajevo.
Though there are hundreds of refugees housed in Elliniko, there’s no trace of them as the van enters the derelict site, either outside the former terminal or even peering through a window. We are headed for the closed Olympic stadium nearby, the venue for the basketball games at the 2004 Athens Olympics. For the past two years the stadium has been operating as a sort of clearinghouse for all the goods that are sent to Greece for refugees, from tents and blankets to toothpaste, disposable diapers, food, clothes, toys, and even the occasional frilly party dress.
Jointly administered by the Ministry of the Interior and Pampeiraiki, a private initiative that began in Piraeus when goods started arriving in response to the flood of refugees, the storage area inside the stadium is immense. We walk through canyons of cardboard boxes that reach almost to the ceiling. A chilly place, with bare white walls, ceilings, and floors, it has none of the decorative touches that make Khora so welcoming. Any palpable cheer comes, instead, from the volunteers, who may be working at the tedious task of sorting endless amounts of children’s socks or men’s shoes or winter jackets or any of the other mountains of supplies gathered indiscriminately in this mammoth warehouse.
Negia Milian, the dynamo who runs this show, says, “You have to open every box to make sure the contents match the label, because that is not always the case.”
Another former refugee, Negia left Cuba at eleven and with the help of a Catholic charity made it to Florida. The motherly former head of technology at Citibank met her Greek husband while the two were graduate students at MIT. It’s obvious that Negia’s mind must run better than a computer because she keeps track of everything that enters the warehouse with no apparent effort at all.
Switching between English, Greek, and Spanish, she keeps her unusual mix of volunteers busy. Apart from the four from Khora, there are another four or five young women from Spain, and a handful of older Greek men. The girls push palettes loaded with boxes of pasta, pulses, rice, and tomato sauce as if they are driving bumper cars, frolicking and skipping as if they were kids.
The Spanish connection is strong. Negia tells us the Spanish were among the first to respond to the crisis, both with supplies and volunteers. “They still remember how many countries came to their rescue during the Civil War, when even Syria took in children from the Basque country and Catalonia, which were especially badly bombed. Most of our food comes from Spain,” she says, showing us a series of open boxes, “though other countries contribute generously. Here, for example, is the last of a large shipment of baked beans sent from Ireland. But the main organization we work with, SOS Refugiados Spain, sends us people as well as supplies, and they always tell prospective volunteers to come to this warehouse first, before they go to the islands.”
It’s not an exciting place to begin, but it is essential. Negia has printed out a spreadsheet showing the food requirements for nine squats in Athens, excluding Khora, based on a sample week’s menu that she devised using staples to meet basic nutritional needs. There are 1,674 people on the list; the amounts of food (divided between nineteen different products, like “powdered milk,” “chickpeas,” “tahini,” and “sardines”) are staggering—all calculated to the last gram or milliliter, from 180.79 kg of chickpeas to 1,874.88 liters of milk and 83.70 kg of sardines per week. The total number of people fed every week from Pamperaiki’s supplies comes to about 2,500.
Negia's spreadsheet at the Elliniko warehouse
Negia and Giorgos, a white-haired former ship’s engineer awaiting his pension, started out working at Piraeus. As retirees, both were looking for something meaningful to fill their days. Negia smiles, saying, “I made the mistake of turning up here two days after the warehouse opened here and told the chief coordinator, Sotiris Alexopoulos, that I had some free time. And I never left, have been here ever since.” As for Giorgos, he confesses that he “had never felt such a strong bond with anyone as with these refugees. How could you abandon them? We gave them as much support as we could.”
Meanwhile, the Spanish girls and the volunteers from Khora have started to load the van, lifting and passing heavy cartons as if they contained feathers. They slip dividers between orders for the different squats, pushing them into the back of the van. By the time they are finished, even some of the passenger seats are filled and I find myself having to take the tram back into town.
The very next day, and about a month after I started my research, I received a last-minute invitation to join the International Women’s Day celebration at an organization with yet another formula for helping refugees. Melissa, located in an elegant townhouse near Victoria Square, is a unique network of women helping women. Established migrants from countries as diverse as Nigeria, the Philippines, Russia, and Albania got together with a Greek social anthropologist, Nadina Christopoulou, to create a space where today’s refugees can learn languages, skills, and the confidence to survive and even thrive in their new and unfamiliar surroundings.
Melissa on International Women's Day
"Melissa" is the Greek word for "bee," and this former mansion is the hive where immigrant and refugee women, as dedicated and industrious as bees, can share their talents in a fusion of the old and experienced with the new and determined.
Melissa first came to the public’s attention in 2014, when migrant women started cooking for refugees camped in Pedio tou Areos, a big park not far from Victoria Square. One of them, Maria Obilebo, a professional pastry chef from Nigeria who’s been in Athens for almost thirty years, used to make breakfast for the children there. Now, in a culinary feat of almost Herculean proportions, she prepares lunch for 150 women and kids five days a week in her own home and brings it to Melissa, with the help of her sous chef and compatriot, Felicia Anosilce.
For Women’s Day, though, she’s fried up a big batch of crispy, spicy chicken wings, since other women have also brought their specialties to the celebration. I arrive as the table is being laden with platters and bowls of pilafs, noodles, lentils, spring rolls, salads, and much more. An Iranian plate arranged in pretty stripes of different colored rice and pulses receives the loudest roar of approval and everyone, young and old alike, crowds round the table, snapping pictures of the feast with their phones, every face glowing with anticipation and excitement.
Food is so much more than nourishment. Each dish on the table represents a culture and society—civilization on the grand scale, but also a family tradition, a sense of personal identity, and individual creativity and achievement. In some cases these ineffable things may be the only tie a refugee has with home. The late Domna Samiou, a Greek folk music expert and performer—herself the daughter of refugees from Asia Minor—once told me, “When the Greeks left Asia Minor [in 1922], many could not take any possessions with them. All they had was their recipes and their music but that was enough to make a new start.”
When we sat down to a meal with the Afghan women in their container home, we felt their pride at being able to receive us with warmth and offer us their traditional hospitality. At Khora, I saw the camaraderie that comes from cooking and eating together, from sharing tasks and from making oneself useful. At Melissa I felt honored to be present at such a celebration of diversity and of the power and potential of women.
But there is no question that much more help must be forthcoming. Since engaging with refugees and volunteers this winter, I have been following the worsening conditions in Greece and elsewhere on sites like AreYouSyrious and Refugees Deeply. In early April, I came upon a report by a Khora volunteer, Emma Musty, on the situation on the Greek islands in March. She concludes that, “The only moments of hope on this journey have been meeting people involved in grass-root projects where refugee, local and international communities have come together to create alternative solutions, and the strength of the people who continue to endure in this situation.”
The refugees I met with—the ones in the squats and at some of the better-run camps like Oinofyta and Ritsona—represent a fraction of the 60,000 or more people who were stranded in Greece when the borders were shut. What will it take for them all to find a place where they too can cook and share a dish, where they can feel welcome and welcome others?
If the hard-hearted who raise walls to keep refugees out of their backyard could only experience the love and tastes I was treated to, I have little doubt they’d bring down the barriers and let them in.
People who eat together cannot hate.
© 2017 by Diana Farr Louis. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
Translator's Note: Discovering Prasanta Mridha's essay series "Lost Livelihoods" was a delight. The first one I spotted was about black market Indian mill-woven cotton saris—a flourishing business during the early eighties. I was instantly transported to my childhood.
There were many products being smuggled from India, but saris are the contraband I have a direct memory about. Bangladeshi mill cottons, according to my grandmother, had not achieved the softness of Indian cottons. (She has revised her opinion since then.) I recall the crowd and crush of Hawkers Market or Gausia Market. I am eight or ten or twelve, trailing my grandmother, who is looking for not just bootleg Indian cottons, but saris made at a particular mill. They were the best, she told me as she recounted vivid details of the Kolkata store she had visited with her cousin during her pre-Partition stay.
I remember the traveling vendors that Mridha describes as well, although they were less common in our more urban area. They were always women, and they always carried their wares in tightly bound square bundles. They came by households calling softly, Anyone home? Unlike other salespeople they didn't shout—after all, they were selling contraband.
Mridha's essay series was inspired by West Bengali writer Kinnar Ray's pocket-sized book Vanished Livelihoods. He wanted to do a similar book in the Bangladeshi context, and over the course of a year, he published his essays in the literary supplements of various dailies. In his preface, he notes that many readers got in touch with him to tell him about professions he didn't know about, or didn't know had disappeared, or ones that still survived in different regions of the country.
In the preface, he also mentions professions he didn't include, either because he didn’t know of them, or didn’t know enough to write about them: some are familiar to me, some not. I knew of the earwax cleaners (they still exist, and it seems only men avail themselves of this service), as well as the "healers" who pulled out the "pain bugs" from teeth. A profession I didn't know about: cows' teeth cleaners. His essays made me think of professions I had grown up seeing, that seem to have disappeared, which I didn’t find in his book: the jaundice-curing "healers" who would place a "medicinal garland" on the sufferer’s head and pour water, "washing away the yellow."
Some of these people showed up daily (like street food vendors), but for some, their entry into our lives depended on seasons or festivals. The dhunuri, for instance, the men who fluff up the cotton in duvets; they were harbingers of winter. They used a special stringed tool, almost like a musical instrument, and their call sign, as they walked neighborhoods, was to twang it. That distinct twang punctuated my fall days, predicting the future: winter break, badminton, palm-tree juice, crisp air, bhapa pitha, steamed rice cakes with jaggery.
As I read Mridha’s essays, I was excited to find the known and unknown. And sometimes the known in disguise. The taffylike sweet that he describes with the poetic name of delbahar (the heart’s beauty), I grew up knowing as the more prosaic, but descriptive, tana: literally, "pulled." Perhaps this is where the beauty of the quotidian rests: in that space between the poetic and the prosaic.
I don’t know what it’s called in other regions of Bangladesh, but in Khulna it’s delbahar. That’s how it’s known. The conjunction of two Persian words, “dil” or “del” and “bahar,” creates the word delbahar. Dil means heart, mind, soul. And bahar means beauty or splendor, or grandeur, or glitz. Another meaning of bahar is spring. Delbahar can mean the beauty of the heart. Or perhaps the splendor of the mind. Or, going a bit further, the spring of the heart.
Persian words in Bengali—no matter how grandiose they sound, the thing itself is not that complicated. It’s only in name that it possesses “the beauty of the heart.”
A bamboo pole, quite thick. The kind that is known as a tolla-bansh. The kind that can be used for a pillar in a house. This pole, about five to six feet in length, has a reddish gamccha, or cotton towel, wrapped around the top. In the summer, the towel needs to be moistened frequently. Beneath the towel is a firm dough made of flour and jaggery. If the towel isn’t moistened, the sweet dough will simply melt. This is why the top of the bamboo pole looks thicker. It doesn’t strain the imagination to think of the pole with the towel-wrapped tip as a giant matchstick. The genie from Aladdin’s wondrous lamp, or Kumbhakarna from the Ramayana, or Ghotatkoch from the Mahabharata are the only ones capable of striking it against a matchbox and lighting it up.
A man walks with that pole resting against his left or right shoulder. The pole slants backward against his shoulder. Every few minutes he calls out, Eiiii delbahar! This is back when none of the rickshaw-pullers or even any of the street-vendors wore trousers. So this man carrying the bamboo pole is wearing a lungi; a limp shirt bought from the second-hand wares of Nixon Market covers his torso. If his call attracted a customer and they came to stand beside him to buy some, he lowered the pole to the ground parking it parallel with his body.
A pouch made of sacking hung from his waist. Or perhaps the pouch was slung from the pole. He looked at the customer with questioning eyes. What do you want? Which one?
All the words I’m using to explain what this thing is—well, back then, the child customer didn’t need any of this to know what delbahar was. That glance from the vendor, or even just his standing still was enough for the child to blurt out what they desired. But the seller was also forever prepared to plug his wares. A motorcycle, 1 taka; a bell, a monkey, a watch, 50 paisa each; and a simple strand of delbahar twisted around a stick was 25 paisa. Those were the prices.
The pouch that hung from the pole contained slivers of bamboo, of different sizes and shapes. Once the customer informed him of what they wanted, he began to make it. This process was worth watching every single time. The pouch disgorged a handful of small sticks. Within moments he had formed two wheels using the sticks, then pulled the flour and sugar dough into thin strands, and wrapped it around the wheels. He connected the two wheels to each other with another stick. These were then fully wrapped with delbahar. He also constructed bamboo stick handlebars, and covered them with twists of delbahar. Thus, in the blink of an eye, a bamboo delbahar motorcycle was crafted. He handed it over to the customer. The customer, the child, could now begin to eat the delbahar from whichever part of the motorcycle they desired.
Instead of a motorcycle he could craft a bicycle in the same way, narrowed around the middle. But this time there was a smaller amount of dough in his hands. His hands could swiftly create a bell. A monkey too; the thin tail listing to one side. If none of these were what the customer asked for, then perhaps a watch, which required the smallest amount of delbahar. Yes, in your hands, it looks exactly like a watch. If you want, you can wear it on your left wrist, and snap or tug bits off with your right hand to stuff in your mouth. The man can easily shape a cricket bat. Or tiny rackets, whether for badminton or tennis. And aside from all these, there was always the simple twist of delbahar on a stick. As far as I can recall, that was the cheapest—25 paisa, which people still called char anna, or a quarter.
In the early eighties, the delbahar vendor could be spotted every single day in front of the school. He would come and go mostly around half past nine or ten in the morning. Once he was done with the school, he would move toward the city, toward the hustle and bustle of the marketplace. But he was rarely blessed with true aficionados over there. It was unlikely. The stadium during a game, or the school playing fields, or our neighborhood streets on the weekends: he moved forward, calling out, that bamboo pole slanting against his shoulder. But I cannot remember ever seeing him in the evening or even in the late afternoon. So perhaps no one ate delbahar in the evenings.
Delbahar had never piqued my curiosity enough for me to seek out where the thing was made. At that age, when I first bought delbahar from the vendor, there was no reason for me to harbor that kind of curiosity. Within a decade, however, during the early nineties, just as people my age began leaving our small town, gradually the delbahar vendors also began to disappear.
One evening around that time, we spotted a delbahar vendor. We weren’t buying from him; perhaps it was his break. Perhaps he was having a smoke as he stood near us. When we asked, he told us there were delbahar factories in the Nagerbajar area of the town. Each day, the vendors bought their desired amount of delbahar from there and twisted it around their poles. Two other kinds of delectable street foods were also prepared in those factories—ata-kodma (another dough-based sweet) and teeler khaja (a sweet snack covered in sesame seeds). The method of preparation was similar for all of them. Each required flour, sugar, and even a little milk in varying amounts. But, the vendor told us, whereas in the past they would use cow’s milk, these days it was merely powdered milk.
Someone asked from the side, “From tins?”
He had barely finished his question when someone else quipped from another side, “Yeah, right. If they did there’s no way they could sell delbahar at these prices. They must make do with the powdered milk that comes in sacks.”
The delbahar vendor had chuckled. Whatever they used, no one could say it was adulterated. So many children in town ate it, licked it, slurped it every single day and they never got upset stomachs.
Back then, the concerned clamor over the adulteration of consumer goods produced by national and multinational corporations didn’t exist. But the products hawked by the sellers and vendors in the local marketplaces didn’t contain adulterated ingredients. The manufacturers they bought their wares from were careful about that.
That day, his break over, as the delbahar vendor got up to move away from us, he asked, “Want a little delbahar?” and pulled off the fabric covering the tip of his bamboo pole. I spied the colors of our childhood. A mound of sweetened flour, white with a reddish tinge, piled on the bamboo top. Perhaps some of us thought he was trying to sell some to us. Someone said, “Aren’t we too old to eat this kind of thing?”
Another held up his cigarette. “These days this white candy is the one we consume.” He pulled long and hard before joking, “I guess this is our delbahar.”
The vendor replied, “You could just try a little, to see if it’s still the same delbahar as when you were schoolchildren. Just . . . for no . . . for no . . . ” He was too shy to say “for free” directly.
Someone said, “OK, give us some on a stick. We can all yank off a bite from there. Don’t you know, Bengalis will even eat tar if you give it to them for free?”
The man laughed. He watched us, young men, eat his delbahar. “Is it the same?”
“Yes, it is,” one of us said, adding, “but don’t give us anymore.”
The vendor smiled as he walked away calling, “Eiiii delbahar!” He was exceedingly happy at having brought back our childhoods for a moment.
But now, just because we want him, we cannot have him back. The shops around us stock so many kinds of scrumptious delicacies. How can the delbahar vendor let loose his call here? It has been twenty years since that chance meeting, and I cannot find a delbahar vendor even when I look. As if he took the beauty of the heart, or the splendor of the mind, or the spring of the heart, and just disappeared from the childhoods of today.
Butter Simmered to Ghee
The man carries a medium-sized narrow-necked clay pot, locally known as a mait, in one hand. He skews a little to that side. Which is natural, because the mait is almost full. About half or perhaps a little less of the vessel is filled with water, and on that water floats butter. The mait's opening is covered with a plate with a raised edge; on the plate sits a set of scales and weights.
He shifts the mait from one hand to the other as he walks. This is essential. Essential because how long can someone carry a weight in one hand? A heavy, water-filled pot. The man has traveled from the north.
Back then, the people of Bagerhat and Khulna regions thought of greater Faridpur as the north. But they had no idea how far Faridpur was. Perhaps the man had come from the north, but he had most certainly not come from Faridpur. Perhaps he was from Madaripur or Gopalganj. If not, even the district of Mollarhat in the Bagerhat region was toward the north. Perhaps that was where he came from. But all of it was just “the north.” Hence, he was a northerner.
A northerner has arrived for a southern gig, in the hopes of making a living. All he has is this pot.
Today I can calculate the geographical distance and appreciate that he had traversed that distance by boat, to reach Fakirhat, a thana or sub-district of Bagerhat. Then, he took the train to get to the town of Bagerhat. Perhaps a fellow traveler had journeyed on to Khulna. Perhaps more than one had done so. It was enough that he was visiting this small town by himself, or perhaps with a compatriot. Khulna was, in comparison, a much larger town. Others had headed that way. These men made this trip every week. And they made it in the season when the cows in their area yielded an abundance of milk. Once the milk was churned into butter, off they went.
It is very early in the morning still when the whey vendor comes out in the streets, also carrying butter. His butter is covered with a banana leaf. He spoons out the measure of butter the customer wants from the mounds of butter floating in buttermilk. But the northerner isn’t selling butter or whey like the whey vendor. If he was, he wouldn’t have arrived when the morning was almost done; he would come at dawn, or early in the morning. His reason for showing up at this hour is entirely different. He is here to extract pats of butter from his full mait, weigh them on his scales, and simmer the butter into ghee. Ghee made right in front of the customer. The householder will have no doubts. This ghee is truly pure.
Still, can the man get the upper hand with the householder? When, calling out his chant, he arrives at a house, if the household has run out of ghee to even spoon on plates at mealtimes, he might be summoned. As soon as he stands in the doorway he is asked, “Where is this butter from?” The man offers up his address. The next question is the real one, and he knows he will be asked this. Is this butter made with milk from a cow or a water buffalo? If it’s cow’s milk, then it will turn into gawa ghee. If it’s water buffalo, or mohish, it will become moishal ghee. He knew he would face this question. This mistrust existed in the past, it's still there, and has increased in scope. The man bites his tongue, indicating that this question is truly embarrassing for him. He has come all this way, after such exertion, braving the borders of the districts and the sub-district—do they really think it is to make them ghee with butter from water buffalo milk instead of cow’s milk?
What television does now sellers did back then. They never scrimped on their spiel about the captivating qualities of their wares. This was ingrained in a seller’s very nature. These vendors rhapsodized about their butter in the blink of an eye. They knew their patter inside and out. They could beguile the hearts and minds of the masters of the house with every word they uttered. Although those words were spoken in a regional accent, for the audience, the approach and delivery meant his pitch wasn’t dismissed out of hand.
On the other hand, why shouldn’t the customer hold his own? The simmered ghee made by another northerner hadn’t been that pure. Although their price is a little higher, the ghee available at that sweetmeat store in the town isn’t that bad. True, they don’t simmer and make the ghee right in front of you like this, but still, it’s a reputable store. Their wares aren’t bad at all. Now the man scatters odes to his ghee like buckshot. In fact, to prove just how pure his butter is, he suggests that the customer smear a little butter on some cotton wool and set it alight. If the butter contains anything other than milk, how will the wick hold the fire? He also slips in a description of exactly what the flame looks like if the milk is pure. And, anyway, as soon as you start to simmer it, you can tell it is proper gawa ghee just from the aroma. No one in their village keeps water buffalo. Nothing but cows graze in their fields, so there is really no point in telling him anything about water buffalo ghee.
He has finally succeeded in making himself somewhat credible. Both sides are ready. Now, the real deal. The man wants to know how much ghee he should prepare for them. He completes his measuring and places the weights on one end of his scale. He asks the householder to bring him a pot in which to simmer the ghee. The pot arrives. He places weights on the scale until it balances evenly against the pot. Now he places a slab of butter in the pot.
The most astonishing thing about these men was their ability to eyeball measurements. It was a fantastic skill. The butter that he sliced off with a large, smooth spatula, at one go or several, would be exactly the weight that had been requested.
The householder’s eyes are ever wary at that moment, to make sure there is no sleight of hand during the measuring. Perhaps there is some trick to the weights, or in his hands. Perhaps there is or perhaps there isn’t, but one must admit that his powers of estimation are amazing. At one try, he has extracted exactly the amount of butter needed. Now to simmer it.
If it was a two-person team that arrived to simmer butter into ghee, they usually carried a portable kerosene cooker or stove with them. They would find a slightly sheltered spot, or perhaps settle beside the cooking house of the household, or perhaps under a tree, and begin the simmering process in a cast-iron or aluminum pot. If it was just one man, how could he manage to carry a stove or cooker by himself? In that case, he would ask for a stove or a cooker. If a household possessed a portable burner, he would seek permission to use that. No matter what the equipment, his job was to transform the butter into ghee before he left.
This is what he is attempting now.
He has placed a single slab of butter, or perhaps a couple, in his pot. He melts the butter at a certain heat. The butter melts and turns liquid, and gradually the oily liquid begins to thicken. And to granulate. And if the butter had indeed been churned from cow’s milk, a heady aroma permeates the surroundings as it transforms into ghee. Some householders, with their seasoned eyes and noses, can tell while the process is still underway whether or not the man is about to deliver pure gawa ghee or not.
If the pot in which the ghee is simmering is kept above a certain level of heat, the insides begin to burn. Then the flame needs to be lowered, and the burnt sides scraped in. The man has experienced hands. He does it slow and right until the butter begins to foam. It’s his job to take care and make sure the heat remains at the right level for exactly as long as needed at each step.
But there were still moments where the householder was fooled, or as the local lingo would have it, took a hit or a dent. It did happen sometimes. The deception would begin at the very beginning. There was no way that butter was from cow’s milk; it had to have been water buffalo. Back then the sellers had yet to figure out how to sneak in Dalda (hydrogenated vegetable oil) or some other product that looked like butter in there; but trying to pass water buffalo milk as cow’s milk happened. And not every pair of hands could yield good ghee. Depending on the region, there was a widespread saying: Not all sheikhs sell oil, some use it on their beards. Some ghee makers rubbed the oil on their beards, meaning, they came close to messing up the ghee-making. No matter how long they simmered it, the color didn’t quite hold. Or the ghee burned. Or if it didn’t burn, it didn’t granulate properly.
Once the simmering was done, the maker would sieve the freshly made ghee into a clean vessel. Or he cooled it by fanning it and pouring it into a glass jar. Gawa ghee made by expert hands truly took on a glorious hue. It was pleasing to gaze at the ghee in the transparent glass jar, the color a mix of slight red and yellow. And the aroma of the freshly simmered ghee would be pouring out of the open mouth of the jar.
The man’s work is done. It’s time for him to leave. He unties the gamchha from his waist, wipes his face with it, and stands waiting. Perhaps he glances at his creation now and then. Once the give and take with him is complete, he will again take to the streets with his chant, “Have butter/want ghee?”
That chant can be heard no more. In the last two decades several big companies have developed and marketed what they claim is the purest ghee. They come in tins or jars and are of many different kinds. And yet, the color of that old-time ghee!—in all senses of the word, I seek what is now lost.
From Lost Livelihoods. © Prasanta Mridha. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Shabnam Nadiya. All rights reserved.
Last winter, I reunited with my fifth-grade homeroom teacher. It had been thirty years since I last saw her. She ran the school’s literature club as well, so I’d been under her tutelage for three straight years. She was the one who first planted the dream of becoming a writer in the mind of this country boy who grew up without enough good books to read.
Back then, she used to loan me books and take me to writing contests. Her notes on my daily journal assignments were sometimes longer than my journal entries themselves. She was warm and caring to all of her students. She boiled homemade barley tea to share with us, and for the kids who were too poor to afford lunch, she even brought home-cooked meals. One of my friends had lost his parents and was being raised by his grandmother; she’d pestered our teacher, who was unmarried at the time, to adopt him.
Now my teacher was standing on the threshold of old age. But she still looked as pretty and serene as she had when I’d first seen her through young eyes. She remembered my hometown in far more detail than I did. There was a particular reason for that. She had spent two years as a volunteer on Sorok Island, an infamous leper colony, before getting her first full-time teaching post nearby, at my school. In all, she spent a good ten years in Goheung County. The physical passage of time hadn’t dulled or numbed her memories of those years one bit. I couldn’t help wondering what sort of things had happened on Sorok Island.
She told me how lost she’d felt all through her twenties. Of course, some afflictions of the heart are rooted in historical wounds. Before volunteering on Sorok Island and becoming a schoolteacher, she’d been a college student in Gwangju—right when the Gwangju Massacre took place. As she told me about her experiences, I recalled the way she used to stand sometimes with her back turned to us, as if we’d best not approach her.
You could say this was a new discovery from among my memories of her. But then, doesn’t a certain devotedness sometimes come from the shadows? I realized anew that her passion for teaching bore the mark of an ascetic pushing him- or herself to greater feats of discipline. Back then I was too young to understand that kind of sorrow.
Then she mentioned Deoksansa, a Buddhist temple near the school. Being familiar with the temple myself, I straightened up at her words. Back when she was first posted to our school, she went out wandering near the campus to try to ease her weary, gloomy heart; her steps led her to the temple, where a young nun was living. My teacher said she always felt better after visiting the temple and bowing before the altar. Seasons passed, and yet she and the nun never once spoke. The nun seemed as deeply withdrawn as she was.
One afternoon, they had a heavy snow. My teacher heard a knock at her door and opened it to see the nun standing there, half-frozen. The two women sat down across from each other and just started weeping spontaneously, for no apparent reason.
“Strange, isn’t it? To cry so hard without any idea of what the other person has been through.”
I stayed at the same temple for just over a month during the winter break of my second year in high school. That was about five years after my teacher’s trips to the temple. I had moved out of my parents’ house in order to board closer to my high school in Suncheon.
Between feeling lost as a teenager and suffocating under the pressure of preparing for the college entrance exam, I opted to board at Deoksan Temple instead of going back home or staying behind at the school to take supplemental classes. I headed straight there without really thinking the plan through, and was met by a nun who spoke with a heavy Gyeongsang Province accent and the kitchen helper, a woman with a young daughter who volunteered in the temple kitchen. They told me the temple wasn’t well suited to hosting boarders. I pleaded with them to let me stay anyway. The nun reluctantly agreed, but added that they would keep me fed but I would have to supply my own firewood for the separate quarters where I would be sleeping.
As soon as I unpacked, the kitchen helper handed me a scythe and a firewood carrier. She added that I would have an easier time with it if I used the brushwood from the acacia trees some loggers had discarded next to the temple. Every few days I carried back as much as I could.
My days in the mountain temple started out dull and uncomfortable. It was hard to wake in time for breakfast, which was ready at exactly six in the morning every day, and I couldn’t get used to the temple food. The rice smelled strongly of incense, and the greens were bland. Besides, back home I was more used to eating seaweeds—fried miyeokgwi, seasoned parae, and totnamul, to name a few—than mountain greens. I asked the kitchen helper to go easy on my servings.
When the discarded acacia ran out, I had no choice but to hike into the mountains to chop wood. I spent the whole morning gathering firewood and the afternoon crouched in front of the furnace. The fire entranced me; I felt like a child playing with matches. Before I knew it, evening fell and dinner was being served. The moment I sat down to eat, I was overcome with exhaustion and fell asleep immediately afterward.
The days grew even more monotonous, but to my surprise, each time I sat in front of the furnace, my heart grew calm. The temple food grew on me, and at last I was asking the kitchen helper to heap my bowl higher. The nun was busy performing a hundred-day prayer ritual, so I mainly saw her at meals. I’d been expecting to receive some words of wisdom or comfort from her, but she had nothing to say to me.
On sunny days, the three of us ate lunch side by side at three small portable tables set up on a narrow side porch. Meals in the temple were quiet. It felt less like eating with others and more like confronting the act of eating itself. It gave me a taste of a solitude that was lonesome and yet fulfilling. I had never before paid so much attention to the act of eating. But I guess that’s what temples are about. Maybe they’re not where you go to listen to lofty thoughts, but rather where you go to face your own soul, which stands taller, grows more distinct, amid the stillness. There, my mind kept returning to the question of the essence of all phenomena.
After I’d been at the temple a couple of weeks, the nun finally glanced over at me and said, “You’ve filled out. Keep eating!” Then she told the kitchen helper to give me some dried toasted rice to snack on. I got very little studying done while I was there.
On my last day, the nun walked me all the way down to the village. I felt like I was walking with an older sister. I said good-bye to her there, the bulk of my journey still ahead of me.
“Hurry off now,” she said. “You’d be surprised how time flies.”
I don’t know if she was the same nun my teacher met, but it was the same place where we both found respite for our restless, troubled hearts. And though I can’t approach all of my meals the same way as I did on that narrow porch, I still sometimes miss those solitary meals.
© Jeon Sungtae. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Sora Kim-Russell. All rights reserved.
Dreadful is the condition of the castaway better schooled in gastrosophy than shipwreckology. Predisposed to survive on what lies within my reach and in my reportoire, should I long for oven-roasted oysters with zucchini, a rock lobster with fresh favas, striped bass with celery, cabbage, and vinegar, red mullet filets with rosemary cream, breaded mullet with oysters, even a little dish of oysters Girardet, what materials do I have to attain an acceptable result? Neither wine for deglazing nor vegetables to yield the proper aroma and consistency, nor aromatic herbs on this tropical island, which is surely concealing from me the treasure of its spices. Not even fire! And without fire there is no cooking and, as that famous dialectical materialist philosopher, Don Faustino Cordón, the last of his line, I do believe, has said . . . “It is cooking that created man . . . .”
All desert islands are the same, or we think they are, the way we think we know New York or heart surgery. When I went to New York for the first time, I had seen it so often in movies that it had a place in the mental album of cities where my imagination had dwelt. When they operated on my heart, I had the feeling they had already done it many times on television and in the movies, and with my chest prised apart, I was the extraordinary hero of a broadcast recorded with a camera I held in my own two hands.
In any case, I lived through a familiar experience and was able to confront it with the most interesting phrases, thanks to the best-paid screenwriters in cinema. This was an advantage missed out on by those who went under the knife before the era of mass culture and the reign of the image, and had to memorize quotes in Latin or the proverbs of those unbearable national thinkers around whom the metaphysics of countries and people is forged. Esse oportet ut vivas, non vivere ut edas, some imbecile said once, and his words have prospered in the conventional bit of repressive popular wisdom: Eat to live, do not live to eat. I am rather fonder of Terence when he says: Animus est in patinis. Until I reached this island, it’s true, my soul was in my dishes, and the wisdom of this choice I ratify with that pre-Christian proverb: Don’t face off with a hungry man.
Fortunately, we owe much more to immanent than to transcendent culture nowadays. Hence, when asked about my cardiac condition, I tend to respond succinctly: Now I know I carry my enemy inside me. I probably owe the phrase to the scriptwriter for To Have and Have Not, maybe even to Chandler himself, who penned excellent dialogue in his Hollywood days. Another castaway before me exclaimed: Navigare necesse est, vivere non necesse. To navigate is necessary, to live is not; and another cardiac patient uttered the words: Hesterni sumus, we are of yesterday, as saintly Job already surmised. But primum vivere, deinde philosophari, and for that reason, the first thing any castaway worth his salt should do is explore the island he’s landed on, accept the island’s emptiness.
And so I began my exploration of the island, sure of the terrain I was treading, as in the initial passage through a country already known, convinced that I would find all I needed to begin a long survival in solitude.
“You are metaphysical,” a character from Cervantes says. “It’s because I don’t eat,” another replies. And yet food, too, may guide one to reflections on essence and existence, as I learned from a reading of Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste. Between the theory of drinking and that of gastronomy, Brillat-Savarin considers the end of the world and of all that terrifies the gastrosoph, recollecting—after praising the grandeur of man, the only animal that drinks for pleasure, without any need of thirst—the horrors occasioned in Philadelphia in 1792, when yellow fever moved many men to shut the doors of their conjugal homes to their infected wives, and fathers, with the same motive, to abandon their children. What phantoms pursue the digestion of Brillat-Savarin, that of his stomach, but also that of his mind? Is this the same person who, reflecting on death, proposes as a remedy a glass of good wine or recommends meat pies as a way of staving off the definitive end?
Though not described by Aristotle in his inventory of known fishes, the Mediterranean peoples have developed striking cultures around the bacalao, perhaps since, being a fish transformed into an imperishable mummy, its price has always been low in comparison with its fresh counterparts, and the poor are nourished on memory and desiccated corpses. I have always thought it a gastronomical barbarity to eat bacalao fresh: it is a fish without personality, at the midpoint between a hake and the Land of Nod. The salted or air-dried bacalao, on the other hand, is transfigured through these processes into a being of a different order, a dehydrated mummy awaiting the resurrection of the flesh through rehydration and the Final Judgment of those fantastic culinary vade mecums dreamt up by the mind of man. To eat fresh bacalao is like making love with a young creature who offers moxie, but no preambles, under an obscene neon light, without bothering to remove one’s socks.
Though the magic of brandade is the lone contribution of the French to the bacalao’s glory, they have done it great linguistic service with a bevy of names both particular and general: morue franche, cabillaud, morue salée, morue sechée, merluche, morue noire, morue verte. In the main, they have always considered it a bastard raw material, provincial, undeserving of the culinary laboratory that is Paris, and it is not even clear that certain writers made the distinction between bacalao in its salted and air-dried forms: clipfish and stockfish, respectively. I remember, in this regard, my perplexity at a certain Mrs. Jessica Kuper, an anthropologist from South Africa, who, after investigating the local gastronomic traditions, married a Dutchman and subjected him, I suppose, to the sheaf of recipes she reproduced in The Anthropologist’s Cookbook. I am uncertain whether the marriage survived, or Mr. Kuper, for that matter, but my excellent glutton’s memory brings back to me the image of a number of the dishes the anthropologist noted down: for example, recipes whose bouquet depended on a peanut sauce as interpreted in various African cultures, or a fish soup of the Chugach Eskimos, which I would not scorn in my condition as a castaway, but which I would not deign to sample under any other circumstance. Now, Mrs. Kuper allows one of her collaborators in the book to call stockfish a supposedly regional French dish attributed to the residents of Rouergue and Quercy, which must not be bad, as it consists of rehydrated bacalao, cooked with potatoes and pureed with eggs, cream, butter, pepper, and parsley; which puree is then doused in a healthy serving of walnut oil. This hypercaloric ambuscade may be delicious, but it remains a variation on brandade, and I seem to remember, from the way they spoke of the mummy employed therein, that the narrator was none too certain whether salted or air-dried bacalao had been used, and only the latter may properly be called stockfish. It was also apparent that she had little affection for the dead body, because in her words, the process of desalting it and soaking it were a torment to the sense of smell; to the sense of smell of a chicken-heart, one must say, for no scent is offensive if it leads to the splendor of a well-made plate.
There is no poetry without delirium, it is true. My mouth speaks out of hunger, with a tip of the hat to Saint Matthew: Ex abundantia enim cordis os loquitur, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh; so I am not conserving paper, for I know it won’t help me make fire, however much the hands of this renegade cleric, failed intellectual, and fugitive sailor rub and rub the driest of sticks to spark the flame that would qualitatively change my situation. Difficile et proprie communia dicere, Horace writes, and how right he is, the hardest thing to express is what is common, and nothing is as humdrum at the present moment as the hunger of the imagination, though I might fill my stomach like a predator as primitive as the earliest amphibian. Now I imagine myself as a fish, amphibian, reptile, quadruped, invoking their alimentary recollections to draw on them in my plight, but nothing arises save for victimized reflections on my long journey from nothing to the most abject poverty. Sometimes I think it would be better to abandon myself to the temptation of the water, where the sirens sing for me to come to them as they have to every under-qualified sailor, from Homer to J.A. Prufrock. What answer could I give them beyond this search for my origins in the bacteria of the sea while staring at the inviolable wholeness of a dried bacalao, spurred on by the unassailable words of Ecclesiastes, With much wisdom comes much sorrow, as I compare my remembrances of Chez Giraudet with this nutritional squalor?
Death by water
to cathedrals submerged
or the gates of Hell
a premonition of lakes
in atavistic memory
to the sea’s anxious waiting
while the lotus feigns beauty
amid rot and death deferred
the waters recovered will drain
the basins of the earth in their dormancy
and will search for man between two epochs
the one of the piscine brain, the other of the polyglot
ape, with a degree in economics,
but memory remains
in the terrified retina of the first life
of the man who observes the low tide
with notions of vengeance and shipwreck
may the sirens sing, may the veins be opened,
who can be sure of eluding death by drowning?
Plainly: I am metaphysical, I don’t eat. And wishing to reach the boiling point of my imagination, I would place inside a casserole the portions of bacalao fit for preparation al pil pil, following the Basque technique of repeated faints in defiance of the laws of the transubstantiation of bodies, such as I tasted it in the restaurant Akelarre in San Sebastián.
The image of that triangle, mummified by salt or air, returns to me, finally, and I see it in a clay dish atop a glorious emulsion effected by its own gelatins, with garlic, oil, strips of dried choricero peppers, and the rhythmic rocking of the chef who stirs the casserole far enough above the flames that the fire aids in the emulsion and doesn’t ruin it.
No one else has ever achieved such a marvel, not the discoverer of the wheel and not the inventor of the condom. Millennia were needed before the predator ape descended from the trees and plunged into the savannah to discover fire, agriculture, and the right to accumulation, so that he could arrive at the formula bacalao al pil pil in the laboratory of his mind, where every tenth of a second flash memory, reality, and the desire to put to order the dialectic between chance and necessity. And if, some day, O reader of this castaway’s missive, you should ever find yourself before a plate of bacalao al pil pil, first eat the amber wisps of the fish’s flesh in the balsam of the sauce, and afterward, do not neglect the sauce that remains, which requires a silver spoon commensurate with its glory, and last of all, do not ignore the skin of the resurrected fish. It has lost the softness of other fish’s skins, because the gelatins have drained into the emulsion, and its flavor and texture are now as peerless as those of the skin of a Peking duck. And when the wonder is inside you, shut your eyes, and forget that you share your humanity with all the sadistic killers of history, and render tribute to whoever hit on the miracle of the transubstantiation of the mummified flesh of fish into delicacies the palate pays homage to as a definitive proof of its existence. And remember. Remember the spoonfuls, not so much eaten as lived, the ambrosia that lay in each one. Let your teeth speak for you, and with your tongue, lick the crannies of your mouth, for the teeth may retrieve what remains of pleasure’s shadows and the tongue will remain memory long after it has been desire. And consider that, as cooking and gastronomy are the pretexts of crimes against the living, we must require that the crime give rise to a proportionate degree of plenitude, and that, unlike the barbarity of grinding up our ill-starred enemy and turning him into a wretched hamburger, the death we have provoked has been the occasion for a splendorous image of beauty and abundance.
Excerpt from Reflexiones de Robinson ante un bacalao by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. © 1995 by the heirs of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. By arrangement with the Carmen Balcells Agency. Translation © 2017 by Adrian Nathan West. All rights reserved.
Recently, I heard a story from a friend.
Apparently my friend’s boyfriend had a bad habit that bothered her so much that finally one day she begged him to stop. Her boyfriend had agreed, resolving not to do it anymore, and then told her that there was something he wanted her to stop doing as well.
My friend said she could comply with his request but, knowing how difficult it would be for her boyfriend to stop doing the thing she had asked, she wondered with trepidation what he would ask for in exchange.
She said that he said, “I can’t stand the way you hold your chopsticks. You’ve got to fix it.”
When I heard this part of the story, my only response was a “hurm.”
The habit she had asked her boyfriend to change was a significant vice. Most people would say that it was not comparable to holding your chopsticks in a weird way.
Nevertheless, how she held her chopsticks was just as crucial a matter, an issue no less important to him if they were going to be together.
Day in and day out, so many personal habits can drive us crazy.
Someone who taps his foot unconsciously or someone who always inflects the end of her sentences, the sound of a sneeze or the way they close the refrigerator—the list could go on and on.
And yet it seems to me that, even among all these annoying quirks, the ones that seem to especially bother us have to do with table manners.
Perhaps it’s because something about eating is connected with the sexual or physiological parts of us. Or maybe with the fact that it’s absolutely necessary for survival, and thus the habits themselves—those on display during the act—indicate that person’s outlook on life.
In any case, it’s impossible to imagine ending a relationship over the person holding their chopsticks in an unacceptable fashion. Though I think I did hear about a doctor who broke off his engagement because he didn’t like the way his fiancée slurped her soba noodles.
I myself have no sense of the right way to hold chopsticks. Instead of simply allowing the upper chopstick to rest on my middle finger, I use that finger to grasp the other chopstick tightly, the same way as my index finger.
I thought I had more or less overcome this—after my mother’s urging—but not so long ago, while eating curry with some friends, I was startled when one of them said to me, “Kanako, the way you hold your spoon is so interesting.”
Ordinarily, you hold a spoon the same way you hold a pencil, right? But me, I use a backhand grip, holding it more like a scoop. Thus, when I bring the spoon up toward my mouth, it’s as if I’m going to hit myself in the face with it.
My mother warned me about this too, and I thought I had corrected it, but I had let my guard down among my close friends and, without even realizing it, had slipped back into the old pattern.
Another thing is that I eat very fast.
I eat so fast you’d think I was a police detective or a beat reporter. I barely chew, I scarf my food down so quickly. If I’m out with a strapping young guy, eating curry or ramen, I often finish before him. And at a multicourse meal, I usually spend more time waiting for the next course than actually eating the food.
Besides this, I spill food, I talk with my mouth full, I’m the first to start eating with my hands—my table manners are certainly nothing to brag about. Which is why, rather than merely tolerating others’ behavior, it’s safe to say that I am more at ease when I find myself with people whose habits go against conventional etiquette.
What I mean is, instead of being impressed when I see a guy who very properly switches his chopsticks to his left hand before placing them on a chopstick rest, I think, This guy must be really annoying. Or, when a person constantly dabs at her mouth with a napkin, I say to myself, I could never have an intimate conversation with someone like that.
No doubt this is just evidence of my own complex—I simply cringe in the face of people who know their proper manners—but then again, eating is pretty high on the list of important things in life.
I have a dream in which I’m the dorm mother for a boys’ school, where I prepare meals for the students.
The schoolboys come back to the dorm starving, and I like to watch them hungrily devour the plain food I’ve made—rice, pork cutlets, croquettes, gingered pork, fried soba noodles.
Now, I enjoy eating a fancy, multicourse meal—I can appreciate that this is one of the joys of living—but I’m more interested in life itself. I like to see how so much of the food we eat gets used up and consumed, its fundamental transformation into a person’s flesh and blood.
As for the boys’ table manners, the worse, the better. I like to see grains of rice go flying, or let them toss it into their miso soup and have it get all soggy, or instead of pinching their food with chopsticks, why not just stab it?
I called it plain food before—just basic for consumption—but watching these boys, it seems like this food is anything but.
© Kanako Nishi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Allison Markin Powell. All rights reserved.
As the Anglo-speaking world dances with authoritarianism, it feels apropos, if not a bit foreboding, that Bandi’s collection of short stories, The Accusation, should have its English debut. “Bandi” is the pseudonym of a North Korean author and member of Chosun Central League Writers’ Committee. His committee takes its cues from the Worker’s Party Department of Propaganda and Agitation, a highly significant state organ.
But The Accusation, which consists of seven short stories, is propaganda of a different nature; one highly critical of the North Korean regime, and particularly that of its first leader Kim Il-sung’s final years, marked by the deprivation and misery caused by the Soviet Union’s collapse. In Bandi’s stories hunger, for example, is everywhere, as evident as is the watchful eye of the State. The Accusation is a stark and often despair-inducing collection, but one we should read with great urgency at this moment, both as a document of what is and what could be and as a way to continue gaining better understanding of the complexities of North Korean society, which remains elusive to the West.
The Accusation’s arrival in South Korea and now in English is cause for celebration. Bandi’s is not the first piece of literature written by a North Korean dissident. Several successful memoirs and collections of poetry have emerged from DPRK defectors in the South, and no doubt these works had their seeds in the North. However, as far as can be told, Bandi’s stories represent the first written by someone who remains in the country, presumably still writing both for the State and for himself (for all we know Bandi is a woman, as it is unclear which parts of his biography are fabricated to protect his identity). How they were smuggled out of the North—a story unto itself, full of the kind of fortune that confirms the truth really is stranger than fiction—is included as an afterward.
The stories are most valuable as representations of the inner struggles of ordinary North Koreans. They are varied, and translator Deborah Smith renders them in an almost cheerful, matter-of-fact tone; characters are given wit and bitter humor. Their lives are at once relatable and comprised of experiences that, for the moment, remain a great distance from the lived experiences of many people who will pick up this book.
At their core they elucidate the logic required of people who are constantly monitored, not just by the State, directly, but by their fellow citizens A passage from the first story, “A Story of a Defection” exhibits the pervasive scrutiny:
I answered unthinkingly, too busy wondering how she could possibly have seen us. Thinking back now, she must have heard the gossip from the woman at No. 4, come to me to verify it, then reported it to the residents’ police. All of which could mean only one thing: Our apartment was under daily observation.
The portion of the North Korean population formally or informally connected to the surveillance apparatus is unparalleled. There is no such thing as idle gossip, and Bandi’s characters are well aware.
One’s connection, however tenuous, to a subversive or reactionary element can be devastating within the social caste system of the DPRK. In the case of Ko Inshik in the final story, “The Red Mushroom”, his brother-in-law was discovered to not have been killed during the Korean War, but ended up in the South, where Inshik’s reputation "became tarred with the brush of those who ‘falsified their history,’ and was sent down from Pyongyang in order to ‘have the proper revolutionary ideals instilled in him’ in N Town.”
In “Record of a Defection” the narrator’s family has been relegated to what is known as the wavering class “because my father was a murderer—albeit only an accidental one, and one whose sole victim was a crate of rice seedlings."
The parents in “The Stage”, the collection's most artful and viscerally affecting story, become agents of the State against their son, Kyeong-hun. Already viewed as a subversive element, “more canny than he’s letting on”, Kyeong-hun is observed holding a woman’s hand and drinking alcohol during the period of mourning for the Dear Leader. But the sins of the son are the whole family's and it is Kyeong-hun’s father who is forced to debase himself before his Bowibu Director and sell out his son with crocodile tears.
"Of course it’s political. Such behavior would be disgraceful at any time, but now! Now, when the inestimable loss of our Great Leader…" As though on cue, tears ran down Yeong-pyo’s cheeks, sallow and sunken due to a long-standing liver complaint. Even Yeong-pyo himself found it difficult to comprehend. How could the small cup of sadness sitting inside him produce a whole pitcher’s worth of tears?
Where the collection falters, if only a bit, is its overreliance on a single narrative structure. Bandi works heavily from flashback to tell his stories. The flashback typically takes up the middle third of each story, often outlining the dedication and perseverance of a Party worker who ends up disillusioned and disgusted, often battling feelings of impotence.
This may be just the style he is comfortable with (no one faults a hip hop artist for never writing a metal song), or perhaps it is a form common or popular in North Korean fiction, there is no way to tell. Fortunately, this rigid structure often breaks out into evocative, lyric passages, such as this quiet moment between old family friends:
...the smoke from Yeong-il’s cigarette quietly unspooled into the freezing air, and a space gradually formed between the two men...
or this description of the weather:
When the wind pauses to gather its breath, its absence amplified the sound of the rain, which poured down the roof in a plaintive whoosh.
The Accusation represents a milestone for those living outside the DPRK, but also in a sense for those living within its borders. To our great detriment, we in the West reduce and caricature North Korea, wanting to believe it simply a country of brainwashed peons serving a Confucian Big Brother. But, even if the narratives tend to be simple, Bandi refuses simplicity for his characters. Instead he gifts them forceful and vivid voices. The characters are stuck inside a terrible bind and it imbues their daily lives with a complexity and self-awareness that is as heartbreaking as it must be psychologically torturous, a bind I hope sincerely we ourselves can avoid in the years to come.
Catalan literature enjoys a long, vibrant tradition. Beginning with Ramon Llull—who was celebrated throughout 2016 to commemorate the seventh centenary of his death—and, after a long period of medieval splendor, with important contributions by Ausiàs March, Joanot Martorell, and Bernat Metge, literary production in Catalan once again flourished in the final decades of the nineteenth century and, above all, in the twentieth. Jacint Verdaguer, Narcís Oller, and Àngel Guimerà, among others, led the Renaixença—or the Renaissance, a movement akin to other European Romanticisms—of a culture that, over the last century, has come to include noteworthy figures in prose, poetry, theater, and philosophy. Of the generation born before the Spanish Civil War, the following writers stand out: Josep Carner, Joaquim Ruyra, Víctor Català, Josep Maria de Sagarra, Mercè Rodoreda, J.V. Foix, Joan Sales, Salvador Espriu, Pere Calders, Santiago Rusiñol, Joan Brossa, Josep Palau i Fabre, Gabriel Ferrater, Agustí Bartra, and Anna Murià. The Franco dictatorship forced Catalan literature into a state of hibernation from which it would only emerge following a slight thaw in the regime, an opportunity that marked the critical resurgence of the Catalan publishing industry during the 1960s. Many of the authors born in the ’20s and ‘30s published their most important works during this period, and, a few years later, new authors came on the scene, expanding and diversifying the Catalan-language canon, which has, for years now, blended formal risk and commercial literature, classical narrative and postmodernism, the construction of a Catalan identity and autofiction. Quim Monzó, Jesús Moncada, Montserrat Roig, Jordi Coca, Maria Mercè Marçal, Miquel de Palol, Jaume Cabré, Sergi Pàmies, Carme Riera, and Enric Casasses are just an essential few of the many faces of contemporary Catalan-language prose and poetry.
Despite this long tradition, as well as efforts at language normalization during the democratic opening and generational renewal, Catalan literature’s survival has been hard-won in a context that remains unfavorable economically, socially, and politically.
The financial crisis of 2008 continues to have devastating effects on the book market. According to data from the Spanish Association of Publishers Guilds, the publishing industry has lost around forty percent of its governmental funding, despite a small upturn in the past two fiscal years; caught in the wake of recession across Spain at large, literary production in Catalan now represents 14.3% of the market, while Spanish-language production makes up 74.4% (the most recent numbers are from 2015). The 11,480 Catalan-language titles published annually must go up against the almost 60,000 titles in Spanish. In short, when a reader enters a bookstore in one of the three Catalan-speaking autonomous regions—Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and Valencia—for every title they find in Catalan, they face at least seven others in Spanish.
Given the available options, choosing a book in Catalan is, inevitably, the choice of a social minority. The latest survey on reading habits commissioned by Catalonia’s Department of Culture (2015) revealed that only 26.4% of Catalans read in Catalan regularly—a percentage that has increased only slightly (around 3%) during the last decade. This past January, the Catalan Government approved a budget allotting €249.7 million for the development and promotion of culture, and while this figure is €21.5 million more than in 2016, it represents little more than 1% of the government’s overall spending. Financially supporting the book world, which includes literary and translation grants as well as acquisition funds for public libraries, bookstore renovations, and organizing book fairs, amounts to around €9.2 million, or four percent of book sales in Catalan, which came to €230.31 million in 2015.
Writing in Catalan: Both Feat and Sacrifice
The publishing sector’s overall figures are hardly promising. The economic revenue that drives Catalan-language literature—which, in 2015, accounting for all adult, young adult, and children’s literature, was around €89 million—represents only a third of the national total. And the consequences for writers are obvious. Two years ago, only one in ten Catalan-language authors could make a living off their earnings while around eighty percent of other writers made less than €5,000 a year for their artistic labor (royalties, conferences, articles and interviews in the press); these figures may be somewhat surprising considering that the Catalan literary world has several high-paying prizes, such as the Ramon Llull or Sant Jordi—both published with imprints of Planeta—that annually award €60,000 for an unpublished work. This data comes from a study undertaken by the Association of Writers in Catalan, which, with more than 1,200 affiliates, is the organization that represents the greatest number of Catalan-language writers, despite including only a token percentage of young writers—one of the age groups most affected by the crisis.
Pursuing a writing career in Catalan remains, for the time being, both a feat and a sacrifice; and yet, it’s also a literature that’s on the rise. It’s surprising that, year after year—and during a time of economic crisis—new voices continue to populate the literary landscape: in narrative, the appearance of writers such as Marta Rojals, Max Besora, Alicia Kopf, Albert Forns, Alba Dedeu, Damià Bardera, Gemma Ruiz, Marc Cerdó, Sebastià Portell, Albert Pijuan, Joan Benesiu, and Adrià Pujol has been remarkable; in poetry, several debut collections stand out, including those of Francesc Gelonch, Jaume Coll Mariné, Misael Alerm, Marc Rovira, Carles Dachs, Laia Carbonell i Maria Sevilla—as well as work by the ever-prolific Blanca Llum Vidal and Lucia Pietrelli.
Another good sign has been the arrival of several independent publishers committed to bringing out literature that does not promise immediate financial turnover; what’s more, they make an effort to establish lasting editorial relationships with the majority of their authors. This is true for L’Altra, LaBreu, Males Herbes, Periscopi, and Raig Verd, as well as the second generation of publishing house Club Editor, to cite only a half dozen of those that have developed their catalogues over the past decade in particular.
Undoubtedly, one of the key factors of Catalan literature’s growing prestige over the past decade was Catalonia’s attendance, as Guest of Honor, at several International Book Fairs. The first was Guadalajara (2004), then Frankfurt (2007)—which was arguably the most important—and, later on, Göteborg (2013) and Warsaw (2016). This spring, Catalonia’s participation in the Bologna Children’s Book Fair could prove another critical achievement. If fifty-five translations from Catalan were published in 2003, that number has practically doubled in the last year (99), with a few particularly good years in between, such as 2007 (145) and 2011 (135). Of the 1,030 translations published between 2002 and 2013, 833 have received funding from the Institut Ramon Llull, which has already awarded €2.5 million. The Institute’s principal goal is to promote Catalan culture and literature abroad, and, in the short fifteen years since its founding, it has unquestionably played a remarkable role in disseminating the works of both classic and contemporary authors internationally. In first part, for the growing impact of several authors stand out: Marcè Rodoreda’s In Diamond Square, Joan Sales’ s Uncertain Glory, Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook, and Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life; in second part, for the thirty-seven translations of Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Cold Skin, the more than twenty versions of Jaume Cabré’s Confessions, or the sixteen languages into which Jordo Puntí’s Lost Luggage has been translated thus far.
Apart from those exceptional cases, only a small group of writers are regularly translated, as is true for Quim Monzó, Carme Riera, Francesc Serés, Sergi Pàmies, Maria Barbal, and Sebastià Alzamora. Others have had a single work enjoy phenomenal success abroad, including the following titles: Marc Pastor’s Barcelona Shadows, Toni Sala’s The Boys, Marta Rojal’s The Other, and Najat El Hachmi’s The Last Patriarch. The latter two are included in this issue to demonstrate that their work is still full of unexplored nuances; short work by Mercè Ibarz has appeared in two anthologies released by Dalkey Archive Press; the remaining contributors—Pep Puig, Borja Bagunyà, Maria Cabrera, and Francesc Garriga—are appearing in English for the first time.
El Hachmi and Rojals: Writing on the Opportunity Gap
In this issue we present an excerpt from Najat El Hachmi’s (Nador, 1979) latest novel, The Foreign Daughter (Edicions 62, 2015), in which the problems of a girl who lives with her mother, and who has been offered the hand of a Moroccan cousin, become the stuff of literature. She agrees to marry him while explaining where she works—describing in depth the possibilities that are afforded to her by a Catalan society to which she has belonged for many years—while offering a frank comparison between herself and her mother, who has had to persevere on her own since moving inland to live with her daughter.
As for Marta Rojals, we’ve selected four articles from the collection We Could Have Studied Less (Sembra, 2015), in which the author reflects, in brief segments, on her generation’s experience of growing professional instability, a generation that, after years of making a living in positions related to their degrees, has been forced to accept precarious jobs. Rojals devotes several texts to the growing devaluation of humanities degrees in various countries, but also to evictions, failing confidence in the political class, environmental issues, the Catalan independence movement, and the tenuous status of the Catalan language.
Ibarz, Puig, Bagunyà: Three Generations of Storytellers
Spanning three generations, the short stories selected for this issue comprise an array of diverse narratives. Since debuting with her autobiographical “nouvelle” Solitary Land (Quaderns Crema, 1993), Mercè Ibarz (Saidí, 1954) has penned essays on Mercè Rodoreda, Luis Buñuel, and Maria-Mercè Marçal while continuing to write fiction that is at once deeply personal and original. In doing so, Ibarz departs from her contemporaries, including Ferran Torrent, Ramon Solsona, and Carme Riera, while also drawing closer to one of the great writers of the preceding generation, Jesús Moncada, author of The Towpath (La Magrana, 1988). This is clearest in Palm of Wheat (1995), but likewise in two earlier short story collections about city life: In the City Under Construction (2002) and Street Fever (2005). “The Street,” the story we’ve selected for this issue, comes from the latter. Here, we see Ibarz suture the narrator’s past and present through a visit to an outlying alley, situated at the foot of Montjuïc Mountain, where she had lived years many years beforehand. It’s a story worked through with lyricism, and spotted with numerous—and pertinent—cultural referents, from Anna Magnani, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Luchino Visconti to Omar Khayyam and Antoni Gaudí’s architecture.
Pep Puig (Terrassa, 1969) belongs to a generation of writers uniquely characterized by their wide range of styles, including Lluís-Anton Baulenas, Joan-Daniel Bezsonoff, Flavia Company, Jordi Lara, Vicenç Pagès Jordà, Màrius Serra, Joan-Lluís Lluís, Jordi Puntí, Gabriel Galmés and Maria Jaén. He came onto the scene in 2005 with the novel The Man Who Returns (Empúries). After publishing his second novel, Miss Marta’s Tears (Empúries, 2007), Puig took an extended publishing hiatus that would only end with the release of his splendid first short story collection, The Love of My Life, for the Time Being (L'Altra, 2015), to which “My Uncle” belongs. Here, Puig describes a young boy’s fascination with a girl at the pool in polished, highly enjoyable prose; the tale, however, grows darker as the story progresses and the characters grow up.
Borja Bagunyà (Barcelona, 1982) launched his writing career much earlier than other writers of his generation, which includes Max Besora, Víctor Garcia Tur, Joan Jordi Miralles, Llucia Ramis, Joan Todó, Pere Antoni Pons, Miquel Adam, Bel Olid, Albert Forns, Yannick Garcia, Marina Espasa, Anna Carreras, and Montse Banegas. His first book, Notes for a City Portrait, was published in 2004, and three years later—when he was only twenty-five—he won the Mercè Rodoreda Award for Short Fiction with Self Defense. The story “You’ve Likely Never Been to a Party This Big” belongs to his third collection, Houseplants (Empúries, 2011), which represents his most eclectic, intense, and ambitious writing up to this point. Drawing on postmodern conventions—among his referents are David Foster Wallace, Robert Coover, and Gonçalo M. Tavares—Bagunyà describes a party whose excesses echo those of mythological debauchery.
Cabrera and Garriga: Two Voices of Contemporary Poetry
“There are things more dangerous than poets . . . although some would disagree,” noted Enric Casasses following the publication of You I Know, his final book of poems, in late 2013. To that thought Casasses would add, “Professors establish canons. Each writer has his or her own way of observing the past and present. All of them joined together will continue to create the future canon, perhaps. You must keep your eyes and ears open. There are pearls everywhere!” It’s no secret that poetry abounds in Catalan literature. Since the end of the ’90s, the number of reading series dedicated to poetry has grown in Catalonia, as well as in Valencia and the Balearic Islands; these performances continue—though there are fewer than before the crisis—and have even occasioned the creation of several micro-presses. As publishers specifically devoted to works from this genre, Café Central and LaBreu were pioneers, but others have played a significant role, including AdiA, Terrícola, Edicions del Buc and Poncianes, as well as robust poetry series from Proa, Pagès, Edicions 62, Lleonard Muntaner, Edicions de 1984, El Gall, Quaderns Crema, 3i4, and Viena.
Maria Cabrera i Callís (Girona, 1983) recently won the Carles Riba prize in poetry for her third book, Tired City (Proa, 2017), but it was Bright Morning (Accent, 2010) that established her as one of several essential young voices in the genre, growing in parallel with the diverse aesthetics of writers such as Josep Pedrals, Eduard Escoffet, Jaume C. Pons Alorda, Mireia Vidal-Conte, Francesc Gelonch, Adrià Targa, Carles Rebassa, Anna Gual, Esteve Plantada, Blanca Llum Vidal, and Martí Sales. In Bright Morning, Cabrera combines prose and verse in masterful ways, with results—incendiary, unexpected, clairvoyant—that are clear in "ways of knowing," the poem from that collection that appears here. In addition, we feature two poems from her Riba prize-winning collection.
Finally, Francesc Garriga i Barata (Sabadell, 1932–Sant Cugat, 2015), while first appearing in print in the ’50s, didn’t begin to publish regularly until 2000, after retiring from his position as a secondary school teacher. His success can be credited to his collection Shadows, and, some time later, to Lost Time (2003), where he found his creative path—at once expressive and jagged, inclement and desolate. His masterful voice was later reaffirmed in the excellent work The Night of the Fish (2005) and grew stronger still—taking on new nuances—in Serpent Paths (2009) and Ragtime (2011). This is no less true for Returning is Far off (2013), the last book he published in his lifetime, in which he once again charged against hypocrisy, (“They’d serve lies / on the plate of prayers / and it was impossible to distinguish / one from the other”), reclaimed the value of friendship (“only those who love will purify time / in the fire of conversation”) and took himself to task with his usual brutality (“all that’s left for you is the embarrassment / of having fled / to survive”).
The many modes, styles, and genres of writing to be found here provide a window into the vast possibilities—for language and for subject matter—explored in contemporary Catalan literature. If the growing prestige of Catalan writers depends, in part, on several factors that are not strictly literary, the selection here suggests Catalan writers stand ready to rise to the occasion.
© Jordi Nopca. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Megan Berkobien. All rights reserved.