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from the May 2017 issue

Just Dinner, but Oh, What a Feast

“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.

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