Food

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” James Beard.

 



Chinese New Year Dinner in LiJiang, China 2012

  



chicken soup



And, chicken soup is said to cure a cold, and good for your soul.

No one would argue that food is necessary to live, and if you have good food, life is infinitely better.

Food brings us together, tempts us, identifies us, frustrates us. Some people get rich off it-others work hard to provide it and still others have to steal basic food  to feed their families.

Roasting chestnuts in Chendu

Gandhi said, There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot apper to them except in the form of bread.”

 
A humble American grandma will say, ‘It isn’t perfect,’ when you praise a dish. 
My mother gave a recipe box filled with her most popular recipes as a wedding gift to brides- an intimate gift of herself. When my son lost his first tooth he asked the tooth fairy to bring him pie. My daughter makes my mother’s pinwheel cookies every Christmas. Students from around the world decorated my grandmothers cookies for Christmas in 2011.
 Our family lives on through food. 

Because of my Irish heritage I salivate just thinking about real Colcannon; mashed potatoes with cream, sauteed cabbage and crispy onions topped with lots of butter and black pepper.

The smell of fresh tomatoes takes me back to my mom’s kitchen in late summer when she labored to can jars of tomatoes, beets, peppers and  vegetable soup-summer in a jar during a snow storm. 

 I can taste her love steeped in the red sauce she taught me to make for  stuffed green peppers or pasta. At a request of a friend in China, I made spaghetti for him and his girl friend. He had thirds and finished off the sauce in the pan with the heel of the french bread I’d bought. “I had spaghetti at an Italian restaurant in Beijing, he said, but yours is better.”  Mom would be so proud.

Food is the highlight of my travel. I can’t describe nearly as much of what I see in museums, as I can the food of a country, and the people I share meals with.

Decorating Christmas cookies at EF International 2011

In Tangier I was admiring the sensual aromas and rich colors of bins of spices when an elderly man came up to me with a flat aluminum pan  full of what looked like cornmeal mush. I said, “No thank you.” A passerby said, You should have some. It’s delicious. He was right.  I ate the baked meal with my fingers, scrapping the small piece of paper it was on to get every grain.

In Fez, Morocco,  I was invited for dinner to the house of a man I met on the train. Actually, I went to Fez because he persuaded me to see the ancient Medina. Fortunately his marriage proposal came after the delicious meal his sisters cooked-so I fled on a full stomach.

Throughout Morocco I devoured roasted camel, and bowls of fava bean soup from street vendors. Come evening I sat alone with  6 to 10 different colored bowls spread out before me, each holding a unique flavor in restaurants for dinner. 

The gracious Thai people think it is sad to eat alone so they don’t let that happen. I’ve had a Thai businessmen join me for lunch to discuss American politics, families invite me to join their table, and even the cook on the island of Ko Semet sat with me after she had cooked my meal. The following day she invited me into her kitchen to observe to learn how to make Thai chili paste -her way. 

In China I cooked traditional American Christmas and
Thanksgiving dinners for twenty plus students, staff and friends on a two burner stove with no oven. It’s amazing what you can do in a wok.


A pot, A Wok. And a bowl=a double boiler!.


Almost every weekday I ate at least one meal at the dining hall. Because all of the meat and vegetables, including fish with bones, are chopped into  one inch pieces it is extremely difficult for a novice like me to determine origin.  It became a game of ‘guess that food.’ resulting on me eating mostly vegetables. The cafeteria workers, though, monitored my intake. One day I was sitting with a student, having lunch when a tiny woman came up to her. “Tell her she isn’t eating enough meat.

On several occasions I was invited to a hot pot restaurant. Hot pot is a cauldron of hot spicy, oil one dips skewers of meat and vegetables into.  It’s not for sensitive palates.

Offered a pig snout from a street vendor, I couldn’t do it- just couldn’t bring myself to bite into a big pig nose.

I laughed as my students read the yellow mustard jar at our traditional American picnic featuring hot dogs. “Is this American mustard. Ruby? I thought mustard was green.”  ” Ah. You are thinking of Japanese wasabi.  Not even close.”

 Eating with people on the road is the sharing of cultures, the acceptance of one another’s differences, the acknowledgement that we are the same. As a stranger, when I’m  invited to dine with a family or new friend in a country where I barely speak the language, I’m humbled and grateful.
When traveling, food is the adventure; everything else comes after. I was 23 when I first flew outside the US mainland to Puerto Rico. My date, an impossibly handsome man, bought us blood sausage from a street vendor. Oh my god, I said. Cooked blood! I can’t possibly eat that! Next came the whole fish with a sunken eye peering at me. “The muscle behind the eye is the best.” he teased. I put a lettuce leaf over it. He ate the eye muscle, I devoured the delicious fish. And then there were fried plantains, squid and pineapple freshly picked. I probably still wouldn’t eat the eye muscle, but the rest-piece of cake!

Last week I took my grand kids, six and nine to an Asian market. “Ooohh. Look at the pigs feet. What is that? It’s a block of congealed blood? Oh gross. What’s an eel? ” Who eats this stuff, the boy said?” “Many people-all over the world, Honey-even in your own neighborhood.”  

Living in Mexico I found myself at the same taco stand, several days a week  eating fresh fish tacos with crunchy cabbage, cilantro and avocado – a balanced meal for a buck fifty.

In Lisbon it was bacalhau -salted cod,  sardines, squid on a stick; in Spain I ate my weight in tapas, washed down with red wine. In one bar the tiny fish bones kept sticking in my throat. Agh. Agh I coughed. Laughing, the bartender and two other patrons urged-mas vino, mas vino.

My family’s staples were potatoes-roasted, mashed, or fried and home baked bread. My southern husband introduced me to rice and grits- my housekeeper/cook to heavenly greens, black eyed peas, chitlins, and corn bread-soul food. Isn’t it all food for the soul.

  In Asia I watched folks work in rice paddies- small and large. I  heard stories about cobras’ weaving among the thick fields, and the cobra hunters who catch them and milk the venom.  I’ve shared  unidentifiable food  on trains, buses and boats with people I knew for an hour or a night.

 In Central America I talked to coffee farmers who pick the berries and spread them out in the sun to dry, and women sitting on the ground surrounded by baskets of vegetables, fruit or a few chickens to sell.

Food is as essential to our souls as to our health.  I agree with J.R.R. Tolkien who said, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. ”
Indeed.