I returned from my European trip about a week ago and am still looking forward to sharing part of my experiences there with you. I know that this blog post is not “African” per se; but this post is about people, food and culture. Some of the things that interest and endear me most about Africa are those same three things: people, food and culture. So, here is my perspective on a wedding I had the privilege of attending last month.
Anyone who has travelled at all knows what role food plays in culture. I’ve eaten food from a fair number of countries and am always interested in how foods are eaten. Some are finger foods by design; with others one asks how anyone could manage to eat it with their hands and not a utensil.
As an Eritrean, I’ve often enjoyed seeing Westerners eat at our table for the first time. Awkwardly posing the question in their head of how on earth they are going to manage to get a meat sauce to their mouths without making a disastrous mess of the whole thing.
This brings me to the recent experience I had at a French table. I was reminded of something that foodies around the world have always known: Food is culture.
Sitting at the table with friends laughing, drinking and eating is something that we all do whether in Nigeria, Lesotho, Canada or France. I’ve lived in a few countries and travelled a bit over my lifetime and that is something that never changes: food connects people.
Actually, I should start at the beginning: last month, I attended the wedding of one of my favorite French cousins. We were invited to the wedding many months ago and were really looking forward to it. I could talk to you about the horse-drawn carriage, her beautiful gown or the 11th century chapel. But if you know me at all, you know that my brain often revolves around a couple of things: food being one of them!
I sat looking around at the sumptuous spread on the buffet table and came to an unusual conclusion. They could have been serving lunch meat sandwiches and people would have been just as happy. You see, ironically: it’s the people; not the food. Sure, great food is a bonus; but it’s only that: a bonus. Those people were so happy to be there so celebrate love and the union of two families that they would have gathered around the table together to simply break bread of any sort. (Granted, the bread in France is fabulous; but you get my point!)
In fact, the food was classically Southern French: fois gras, pâté, couscous salad, an incredible array of cheeses… the list goes on. And that isn’t to mention the wedding cake: a beautiful Croquembouche and macarons in a “piece monté”.
This wedding, in the small village reception hall was unmistakably French. It wasn’t a snobbish affair mind you; it was a simply elegant and stylish event. The bride was stunning, the people well-dressed. But, that slightly loud conversation which is so common in Southern Europe, the smell of anise on people’s breath (after a few glasses of Pastis, bien sûr!), the vision of grandmothers and little children dancing together until all hours of the night… all served as typical signs that we were in the South of France in the summertime.
Upon hearing of my upcoming trip, one of my dear friends, Geoff told me that he was hoping that me blogging about my time in France would help shed some light on the French for him, especially since he is from the U.K. Most of us know that the two cultures have never really managed to “get” each other. OK, fine, there is also a bit of history involved; but you probably understand what he meant.
That wedding can’t be called the real France. After all, culture is complex. Expensive handbags, chic stores, the Eiffel Tower and sweet smelling perfumeries in Paris are a part of France. But for me, this charming wedding reception was my France, the France I love so much. It was family, friends, great local wine and delicious food. It was those same 20 songs that you hear at all of the village festivals that no one can help but sing out-loud while dancing until the wee hours of the morning. It was great quality local ingredients, prepared so simply that they maintain their integrity.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that if you changed the menu a bit and everyone spoke another language, that wedding could have easily been Spanish, Italian or yes… African. Unpretentious, people-centered and always about great food! Not fancy, overly complicated dishes; just great food and good wine. Alright, in some parts of Africa it’d be palm wine instead of Syrah; but the goal of having more people and less complicated food would have been the same.
When I was young, I remember having food from all over the world. For me, the spicy, rich dishes of Eritrean cuisine often meant hearing my family chatter-on in Tigrinya. Hearty Italian meals usually meant that my dad was sipping a beer or some wine while teaching me why basil was a better option than oregano. Our Korean neighbor popped in from time to time and left wonderful Yaki-Mandu (triangular-shaped Korean egg rolls) on our kitchen table when we were away at school or work. (Remember when we didn’t even have to lock our doors?). To this day, I feel a special affinity for South Korea because I spent so many years eating Korean food with friends. It’s rather similar to Eritrean dishes in fact and somehow, learning that made me feel closer to its people too. Odd perhaps; but true.
The next time you are deciding how to share who you are with someone, share your food. The next time you want to learn more about a group of people or their culture share their food. The most fun I’ve ever had while traveling has been at the dinner table. It is inevitably accompanied by laughter, jokes and sometimes even serious discussions of politics or religion. When the people bring their smiles to the table, the food always binds them to each other… no matter what is on the plate.
Bon appétit et bon santé !