Foodways – Iftars in Ramadan

Ramadan started on Tuesday night in Oman. Given the circumstances of fighting Covid-19 there are fewer advertisements showing large gatherings/ family iftars (the meal eaten at sunset to break the fast). Families are highly encouraged to only share meals with those who live in the same household.

Photos such as these (above and below) are usually shared just within family members (usually with a ‘wish you were here’ kind of greeting). I asked X, who has helped me with my food research, if X might take a photo that I could use on this webpage to show a typical Dhofari iftar.

A few things to note:

  • Every-day family dinners usually have one large dish (fish or meat [cow, camel, goat] with rice or pasta) accompanied by salad and condiments, For rice dishes, plates are not needed as everyone shares from the platter. But for iftars, there is often soup (requiring bowls) and various choices, never only one dish. This means that everyone has a plate to take a little from the numerous dishes, including dates (the most important element), stuffed grape leaves, salads, sandwiches, a fruit bowl (bananas, grapes, oranges), cut fruit and/ or fruit salad with oranges, watermelon, apples, etc.
  • Three typical iftar dishes are 1) sambusas (aka samosas, a baked or fried pastry with a savory filling such as spiced vegetables, cheese or meat). Meat and vegetable sambusas are available all year, but cheese ones are usually only available during Ramadan. Sambusas are sometimes made at home but are usually bought at little covered stalls which are set up outside most bakeries from 4pm-6pm; they are sold by the kilo in brown paper bags. 2) shorba, a soup made with beef, vegetables and oats (sometimes with lemon) and 3) thareed, a dish made with khubz roqaq (raqeeq/ roqaqr, a round bread about 24 inches across and very thin) soaked in a beef or chicken stock with spices. Sweets include custards, kanafeh/ kunafa (shredded filo pastry or semolina dough that is baked in sugar-based syrup usually with a layer of cheese, sometimes served with cream or nuts), luqaymat/ loukoumades (sweet fried dumplings dipped in sugar syrup), saffron/ coconut/ chocolate cake, etc. The most important drink is laban/ labneh/ leben (fermented milk, known in America as buttermilk) which is usually taken with dates to break the fast. The second most common iftar drink is Vimto, a cordial of fruits and spices that is diluted with water. (I think of it as the Omani equivalent of eggnog, a pumpkin spice latte, or a peppermint-mocha coffee, a drink that it is ubiquitous during a holiday season; even the people who hate it admit it is part of the atmosphere.)
  • Another difference between every-day family dinners and an iftar is that normally the food is not served close to prayer times and everyone eats at the same time. There is little conversation while eating and the food is cleared away as soon as everyone is done. For iftars, as seen below, most of the food is kept in a covered containers as it has to be prepared and set out before the call to prayer. After the sunset prayer, family members will sit together for a longer time, eating slowly as they have been fasting all day. Some will eat a little, wait for some time, then eat again. Thus the iftar meal can be left out for hours and the food choices need to either be palatable at room temperature or kept in covered containers.
  • School-age children eat lunch at home, not at school, and most adults are also home for lunch which is the main meal of the day. Dhofaris who work will rarely eat a packed lunch at their desk. This means that kitchen are usually not equipped with the accoutrements for household members taking meals from the house like lunch boxes, mini ice-packs and single-serving size plastic containers. But most households share many-portion amounts of food with neighbors and relatives so there are usually inexpensive duplicates of items such as coffee carafes and glass or plastic serving dishes, and single-use thin metal containers with cardboard covers. For example the dish below with the green cover will hold a rice or pasta dish. This would be used as shown below, with the cover on to keep the food warm until the call for prayer has sounded, or filled with food and given away. A typical kitchen will have several of these so that there is no need to worry if/ when it will be returned if one is given away.

iftar k - 2

I will be presenting “Ethical Eating in Southern Oman” at the annual convention of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, June 2021.

I am pleased to announce that I will be presenting “Ethical Eating in Southern Oman” at Just Food, virtual conference of the Association for the Study of Food and Society; Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society; Canadian Association for Food Studies and the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, hosted by the Culinary Institute of America and New York University. June 9-15, 2021.

(photo from social media)

y - good morning 1

https://foodanthro.com/2020/12/01/just-food-because-it-is-never-just-food/

https://www.food-culture.org/2021-conference/

Foodways and Living Expat on the Arabian Peninsula – part 2

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

I love those moments in which foodways and culture interact in ways that take me by surprise. When I lived in Cyrus, a friend from India kept trying to find “Indian Chinese,” Chinese food spiced the way it is in India. I didn’t really understand what she meant until I moved to the Arabian Peninsula and realized that what I had thought of a “Chinese” was really “American Chinese”; there is no General Tso’s chicken outside of North America!

A non-American friend asked me why all American breakfast foods are spiced with cinnamon in the same way I wonder why people in the UK insist on putting raisins in every dish.

It’s always impossible to say what foods you will miss most when you move abroad. When I lived in Europe, I asked my mom to send me crab seasoning, a spice I never liked before and never used, but that little tin sat on my bookshelf proudly for a year.

Moving overseas always means culinary adjustments. One friend is vegetarian by choice, but when he tried to be vegetarian on the Arabian Peninsula, what he ate became the main topic of every meal. After many conversations centered around his food choices, he decided that when he was in the Middle East, he would eat vegetarian when he could (which meant, when he was alone) and ate sparingly of what was offered when he was eating with friends.

When I used to do cultural orientations for new teachers, I would tell them that everyone has unspoken/ unacknowledged expectations about foreign cultures in that they will think, “I know that X will be different but of course Y will be the same.” And when they see their “of course Y will be the same…” start to fall apart, it is painful. Especially when it comes to basics such as grocery stores (no pastrami, scone mix, turkey, toasted onions, salad-in-a-bag or soft pretzels); potato flakes are shelved next to pancake mix and every Cheeto is ‘flaming hot’ here.

You are faced with “Party fever” spray deodorant, hokey-pokey (ask someone from New Zealand), Jaggery (isn’t that a Dickens’s character?), angel delight (?), Tim-Tams (ask someone from Australia), “Chicago Sauce,” fish maw soup, and jungle oats with a recipe on the side for “fish cakes” which begins with “one tin of sardines in tomato sauce.”

The oil aisle is a pure delight. Of course you have your basics: almond oil, sunflower, coconut oil, pure ghee, Mazola, grape seed, and peanut oil, then the flights of fancy take off: olive oil from Spain and Italy, toasted sesame oil, gingelly oil, olive pomace oil, ground nut, walnut oil from France, basil, lemon, soy bean, avocado oil. The spice aisle has “Zeal” (aka MSG), “Spice for Mince,” “Zulu Fine,” “Spice for Rice,” “Spice for Mince,” “Veggie Season,” juniper berries, and my favorite: bits of raw sugar and cinnamon sticks in a grinder.

Many texts about the Middle East talk about guests being forced to over-eat or the horrors of being given camel eyes to eat. I have not seen that – my issues are with the jalapenos lurking under the cheese on pizzas, never being able to drink filter coffee (it’s always hot water added to an espresso), being invited for dinner at 8pm and having the food actually served at midnight, discovering that the dessert is sweetened shredded carrots, being invited over to chat and given a glass of tap-water and nothing else… Salads don’t have dressings, bread is not served with butter, drinks are brought out after the meal is finished – it’s different. Not better, not worse – just different.

good words

Foodways and Living Expat

One of the issues I have run into doing research about food is trying to stay neutral when describing unfamiliar foodways. It’s easy to fall into finger-pointing about “bad food” such as Omanis discussing my oatmeal cookies (to them, they taste like sand) and my declining to try their dried, salted shark filet.

The men in my research group are disgusted at my eating “old” food (cold, leftover pizza) and it took me a long time to accept that a toasted white bread sandwich with processed cheese spread, crushed Chips Oman, a sliced boiled egg and hot sauce is a good snack.

They tease me because I can’t cook rice; I have yet to eat a decent muffin in Oman (and don’t get me started on the hollandaise sauce!) Even food metaphors fall apart cross-culturally: one store had a large sign: “if life doesn’t give you lemons, we deliver.” I think I have enough ‘lemons’ at the moment, I do not want any delivered!

Like at home, my friends know each other’s favorite restaurants, but since food appears and disappears in the grocery stores, we are all on the look-out for basics. You slowly learn what others crave and preform the basic kindness of standing in grocery aisles and calling/ sending messages: “they have blueberry yoghurt,” “molasses is here,” “vanilla powder is in” and “I see Dr. Pepper!”

Shopping is more stressful to me than at home – there’s a lot of hide and seek. Pasta sauce is in three different aisles, and often the salsa is mixed in. Salt has its own section not near the spices (and don’t even dream of finding tarragon or rosemary), sugar is with the coffee not the flour, muffin cups are on the other side of the store from the muffin mix, the few times cranberry sauce appears it is next to the golden syrup, croutons are next to dried soup mixes and crackers are in the cereal aisle.

Then, when you have found something – there is always the debate: is this going to be worth the money? The joy of seeing Ben and Jerry’s was canceled by the fact that the three times I have ventured to try it, the ice cream had freezer-burn. Many delicious-looking cakes and tortes have tasted liked wood shavings. I have bought many items because I was afraid the store would never have it again (green salsa), to encourage the store to keep it in stock (dried tortellini) or that I will never eat (Lindt bears as holiday decorations, cookies and 7-Up for workers).

Once covid hit, friends and I tag-teamed shopping so I learned to find all sorts of things I never knew existed: sprouted rice, coconut flour, beetroot powder and pea pasta.

There a lot of rabbit holes to fall down, especially in reading menus. There are misspellings: “frut” for “fruit, “pommel grenade” for “pomegranate,” “mashromme” for “mushroom,” and “pasilic” for “basil.” Some words are just transliterated so you can get quickly lost with “rocka,” “arais,” “pine” and “akkawi.”

Just as a person needs to learn that “Florentine” means “with spinach,” there are place adjectives in Middle Eastern cooking; for example, “hummus Beiruti” means “with garlic.” When I try to get a pizza the way I want it, I need to use all three ways to describe one thing: green peppers, capsicum, and fil-fil bard (“cold peppers”). And you can’t order a cheese pizza, you need to say “margarita,” but that word is often confused with “fajita” so you end up with a spicy chicken pizza instead of plain cheese. 

In addition to food, it took me awhile to get used to how to eat – I still spill a lot of rice when eating with my hands. And, after a few years, I am finally accustomed to the eat-then-talk-for-hours routine in Dhofar. When a non-Omani friend invited me for dinner (sitting outside!), we arrived at 7:30, were done eating by 9 and as I was expecting that we were going to settle in to talk, she asked for the bill. I was amazed – weren’t we going to “visit”? I had forgotten my previous understanding that dinner in a restaurant took 1 ½ to 2 hours, 3 or 4 hours is normal to me now.

(photo from social media)

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Foodways – a few remarks about cows and goats

Cows

After camels, cows are the most important herd animal. Cow owners will argue that they are more useful than camels because they produce more milk and have more babies. They are also said to have sweeter temperaments, but that is an argument I am not getting into, nor will I discuss which animal is smarter.

Cows are usually kept in at night, especially calves, and let out to graze freely in the day like camels. Cows roaming free are a rarity on the Arabian Peninsula, so Gulf Arab tourists often stop to take photos of them as an exotic creature. During the khareef (monsoon season, June – August) they stay in the mountains but are usually kept in during the day, because of the numerous flies, and let out to graze at night. Owners will sometimes lit smoky fires to help get rid of flies.

The local type are small (shoulder-height), often with great curving horns, and are usually placid. In the mid- and late-1970s, new breeds were brought in to increase size and milk output [see Andrew Higgins (2011) and Janzen (1986)].

Like camels, cows stick together in groups and walk in line along the sides of roads but unlike camels, cows will often lie down or stand in the middle of roads as dark tarmac roads hold the warmth of the day.

Cows and camels don’t get along well and you seldom see them feeding near each other and very rarely intermixed in the same area. Most people have one or the other, a division which is partially based on tribes or family-clans within tribes. Some tribes are known for having a preference for one or the other; friends who have different animals will occasionally argue about the relative intelligence/ worth/ temperament of the two types of animals.

As with camels, cows are usually milked by men but a woman can do it if there are no men around. Cow’s milk is often turned into samn (clarified butter) which is kept in an urn-shaped metal container. This is seen as more valuable than milk and in the past was a primary exchange item in a system of barter with townsfolk.

The same customs for herding camels obtains for cows; either a man or an expat supervised by a local man will be responsible for a herd of around 20 to 50 cows which might be all owned by one person or several family members.

Goats

The third most important herd animal is the goat. Goats don’t have the prestige of cows or camels but are also named and looked after carefully. They are herded by Dhofari women or men, or an expat laborer. A herder usually stays with the goats all day. Both men and women milk goats.

Families in town will sometimes buy a goat and keep it in the yard of their house for a few hours or days, especially before the two Eids. I was reading in my garden one evening and felt something tugging and chewing on my shirt. I looked down to find two goats snacking on my L.L. Bean oxford. Turns out my neighbor had bought three goats to fatten up for the Eid. He let them out of his garden every day at 5 pm to let them forage and they would come over and snack on my flowers.

Goats with herder (from social media)

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Cows on the road!

cows on road

Foodways – a few remarks about camels

 (photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

Camels are the most prestigious animal as they are seen as a link to the past, are the most expensive animal and are needed for marriages and funeral feasts. There is a small but growing interest in camel races and camel beauty contests, but those are events organized by the government (partially for tourism purposes) and while people participate and enjoy they aren’t seen as part of traditional Dhofari culture. No one travels by camels now except for men such as Ahmed Harib al Mahrouqi, who does camel treks to promote Omani culture. A few Gibali men I know remember riding them as children and have stories from the older generation (fathers/ uncles) about traveling by camel.

All camels, cows and goats in Dhofar are owned by someone. A person can have any number of each animal but will usually have only one kind. 20 to 50 camels with one owner is the median; some men have more than one hundred. A person with one or only a few will add them to a family member’s herd; relatives working together will rotating the daily responsibility of watching them, have one person do to the work or jointly hire a shepherd. Sometimes a child is given an animal when they are born so that animal is herded with the family’s animals and all its offspring belong to the child. Usually herds are all owned by people within one family. It is less common to have friends herd their animals together.

The herding is done by the animals’ owners or hired expat workers; the owners know the names and characteristics of all their camels, including parents, age and temperament. Some older men keep camels almost as pets, seldom selling them as meat and spending a lot of money on feed to the occasional consternation of their children. Now and in the past, dried sardines are used as feed during the dry months.

Some herds are kept near permanent homes. Other herds are moved among several different places depending on the season and rainfall. These places might be improved with a metal-framed tent which could be locked to hold supplies or a windbreak that a man or someone in his family made.

Camels are sometimes simply let loose during the day. As camels stick together and will not travel too far, some herds will come home by themselves when an owner or herder hits the metal feeding troughs and hollers. Hearing these familiar sounds, the camels will slowly perk up and start to move homewards, naturally clumping together and often organizing themselves in lines nose to tail. Once they get close to the corral/ feeding spot they will sometimes start to trot or race each other, shouldering each other; humans need to get out of the way. Mother camels have their teats tied up in a bag so babies can’t nurse; this (and the idea of extra food, water and safety) keeps most camels returning home every night.

Normal daily herding is done with one or two pick-ups or two or three men on motorbikes for longer distances; when the herders need to get camels moved across roads, the pick-ups will be parked on the shoulder with blinkers on to let traffic know camels are close to crossing. In the mountains, men will drive on dirt tracks to a spot on the far side of the camels and then walk, waving a stick and whooping occasionally, them back to the corral or to a long, stone or wood wind-break that the camels will bed down next to.

For the khareef (June-September monsoon season) camels are kept in camps on the flat plain (jarbaeb in Gibali/ Jibbali/ Shahri) at the foot of the mountains. To keep the camels from wandering into populated areas, between Salalah and the jarbaeb, the Dhofari municipality has built a road which has a shoulder-high divide and is steeply graded so camels can’t cross it; camels, either on their own or with the prompting of herders, use the roundabout to get to the other side of this divide.

Men milk the lactating camels after the animals have been fed and watered in the evening; as camels are so tall, men do this standing up, balancing the bowl on their raised knee. It’s somewhat precarious as it’s hard to keep one’s balance, even harder if the camel is moving about.

Young male camels are usually killed for meat as adult male camels are ornery and people usually only keep one or two males which are often kept in a coral. If a male camel is let out, it is usually hobbled.

Not all camels are herded home, so you need to be careful on roads in the mountains at night. A head-on collision is a forgone deadly conclusion. Camels have long legs so the body will hit the hood of the car and come straight through the windshield.

To prevent accidents, when you pass camels on or near a road, it is a driver’s duty to turn on the hazards to signal on-coming traffic. Older camels walking in line are normally safe and will not pay attention to traffic even if cars pass close to them at speed, but you never know when one might scare. Baby camels are the most dangerous, as they will take off in any direction at the slightest provocation, sometimes causing other camels to panic.

Throughout the region there are common vocalizations to tell camels to come or that there is water and food. Men raised with camels will stop and help herd camels which are in the middle of roads, but under no other circumstances should anyone interfere with another person’s camels. Only if dying of thirst should anyone milk a camel that isn’t theirs.

Children raised with camels have no fear, and as young as four or five will move about a herd easily, pushing camels out of their way. Girls might work with camels until they reach near puberty, then family/ social pressure will keep them from herding camels, but they might herd goats.

Foodways – other avenues of research

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

The good news is my book, Foodways in Southern Oman (Routledge), is now officially published. The bad news is, as every author knows, I keep finding topics I should have mentioned. Just today I happened upon: Of Dishes and Discourse: Classical Arabic Literary Representations of Food by Geert Jan van Gelder – what a great-sounding book! I will try to find a copy and read it.

I know there is a whole sub-genre in Arabic literature of personified ‘fights’ between different type of foods (munazara) for example “The Delectable War between Mutton and the Refreshments of the Market Place” featuring King Mutton and King Honey (or Clive Holes’ work “The Dispute of Coffee and Tea: A Debate Poem from the Gulf,” in Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Language and Literature, ed. J.R. Smart, 1996, 302-315). But I did not include a discussion of these as they seemed a little too far from my topic, as did poems about being a host/ guest such as Abu al Hakam Al Maghribi’s “A Domestic Disaster” which is too ribald to teach but is a good match with Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper.” Perhaps at some point I can look more closely at this type of writing.

I have also realized that I was never able to find government documents about the number of animals (cows, camels, goats) in Dhofar – that was on my to-do list, but got lost in the shuffle of work and dealing with corona. I also wanted to go to a fish market and meat market and write a lot more about cuts of meat/ types of seafood in terms of prices, how they are prepared and sold but the markets didn’t re-open until after the books was sent to press.

Another topic I want to reflect about more is cultural issues relating to TIME and PLACE of eating, i.e. [pre-corona] my surprise that many of my students do not eat or drink anything before coming to class while they are surprised to see me eating lunch at my desk (“Why don’t you have lunch at home? How can you eat in your office?” they wonder.) Or the surprise of me drinking or eating while walking, something that is not done here. Another difference is my habit of making a cup of coffee last over an hour, while most Dhofaris will finish their drink quickly. A small cup of tea is usually gone in three sips, while I nurse mine until it is cold.

Lastly, I wanted to do interviews with Dhofaris who made/ sold food on Instagram, at festivals and small stores. I have heard of one Dhofari man who opened his own restaurant where he not only supervised, but cooked. However, between the public and private mourning for Sultan Qaboos and the on-set of corona, spring 2020 was not the time to ask strangers to help with my research. I hope 2021 affords more chances to write, research, think and discuss about foodways!

y - meat rice and fruit

Foodways and Teaching Culture

Food appears at unexpected times while teaching. I was discussing color metaphors (What does it mean to say, “she’s blue” or “he’s green with envy”?) and brought up “peachy” as a slang response to “How are you?” Then I had to stop to describe a ‘peach,’ not a common fruit on the Arabian Peninsula. I tried to triangulate as I know the Arabic words for orange and apricot but it turns out that no one in the class has seen a fresh apricot; they only know the dried ones. Getting the word “dried” straight somehow led to talking about how raisins are dried grapes and prunes are dried plums, but no one knew plums. So I tried to go by colors, looking around the class to see if anyone had ‘peach-’ or ‘plum-’ colored pen or notebook.

In one class we were confronted with the metaphor “chill iron,” so I did a quick run through the differences between chill (verb, to make cold), chill (verb, slang – to relax) and chilly (adjective). And then chili (similar to stew) and chili peppers.

Getting the vocabulary down is only the first step, as food interactions in stories almost always bring out cultural differences. Reading Peter Pan meant discussing that Mr. and Mrs. Darling were not horrible parents for leaving their children at home (and with a dog!) while they went out to eat. In Oman, children are almost always with their parents or relatives in the evening and would normally go out to dinner with the family.

Even my everyday actions spark conversations as bringing a cup of coffee with me to class and drinking it while teaching is not normal teacher behavior on the Arabian Peninsula. And I warn students that if they visit an American family, they will probably not be pushed again and again to eat. I tell them the story of one Arab administrator who, when he arrived at his host family in America, was asked if he wanted dinner once and only once. As he was expecting the offer to be repeated and food to be given to him as a matter of course, he refused. The Americans did not repeat the offer and he went to bed hungry.

This photo is from social media and I love it because the food in the back-left corner could be ‘read’ as pita (Lebanese  bread) rolled with processed cheese or fried bread with cinnamon and sugar depending on your cultural back-ground.

y - good morning

 

 

 

 

Foodways and Literature – Animal Poems

As I was looking for food poems last week, I realized how many animal poems I have taught and have written out a partial list below.

One starting place is the Mu’allaqa, most of which have many vivid descriptions of desert animals, for example in Imru al-Qays “Halt, friends” and Labid’s “The campsites at Mina.” Another group of early poems which feature animals are by the sa’alik poets; no one who has read Shanfara’s Lamiyyat (“Sons of my mother”) can forget the wolf metaphors.

“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Adrienne Rich

“Bear,” Valerie Worth

“Butterflies,” Fawziyya Abu Khalid

“Cat, Valerie Harper

“The Crocodile,” Lewis Carroll

“The Darkling Thrush,” Thomas Hardy

“Darwin’s Finches,” Deborah Digges

“December Snow,” May Sarton

“The Dromedary,” Archibald Young Campbell

“The Eagle,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“The Face of the Horse,” Nikolai Alekseevich Zabolotsky

“The Gazelle Calf,” D. H. Lawrence

“The Goat Paths,” James Stephens

“The Horses of the Sea,” Christina Rossetti

“How To See Deer,” Philip Booth

“The Last Wolf,” Mary Tall Mountain

“Minnows,” Valerie Worth

“A Night with a Wolf,” Bayard Taylor

“Not Swans,” Susan Ludvigson

“The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn,” Andrew Marvell

“Pangur Ban,” unknown, Irish

“The Plaint of the Camel,” Charles Edward Carryl

“The Poet and the Moth,” Ahmad Qandeel

“The Raven,”  E.A.  Poe

“The Seal’s Lullaby,” Rudyard Kipling

“Sister Cat,” Frances Mayes

“Snake,” Emily Dickinson

“Snake,” Valerie Worth

“The Terrapin,” Wendell Berry

“To a Skylark,” Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Turtle Came to See Me,” Margarita Engle

“Upon a Snail,” John Bunyan

“The Vixan,” John Clare

“The War God’s Horse,” unknown, from the Navajo

“The White Stallion,” Abu I-Salt Umayyah

and many poems by Mary Oliver including “Ravens,” “Swans of the River Ayr,” “Turtle” and “White Heron”

More of her poems can be found at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver

Short stories: “Pepsi” by Mohammad Al Murr, “A White Heron” and “A Dunnet Shepherdess” by Sarah Orne Jewett and all the Jungle Book stories by Rudyard Kipling

Foodways and Literature – Food Stories and Poems

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

I teach literature classes but my most recent book is on foodways, which might seem like two dissimilar topics but food is omnipresent in poems, stories and dramas so my students and I often have conversations that include foodways, literature and cultural differences. Explaining a reference to Persephone in a poem led to my telling the story of Demeter/ Ceres, which led to a conversation about cereals.

Sometimes I focus simply to the vocabulary aspect: explicating “civil as an orange/ and something of that jealous complexion” in Much Ado about Nothing or “cucumber sandwiches”  and “sugar tongs” in The Importance of Being Earnest. But occasionally food takes center stage as with the fishing with a sword scene in Tawfiq Al Hakim’s Princess Sunshine when the question of ‘who makes dinner’ helps carry the theme of the play. Another food-centered example is the dual breakfast scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. On our first run-through, it’s simply a confusing jumble of random statements. But when we have read it a few times and then ‘perform’ it with one student per character, the beauty (and sadness) of that section shine through. Students often remark, “it’s like that at my home.”

Some stories show cultural similarities, such as Laura bringing food to the widow in Mansfield’s “Garden Party,” but they can also show differences. Unlike in Oman, only Laura visits the house (not with her mother and older sister) and she only stays a brief time.

Another Mansfield story “The Doll’s House” uses food to give insights into the social standing of the schoolgirls – having a sandwich with meat shows wealth while a jam sandwich wrapped in newspaper points to poverty. Similarly, the social niceties observed in the dining room at the beginning of Room with a View preview the theme of the novel. Who sits at which table reveals the hierarchies which Lucy will eventually break.

Food issues can even be the comic element of a story as with Elizabeth Gaskell’s magnificent Cranford with its details of manage your cook, take care of your cow and why you should eat your orange in your room (so you can roll it under your bed to check if anyone is hiding there and then slurp the orange sections in private).

Food essays are also wonderful for sparking good student writing. “Jam” and “A Thing Shared” from The Gastronomical Me  by M. F. K. Fisher, “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” by Alice Walker are great example texts to help students see how to write about their own food experiences.

As for poems about food, we have to start with

“Talk,” Gökhan Tok

You never hear it

but at breakfast the sweetest talk

is between the jam and the honey.

and Naomi Shihab Nye’s wonderful “Arabic Coffee,” “My Father and the Fig Tree,” “Sifter,” “The Traveling Onion” and “The Tray.” For more, please see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/naomi-shihab-nye and https://poets.org/poet/naomi-shihab-nye

Other poems include:

  • “After Apple-Picking,” Robert Frost
  • “The Angler,” Thomas Buchanan Read
  • “The Bean-Stalk,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • “Blackberry-Picking,” Seamus Heaney
  • “Coolness of the Melons,” Matsuo Basho
  • “Cynddylan on a Tractor,” R.S. Thomas
  • “The [Date] Palm Tree,” Adnan Mohsin
  • “The Fisherman,” Goethe
  • “From Blossoms,” Li-Young Lee
  • “I Return to the Place I was Born,” T’ao Yuan Ming
  • “Love Poem With Toast,” Miller Williams
  • “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost
  • “The Solitary Reaper,” William Wordsworth
  • “Sorry I Spilled It,” Shel Silverstein
  • “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” Marge Piercy

A few food-oriented short stories include: “A Dash of Light” by Ibrahim Aslan, “I Saw the Date Palms” by Radwa Ashour, “A Cup of Tea” by  Katherine Mansfield and “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, as well as several by Mohammed al Murr including “A Late Dinner,” “The Night’s Catch,” “Look After Yourself” and my favorite: “Dinner by Candlelight.”

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