Musing

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)

IMG_4640

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.”

y - morning coffee

Foodways – Perceptions of “Old”/ “Fresh” Food

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

It is always interesting to have cross-cultural discussions of timing words such as “late” and “early.” If you say that you ate dinner “late,” do you mean 9pm or 2am? If you had breakfast “early,” did you eat at 5am or 8am?

In the same way, perceptions of when food is “fresh” varies widely between cultures. For example in Dhofar a meal of rice and meat, fish or chicken should be eaten right away. After 1 to 3 hours, it is seen as “old,” i.e. not edible/ not suitable to be given away to others and should be put out for animals.

However during Ramadan, the food cooked for iftar is usually left out for snacking for several hours. It is often covered with plastic wrap and placed on a side table but could also be simply left on the ‘table’ (thin plastic drop-cloth) on the ground for a few hours. For example, set out before the sunset call to prayer then people would eat, pray, perhaps eat again, relatives/ friends might stop by to eat, and the food is finally cleaned up/ thrown out/ given away at 10 or 11pm.

How is one meal “old” and another not “old” after several hours? This difference is partially because of method of serving and food choices. A rice and protein for lunch is usually served on a platter with a few sides dishes/ condiments, but iftars should have a much wider variety of food but with fewer portions, thus there is not usually one platter, but many plates (holding, for example, samosas) and small, glass open-proof dishes which are easy to cover.

Rice with protein on a platter is eaten with hands, but iftar choices are usually spooned out of a container or finger food so that when a person takes something, nothing else on the plate is touched. Examples of typical food served at an iftar – spooned out of baking dish: mashed potatoes spread on top of tuna with tomatoes and spices, baked macaroni with white sauce, shredded chicken with tomato and spices, baked compilation of vegetables (pieces of potatoes, onion, carrots, green peppers);  by hand: samosas, baked potatoes wedges, pieces of watermelon and melon.

The same idea obtains for water. On a picnic, water and drinks are usually give out of a coolbox (cooler) or a plastic bag, signaling that they were just bought and hence “fresh.” Since my friends know I always carry water in my car, if I offer anyone a bottle of water that they have not seen me take out of a bag from a store, they will ask, “How long was it in your car?” If I say, “a few days,” they will decline as they don’t want “old” water.

A related cultural construct is what happens when people finish eating? When I have dinner with Italian friends, we talk while eating and then sit at the dinner table for at least an hour after we are done. Dhofaris usually refrain from long conversations while eating and so soon as everyone is finished, the food is taken back to the kitchen or, on a picnic, covered and set aside. One doesn’t talk over the remains of a meal.

meat rice and solona

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

 

I am pleased to announce that my book, Foodways in Southern Oman, is now available for pre-order.

Foodways in Southern Oman. Routledge, ISBN: 978-0-367-85955-8

Foodways in Southern Oman examines the objects, practices and beliefs relating to producing, obtaining, cooking, eating and disposing of food in the Dhofar region of southern Oman. The chapters consider food preparation, who makes what kind of food, and how and when meals are eaten. Marielle Risse connects what is consumed to themes such as land usage, gender, age, purity, privacy and generosity. She also discusses how foodways are related to issues of morality, safety, religion, and tourism. The volume is a result of fourteen years of collecting data and insights in Dhofar, covering topics such as catching fish, herding camels, growing fruits, designing kitchens, cooking meals and setting leftovers out for animals. It will be of interest to scholars from a range of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, food studies, Middle Eastern studies and Islamic studies.

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/foodways-in-southern-oman-marielle-risse/1137456632?ean=97803678595587