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

‘Foodways in Southern Oman’ at the AAA annual conference

I recently spoke about my ‘Foodways in Southern Oman’ project at the session: “Uncovering Truths, Building Responsibility in a Pandemic: Insights from Emerging Monographs at the Nexus of Culture, Food, and Agriculture” at the American Anthropological Association on-line conference. November 9, 2020.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344707985_Foodways_in_Southern_Oman_session_Uncovering_Truths_Building_Responsibility_in_a_Pandemic_Insights_from_Emerging_Monographs_at_the_Nexus_of_Culture_Food_and_Agriculture

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

Dugar/ Cowpeas

When I asked Dhofari informants about their favorite food, I was often told ‘dugar and rice.’ When it came time to figure out exactly what dugar was, the way it was described (small, round, dry, cooked in water) I thought it was a kind of lentil. Then I was told it was a bean (foul). When I asked another person, I was shown a photo of green beans and told “this is it.” Finally I talked to a fourth person who told me that dugar had different colors, which is certainly not a green bean. Finally I got the answer: cowpeas, which are small, round, dry, cooked in water, look like green beans before the peas are taken out and are different colors.

Dugar is a traditional crop in Dhofar in the rain-fed, rock-walled mountain farms which were usually planted on June 21.

I am glad I have finally found a good photo on social media.

dugar

 

Foodways – Images of Galley Kitchens

All houses have one large kitchen for the household. However, sometimes a married couple will have their own, small kitchen as larger and newer houses may have small suites for each married son. This will usually consist of a bedroom with attached bathroom and a sitting room which might have a galley kitchen with a small sink and microwave so they can make tea and simple meals for themselves. Below is an example of a galley kitchen taken from a social media posting about a newly-wed’s room.

 

Foodways – Images of Interiors with Food: “We are Ready” and “Good Words”

In general, there are three times in which photos of house interiors are send out to friends, which are then sometimes forwarded on to general social media: newly-weds’ rooms, “we are ready” and “good words.”

Visiting other people’s houses is usually done between relatives and is almost always confined to the salle or majlis so sending out photos of the room prepared for newly-weds means that Dhofaris can share images of a room that normally only close relatives would see.

What I call “we are ready” photos show food that is prepared for a (birthday, graduation, promotion, received an award, special person visiting, etc.) party – this informs other people of a special event.

“Good words” images are commonly sent between friends and relatives in Dhofar. Some are images of flowers, nature (usually water or green trees/ fields), incense burners (as most Dhofaris burn frankincense (luban) in the house in the early morning and sunset), and/ or cups of Arabic coffee (qahwa). The texts can be a simple “good morning/ sabah al khair,” words of encouragement or a religious maxim.

All three types of images allow friends to see parts of the house that are usually not visible. If posted on social media, strangers can also see, but without knowing whose house it is so privacy is protected. The primary purpose is to increase bonds of friendship but these sorts of pictures can also be used to help gather design/ food preparation ideas. Home- and food-styling magazines are not common in Dhofar, so people use social media to get inspiration for their next party.

Examples of “good words”

 

 

 

Examples of “we are ready” photos

Foodways – Where to Eat: Kitchen, Salle, Majlis

As part of my Foodways in Southern Oman project, this is the one of several planned posts using photos with commentary to explain aspects of how food/ meals are cooked and served in the Dhofar region. Again, I would like to thank all of my Omani friends and informants who took and allowed me to use these photos. I am very grateful for your support of me and this project.

Many Omani families in Dhofar eat while sitting on the floor of the salle or majlis. When the food is ready and the person in charge of the meal has decided it is time to eat, instructions are given to lay the “table” (light plastic drop-cloth that comes in roll) and people will clear the area, moving toys if they are in the salle, brushing sand off the mat if on a picnic. The cook puts the dish on a platter and brings it to the eating place; everyone else grabs whatever is necessary such as Kleenex, limes, bottles of hot sauce or drinks and washes their hands.

Usually there is a round platter of rice and protein (camel, cow or goat meat, fish or chicken) in the middle and small plates with bread, salad or chutney set around it. Food such as rice is eaten with the right hand; bowls and spoons are used for soup, cut-up fruit, etc. If the food, for example baked vegetables, can’t be eaten by hand, a stack of plates are placed on the drop cloth and the woman in charge of cooking will ladle the food onto the places and pass them around.

Those who are eating gather in a circle around platters of food which are usually placed on the floor, with women bringing small children next to them to hand feed. Usually four to six people share one round platter, depending on its size. Men will either sit cross-legged or with one knee up and one tucked underneath them; women sit cross-legged or resting on one hip with legs to the side.

If there are guests, the men will eat in the majlis (the men’s sitting room); women will eat in the salle (the sitting room for women and close male relatives). Sometimes guests are put in the majlis alone, so they can “feel free” to eat as much as they want.

If the family eats at a table, there will usually be a glass and silverware at each setting, napkins/ Kleenex and a table cloth/ placemat on the table with a stack of plates in the middle or at one end where the platter of food will be placed. The cook or senior woman will serve up the plates which will be passed along the table.

When everything and everyone is in place, one of the senior people will say bismallah (in the name of God) and either start eating or begin putting food on plates. The others will say bismallah, signally that the meal has started and any food may now be consumed. 

When people are done, they say Alhamdulillah (praise be to God), stand up and wash their hands. The time for eating is devoted to eating; there is usually no drinking water, soda or fruit juice until the food is finished. Drinking is usually, like eating, done with concentration.

Although a separate dining room is rare, sometimes a dining table is set in the kitchen, salle, majlis or, if there is space, in the hall. Tables in the kitchen or hall are for people who live in the house or close friends and relatives.

Images of dining tables:

Foodways – Kitchens, General Discussion and Changes  

There is usually a lot of open space in kitchens. Sometimes there is a table, but often you can find an empty area in the middle of the room that is five feet square or larger. This is so a lot of women can work together for parties and also because some cooking is done on the floor. For example, large pots of meat are sometimes cooked on gas rings set on the floor because it is easier to stir from a standing position than trying to reach into a pot set on the stovetop. Some kinds of bread are cooked using small gas burners set on the floor.

Kitchens are utilitarian; pretty trays might be leaned against the back-splash or there might be a pretty vase to hold wooden spoons, etc., but kitchens are seldom decorated or set up as welcoming/ comforting spaces. As soon as you walk in, it’s easy to visually orient yourself; often the cupboards have glass fronts so you can see inside them.

Most families will have items for hosting in sight and easy-reach: several sets of teacups and saucers, tea and coffee pots, carafes, glass bowls or plates. There are usually several trays as almost all food and eating utensils, plates, cups, etc. are moved on trays. A platter of rice and meat might be carried by itself after having been prepped in the kitchen, but just as one always gives foodstuffs in a bag, one carries everything connected to eating on a tray – rarely by hand. Dishes for everyday use are usually Melamine or brands such as Luminarc or Corelle.

Stoves run on gas bought in heavy cylinders and placed (sometimes in little locked huts) outside the kitchen; a small hole is drilled through the wall for the pipe which connects the canister to the stove

Clean-up is done while cooking or as soon as the meal is finished. Dirty dishes and food are never left sitting on the counter for long. All dishes are cleaned and put away, the counter-top wiped down and floor swept; the garbage bin is usually covered and if mostly full might be put outside on the steps up to the kitchen.

Thus, for most of the time, the kitchen is empty and very clean. Dhofaris normally only go in the kitchen to supervise or cook before meals or to prepare dishes ahead of time for Ramadan/ Eids and to clean up afterwards.

As most houses have over 20 occupants from several generations, larger and newer houses may have small suites for each married son. This will usually consist of a bedroom with attached bathroom and a sitting room which might have a galley kitchen with a small sink and microwave so they can make tea and simple meals for themselves. Thus there will be one large kitchen for the house, with perhaps a few smaller kitchens for couples.

The smell of cooking food is not regarded as pleasing. The kitchen door is closed while cooking and the extractor fan is usually on full time. After eating in the salle/ majlis/ kitchen one must nullify the effect of food – dishes, kitchen, face, and hands washed, scent reapplied through air fresheners, incense, and/ or perfume.

A few changes in kitchens are that in the past the under-counter area was open, it is now always covered with doors. Also, the above-counter space is now usually filled with additional cupboards. Some newer kitchens have the stove integrated with the counters, not as a separate unit and/ or part of the counter projecting out into the middle of the room with stools on either side for casual dining.

Some features that have not changed are that drawers are not common and the counter (even in custom-designed kitchens) is placed much higher than waist-level. One explanation for the oddly high counters is that previously the cupboards underneath had doors made out of aluminum window frames with plastic (not glass) inserts so the counter had to be high enough to have the frames fit. Another is that with high counters, younger kids can’t reach anything on the counter. There are usually small plastic step stools around to help people work at the counters easily and reach the upper shelves, which can be open or closed cupboards with doors.