‘If food be the music of love, play on’. The subversion of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, as you will discover, makes perfect olfactory sense.
Last week, I was invited to have dinner at the home of a Palestinian friend, where the family members were celebrating my friend’s mother’s 90th birthday. And home-cooked Arabic food is not just any food, and participating in the rituals of sharing it is a sensual experience.
When I arrived at my friend’s house, in Arlington, a suburb of Washington, the delicate aroma of culinary herbs, including rosemary, mint, basil, parsley, garlic and sage, that go into spicing the stuffed zucchini and bulgur kibbeh, grilled kafta and rice pilaf, fattoush and tabbouleh, and other dishes that were served that night — all at once as is customary in the Middle East — was overwhelming.
I am no longer in Borje Al Barajni today, a place I left in my teens. But there are still tens of thousands of children left behind there, who go around during the day, and go to bed at night — hungry.
You can neither argue about the expertise behind the cooking of dishes whose history spans generations, nor against the premise that food, along with the ritual of preparing, presenting and consuming it, is a cultural act.
Consider, in this regard, Food Is Culture (Columbia University Press, 2006) by Massimo Montanori, a distinguished culinary historian at the University of Bologna, Italy, a book that offers, shall we say, a rich serving about the role of food in various societies around the world, defining it as both “metaphor and discourse”.
But what I want to share with you here is not the concurrent transformation of cuisine and culture, but my “petite madeleine moment” at that dinner table that night in Arlington — a moment reminiscent of that famous scene in the first volume of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu (often translated as In Search of Times Past) where the smell of the madeleine, a cookie steeped in lime, brings on for the protagonist aching nostalgia for his childhood village of Combray — a sensory encounter with the past that goes for well over 40 pages.
Let’s forget this gobbledegook
And smell, as a trigger for resurrecting memory in us, is well-known to scientists, who tell us that we store memories through mental maps “held by olfactory neurons” in the upper part of the nose. Upon detecting a certain odour connected to our past, it seems, these neurons generate an impulse that passes to the brain, or that part of it possessing memory, that awakens long-buried recollections in our past. OK, let’s forget this gobbledegook and just say that smell rings bells.
Now my madeleine moment.
Here I was at the dinner table, acting like the polite guest I was, munching on the exterior of one piece of kibbeh — using my hand, of course — when I got to those sauted pine nuts and bits of ground lamb, and the combined smell of allspice, cumin and fried, cracked wheat got to me — and recollections of my childhood in Borj Al Barajni, the Palestinian refugee camp in suburban Beirut, poured out: How we could afford to eat meat only once a month (when my oldest brother’s remittance arrived from Saudi Arabia), how we could put food on the table only for two weeks (when our food rations from the United Nations Relief And Works Agency, or UNRWA, were picked up), and how then, for the rest of the month, we were left to scrounge around for crumbs (dry pitta bread, rotting onions, mouldy feta cheese) for another two weeks. One month in, one month out. Hungry and destitute.
Nothing in any narrative of human misery, I say, could beat the spectacle of a child going to bed hungry!
An onrush of memories assaulted me at my friend’s house last week, including that one of a pen pal my age named Herbert, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who, extrapolating from his own social culture, wondered in one letter why things were so tough when my family “could’ve applied for welfare” and for what today would be called food stamps. Bless this American child’s innocent soul.
Going to bed hungry
I am no longer in Borje Al Barajni today, a place I left in my teens. But there are still tens of thousands of children left behind there, who go around during the day, and go to bed at night, hungry. How could you continue gorging on crushed wheat, stuffed zucchini and Hummus dip after all this?
So I stood up from the dinner table and excused myself, ostensibly to go to the bathroom. What adult wants to be seen by his peers with his eyes welling up in tears? Smell, you see, does not just make you reminiscent, but gets you emotive as well.
And when United States President Donald Trump, seemingly vindictively, cut off funds to UNRWA, he effectively made these tens of thousands of children, who today inhabit that world of refugeeism in Borj Al Barajni, hungrier still. Thank you Mr President, of a nation that prides itself on being the most empathetic in history.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.