Back in September of last year there was a beautiful and moving article in The New York Times called The Flavors That Unite Syrians by Dalia Mortada, a journalist reporting from Istanbul covering the civil war in Syria. In her article she reminds us that food can tell us far more about a culture and its people than say, a news article. In meeting with Syrian refugees she was regularly folded into their meals, however modest, and found that these dishes and flavors became the material by which she would deliver their stories. This set me to thinking that when I began studying art history in college, I for the first time, began to understand the history of cultures in a way I never could absorb in high school text books. It was through art, and literature, and later through food that I have come to appreciate the world.
Bread and Salt. I learned this custom after reading Mortada’s piece, and found that it is a greeting and a tradition in numerous European cultures, a custom she found herself a part of as she traveled. Simply a bit of bread offered to a visitor, along with a pinch of salt, symbolizes welcome, hospitality, alliance, and gratitude. The breaking of bread, with or without salt, is something sorely needed as we pass into a seemingly more divided world.
In a time when it is hard to know how to be engaged we can at least do this: cook. And certainly find meaning there. But what if we went a step further, and made a dish from a culture that is under siege, to honor those dishes and stories, to honor those who are displaced? This week I will make a dish from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, a book I’ve admired for a long time, a book that goes down like a collection of short stories. Meat dumplings in yogurt sauce? Bean and vegetable soup? Plain rice, perhaps.
Maybe you are like me, coming to understand more and more that what we eat matters. That what we eat and cook and share can offer us meaning and connection in the most unexpected of ways, and in the darkest and lightest of times.