The Public Humanist

Food and Cultural Identity in a Crisis

  A Syrian woman cooks Aleppo-style kebab on a platter over a propane stove in her apartment in the southern Turkish city of Kilis, near the border with Syria, in December 2015. Nish Nalbandian


A Syrian woman cooks Aleppo-style kebab on a platter over a propane stove in her apartment in the southern Turkish city of Kilis, near the border with Syria, in December 2015. Photo by Nish Nalbandian for NPR.

Christmas eve and the smells of red cabbage and apple strudel summon up memories of a place long ago, far away where war and destruction drove my ancestors from a farm in Silesia that had been their home since recorded time. Buildings, land and worldly goods gone, one could only touch our Germanic heritage in the sight, aromas, and tastes of a feast. No one in the room had witnessed the suffering. It was a story, an inheritance of the great journey made by parents and grandparents escaping from the terrors of World War II. With peace, Silesia became part of Poland, the place names changed and the Iron Curtain came down. Nothing remained except for the ability of cabbage and strudel to summon up an image and affirm an identity.

Food can be home, even when the house is gone. At its most elemental, food is nourishment for the body. At its most evocative, it can be a sensory reminder of familial ties and a cultural legacy. Displaced, seeking refuge and focused on the basics of survival, those forced from their homeland because of war, terrorism, famine, poverty, or natural disaster have one thing in common: the need for food and water. My memories of family loss and survival were recently sparked by reading Carmen Gentile’s NPR article, For Exiles in Turkey, Syrian Eateries Offer a Taste of Home. The author traveled among refugee camps and border towns, dining at Syrian restaurants and homes. He reported, “at another local favorite, Baba Amur, the owner…served lamb kebabs and regaled us with stories of his hometown, Palmyra, the Syrian city world-renowned for Roman ruins that Islamic State fighters partially destroyed last year.” The architectural damage is a memory, yet the cooking survives and the partaking of dinner is an occasion to revisit the past. As the story unfolds, it reveals the resilience of the refugees and the power of food to provide comfort and to reassert their identity in the face of the overwhelming deprivations they currently endure. The final sentence of the article expresses the melancholy of survivors. “It seems even the best meals are but a temporary distraction from the harsh realities Syrians face, even when the dishes are empty and their stomachs full.” Brutality and violence have overrun their ancestral homeland but the gentler act of cooking survives. It is not a cure for their pain, but it is a safe haven they may claim as their own.

Past Mass Humanities grant recipient The Welcome Project offers the YUM Restaurant Card, which promotes and supports immigrant-run restaurants in Somerville, MA.

Past Mass Humanities grant recipient The Welcome Project offers the YUM Restaurant Card, which promotes and supports immigrant-run restaurants in Somerville, MA.

After the trauma of flight subsides, the challenges of processing those memories begins as reported by Amy Radil in Taste of Bitterness: Tukwila Students Tell Refugee Experience Through Food. Enrolled at Foster High School, where eighty percent of students are refugees or immigrants, Somali teenagers have published poems in Our Table of Memories, the result of a project called “Stories of Arrival” by poet Merna Hecht and teacher Carrie Stradley. Their verses are intended to help them process what they left behind by remembering meals and the people who prepared them. Abdirahman Abdi begins his poem, The Food of My Country, with “when my mother cooks, it smells of Somalia.” His comfort is apparent, but he continues, “yet, I taste the struggle that my family has gone through, struggle of food rationing and never enough to eat.” The hardships emerge further with the lines, “then the Ifo refugee camp, better housing but still not enough food, and so strange a taste, a taste of bitterness.” The concluding words bring hope. “In America, we still cook our Somali food. It travels with us wherever we go. It’s the taste of home.”

As a preservationist for the past thirty years, I devoted myself to saving objects and places which enlighten and instruct. Stories of Syrian and Somali refugees, however, have taught me the most valuable lesson. A tangible heritage may disappear when land, buildings, and possessions are no longer available as sources of memory. History and the arts, however, prove the power of the senses and memory to survive, resurrect, and preserve a people’s cultural identity. It lives in the words and deeds of the displaced. When refugees cook and teenagers compose poems on food, their actions and words are visible evidence of the survival of a heritage, the continued creation of a cultural life and hope for the future.

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2 Responses to Food and Cultural Identity in a Crisis

  1. Michelle Flynn January 25, 2016 at 6:07 PM #

    An amazing article that makes you think!

  2. Nicholas B. February 18, 2016 at 5:24 PM #

    This article is an exemplary articulation of the modern humanist’s range of concern. What could fall so easily into the bathetic or overly sentimental here is presented in accessible, finely wrought prose that conveys private and public elements with great proficiency. Food is memorious, and the author clearly elucidates a mode in which such memoriousness can be therapeutic in the wake of humanitarian travesty. A clear control of pathos, an easy eloquence, and the adroit incorporation of personal narrative are all hallmarks of a successful writer whose ability to captivate as well as educate his audience is second to none. I will not only be following the Public Humanist from now on, but the author as well who is surely someone to watch.

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