Response – The Gaza Kitchen: a Palestinian Culinary Journey

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             I reveled in every bit of Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt’s picturesque journey to Gaza, as they not only allowed me a taste into the spices and palatable dishes of the region – they gave me an opportunity to vicariously learn about a culture that I, quite frankly, knew very little about. In their ethnographic cookbook, The Gaza Kitchen: a Palestinian Culinary Journey, one particular phrase captivated me, and replayed itself in my mind, as I continued throughout the first pages of their book: “food — growing it, preparing it, sharing it with friends, family and strangers — is a vital cultural marker, one of the most significant ways we have to identify ourselves as a member of our own tribe and of the great tribe of humanity…” (El-Hadad and Schmitt 4). I wondered: ‘but how? How is it that the way that something is grown, prepared, and shared is specifically representative of who you are and more broadly, of your place in humanity?’ In response to this statement, I went back through the reading, finding instances that describe these phenomena, which I am happy to share with you.

The first question at hand: how is growing food representative of the Gaza Tribe, and more ubiquitously, of the Tribe of Humanity? I would argue that the converse is also true: that what is not growing is also representative of the Gaza tribe and of its current position in the ‘Humanity’ tribe. In her foreword of the book, Nancy Jenkins explores this: “And this is a place where politics enters the kitchen to unhappy effect… since exports are forbidden, the market is strictly local, within Gaza itself” (El-Hadad and Schmitt 4). Displacement has led to the lack of production of homegrown tahina, which is directly representative of Gaza cuisine, and how the dislocation of the Gaza Tribe has impacted it. The authors seemingly continue to emphasize Jenkins’ point, by asserting:

“In culinary terms, too, Gaza’s location places it at a crossroads: while it forms part of the greater Mediterranean food-universe … it is also a bridge to the desert culinary worlds of Arabia, the Red Sea and the Nile Valley. Within the region, the cuisine of the urban coast— noted for sophisticated seafood —- is clearly distinguishable from that of the farming interior, rich in vegetables and legumes” (El-Hadad and Schmitt 9).

Very clearly, what can grow in the region is representative of what the people eat, which in turn is representative of their tribe, not only within Gaza, but also within their regional tribe, and the tribes within those tribes. By mentioning that, ‘the cuisine of the urban coast is noted for sophisticated seafood’, El-Hadad and Schmitt explore the ways in which a community is multilayered by both regional and cultural influences. The individuals on the urban coast are part of the Human Tribe at large, of which the Gaza Tribe is a subset, but it can be further broken down into an ‘urban’ tribe, and perhaps, even further into a ‘sohpisticated’ tribe. In essence, these terms are nothing more than a means of understanding through categorization.

And how is this representative of the Tribe of Humanity? Well, as humans, we cannot (directly) control what grows on the land that we are a part of; therefore, the human act of being one with the land, by consuming the fruits of the land therein, is something very human. For my parents, farmers from the Dominican Republic, this meant eating the rice and cultivating the produce that grew across from our home. Arguably, this story is changing with the rise of globalization, but, from Gaza to Japan, our story is not a unique one.

The second question at hand is: how is preparing food representative of the Gaza Tribe and of the Tribe of Humanity? There seems to be an extreme correlation between what is grown and how it is prepared. Essentially, various products that are grown are often combined in order to put together the final dish:

“In many ways, food in Gaza is classic Palestinian, Middle Eastern cuisine, but it is unique with its own regional diversity, which includes a deep appreciation for the kick of red chili peppers, the zest of eastern spices, and the soothing calm of fresh dill and dill seeds” (El-Hadad and Schmitt 5).

Here we have yet another ‘tribe’ come into the picture – although Gaza is part of the Middle Eastern community, the Gazan unique preparation with red chili peppers, dill and dill seeds is representative almost exclusively of the Gaza Tribe, as they mention how infrequently it is used in other Middle Eastern cuisine. The usage and incorporation of cuisines from other regions and past historical and religious associations is innately a human characteristic. Creating our own ‘Gaza’ rendition to a traditionally ‘Palestinian’ dish is something inextricably human –translated to our nature experimentation and adding our ‘own spice’ to it. For my mother, for example, this means adding the fat from the traditional Carribean pernil (shredded pork) into the moro (Dominican rice and chickpeas), while it’s cooking. (Don’t tell her I said that!)

The excerpt on the ubiquitous usage of the zibdiya in Gaza kitchens is particularly interesting because its use transcends economic disparities: “[it] is the most rudimentary and most precious kitchen item in every household in Gaza, rich or poor” (El-Hadad and Schmitt 13). A zibdiya – the Gaza version of a mortar and pestle – is a fundamental tool for all people in the Gaza tribe. In my household, it is the pilon, and in that of my Mexican friends, it’s the molcajete —, from Gaza to Mexico, we all need something with which to grind our condiments and spices.

The last question we have at hand is: how is sharing food representative of the Gaza Tribe and of the Tribe of Humanity? Well, I like to think that food is shared even before it is cultivated and prepared. It starts at the very idea of food. The book begins detailing how, “while all hands are at work, the conversation ranges from thyroid problems to daughters-in-law, from the ravages of the most recent war to the correct candying of carrots” (El-Hadad and Schmitt 7). This could be any cooks, anywhere in the Human Tribe, sharing in the experience of cooking together and sharing their stories and their lives through the act of cooking. This is furthered by their assertion:

“It is a reflection of all of us, of our common humanity… To talk about food and cooking is to talk about the dignity of life — food is ubiquitous…our hope in this book is to share this food with you and in so doing, something of the indefatigable spirit of the people we interviewed” (El-Hadad and Schmitt 6, 9).

When I think of the word ‘dignity’, I think of a fundamental human essence – one that transcends economic, political, religious and any other barriers that may impede humans from coexisting. To parallel food and human dignity could not further emphasize the importance that this basic human act has. Yes, we, as part of the Gaza Tribe, or the Japanese Tribe, etc. may share the same food, grow it, eat it and prepare it in the same way, which fundamentally unites us as part of that religious, or political tribe, but in its most basic form – food – and everything that surrounds it is a vehicle for human dignity, furthered by El-Hadad and Schmitt’s own reasoning for even sharing the book.

Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt’s, The Gaza Kitchen: a Palestinian Culinary Journey, evoked a very specific set of questions in my mind. I like to think that food is omnipresent, and in fact a ‘human’ thing – this, however, is just an innate feeling that probably stems from an irrational love of all-things-food. But how? By venturing deeply into just a few pages of this book, I was able to experience another ‘tribe’ – another culture, that validates some of my previously unfounded assumptions — I am looking forward to trying the recipes out for myself, and vicariously being a part of the Gaza Tribe.

RE: The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey. Charlottesville, VA: Just World, 2012. Print.

 

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