I’ve been very fortunate in my pursuit of peoples’ stories about food – their feelings and memories. One in particular is filling my “bandwidth”, as the kids would say. It’s about shame. But the story is gutting and adorable at the same time. How is that possible?
It’s the story of a little girl who wants to be included, wants to truly belong. She moves with her family to a strange world where people eat strange things. She’s told over and over that she’s adapting better than any one else, but what they don’t know is that she can’t – can NOT! WON’T! – eat a certain food. She covers up and engages in subterfuge to create the impression that she is happily chomping down on that very thing that she finds disgusting. But she knows in her heart that she isn’t one of these people, and it just breaks her heart and leaves her feeling like the outsider that she really is.
I won’t tell you more, for she hasn’t released the story to me yet and I want it to be perfect before I tell it, but it sure makes me want to visit this world.
It got me thinking, too, about how food can be the tool of the conquerer. “The strongest person is he who imposes his diet on others,” says Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat in The History of Food. What the story illustrates above, then, is a shift away from colonialism – the early ’70s weren’t known for their colonialism, after all. But still, there was no snobbery around this family “going native”, and in fact, the opposite was desired.
But way back, the colonist would actively avoid “going native”; however, he would avidly and rigorously export the best, exotic foods from the territories he conquered, while leaving behind his own food and eating culture and habits. Think Italy in Ethiopia in the late ’30s and early ’40s. You can get world class pizza in Addis Ababa, but Ethiopian coffee is also now enjoyed around the world.
The imposition of food and its rituals, though, can be seen right in the family home. Any family home. I’ve been trying to coax a story from a woman about her husband who grew up with a mother who expressed her unconditional love through her cooking. This woman is a strong feminist who eventually came to understand that for her new-at-the-time husband to believe that she truly loved him, she would have to cook a hell of a lot better than she did. To complicate matters further he’s Jewish, she’s not. Oy vey.
So in these cases, food is control, power, and shame and love to some extent. What I’m discovering in this research is that food never ever represents just one singular emotion. It’s always complicated. Pleasure goes hand in hand with guilt. Power goes hand in hand with covetousness. Complex, it is, like the best flavours. Feelings are always more powerful when seasoned with other feelings.