The prodigal son is returning for the first time since he left for college, and we are all making our little plans on how to best greet him. The mental list includes big bear hugs and abundant smiles, an orthodontist visit (poor thing) and, of course, food.
A recent article in the Times got me thinking about the role food plays in our lives. It told of New Roots, an organization comprised of 85 growers from 12 countries which supports and develops what is called “refugee agriculture.” Along with other farming programs of similar ilk, they facilitate the immigrants’ access to land and financing, as well as teach them the ins and outs of our climate and the farming techniques available. One of my favorite quotes was from a man named Ibrahim Sawara Dahab, an ethnic Sudanese from Somalia whose meat farm and store near Phoenix came into being via his work with one of these groups: “In America, you need experience, and my experience was goats.” Goats, indeed!
Those who know me are looking amused now, knowing full well that while I am always an admirer and supporter of those things that support understanding and the spreading of ethnic richness, I am also probably the last person to dig around in the dirt and get into gardening. Indeed, my interest was drawn not so much to the agricultural slant of the article but rather the social one. Having known immigrants and the depth of the isolation they often experience when they first arrive in this country like boats without mooring, this resonated with me.
“New Roots in City Heights, which Michelle Obama visited last spring, is a model for today’s micro-enterprise. (It is also a culinary education, where a Zimbabwean grower can discover bok choy.) It was started at the request of his Somali Bantu community, said Bilali Muya, the effervescent trainer-in-chief. “There was this kind of depression,” he said. “Everyone was dreaming to come to the U.S.A., but they were not happy. The people were put in apartments, missing activity, community. They were bored.“
They were also homesick for traditional food, grown by hand”
Traditional food, grown by hand… something that’s lost its import here in the U.S. and in many industrialized countries. Indeed the products at the supermarket in Utah and South Carolina and even Paris or Sevilla are nearly identical. Fast-food restaurants and chain pseudo-homey “Olive Gardens” and “Chipotles” offer the same menu items regardless of their location. If your tastes are broader, you can find Chinese and Thai and even Ethiopian and Greek and all sorts of restaurants in most cities. So yes, it is all available, but it is not what we crave.
When we travel, when we journey beyond our borders, we crave something else. We desire food containing ingredients that have meaning for us, prepared by the ones we love. It is that powerful combination that matters.
I still remember when my mother came to visit me abroad after a long time apart. She was a foodie before the term existed, a single working woman on a tight budget who fed her two young children paella and boeuf bourguignon instead of the tv dinners which were so popular in those days. With great excitement I took her to not only known restaurants but to others I’d discovered tucked away in the streets and the port of the city where I lived.
Despite the orgiastic epicurean festival we shared, the most memorable, the meal that lived on in her memory for many years to come, was not the snails we’d eased lovingly from their small shells, or the explosion of fresh seafood mixed with squid-ink blackened rice. The meal that brought tears to her eyes was a simple breakfast I cooked for her in my small apartment. Why? Because it was a perfect soufflé-storm of ingredients which held meaning to us and a generous sprinkling of love: two eggs over easy, home fries with lots of onions and garlic, toast and coffee. Doesn’t get much simpler than that. Love is, in the end very simple.
So, what am I cooking for him? Not sure yet, but being the hungry young carnivorous man that he is no doubt somewhere on the menu will be a big steak, cooked with, of course, lots of l – o – v – e.