Friday, March 24, 2006

Yesterday I worked away from home, and since the commute was a combined seven hour trip, I had plenty of reading time (arguably the only advantage to the long commute concept)! After working my way through the day's papers and doing a sudoku or two, I picked up a book I've been meaning to read for ages, COMING HOME TO EAT: the pleasures and politics of local foods by Gary Paul Nabhan.

I do believe that something has gone wrong with our global food supply chain. When local farmers in Kent have fields groaning with a vegetable or fruit (let's say apples, for example) and yet all the local supermarkets' fruit aisles are bulging with the same fruit, but imported from South Africa, Israel, Argentina, Spain, the USA or wherever, there is clearly something not quite right. In the past few years we have tried to be a little more conscious of where and what we buy, preferring to go to the local farmers' market first and then only to the supermarket for the things on the list that we can't find there. Of course, this still doesn't really work if you are not cooking seasonally, and we have a LONG way to go to get this right. A few weeks ago I read an article (sorry - can't remember which paper or who by) which called us "greens lite"! At first I felt slightly injured - we are making some effort after all - then I realized the author was correct. Unless we radically change our eating habits and eat completely seasonally, are we really serious about addressing the issue? Strawberries are available in Sainsburys all year round, and very nice too (usually from Spain), but Kent strawberries from the farmer down the road in season are absolutely amazing!

Back to Nabhan's book; I am in early stages (first fifty pages) so can't give you a definite yea or nay about said book, but am certainly finding it thought-provoking. There is an encounter he describes which I thought was just so wonderful that I have to reproduce it here (indulge me!). I think it resonates in me because I live in permanent voluntary exile myself. To contextualize: Nabhan (an American) is visiting Lebanon to meet his Lebanese extended family for the first time. The first night in Beirut he is taken by friends to dine at the much praised Club Du Lubnan, where they dine in posh surroundings on French champagne, Caspian Sea caviar, Californian shrimp, Sicilian capers, and Argentine beef, all washed down by French and Italian wines, topped off by a smoke of Cuban cigars - a meal fit for a prince.

"The next afternoon we drove over the snowcapped mountains in to the Bekaa Valley. With two carloads of cousins we passed through several roadblocks of Shiite Muslim militia, Syrian and Lebanese forces, Hezbollah guerillas, and local police. Crossing the ancient croplands of the Fertile Crescent, the Bekaa's orchards, vineyards, grainfields, vegetable gardens, and pastures - I grew more and more heartened.

Suddenly our cousins' beat-up old cars careered around a curve into a side canyon where a cluster of cobblestone and concrete houses filled the canyon bottom. They glittered in the sun beneath eroded limestone slopes stippled with fig and olive trees. I could hardly absorb what the Kfar Sibad landscape felt like, for the cars were slowing to enter a street swelling with kinfolk. 'You really have no idea how long they have been waiting for you,' our cousin Shibley explained.

It went into slow motion then: I had never seen so many people with the same bulging eyes and beaked noses as me, my brothers, uncles, and aunts. They mobbed the street under a banner proclaiming WELCOME HOME NABHANS. As we tumbled out of our cars, our cousins engulfed us, wrapping us in hugs and in camel hair abeyas, the robes of princes. Aunts, uncles, cousins kissed us on the tops of our heads, on our cheeks, on our mouths. They held onto us as if they finally had us back - back from some unimaginable placeless exile where each of us had become the muhajjar, 'the ones that had been forced to depart.' But now we had returned to the ancestral home, ca biladna, back in the safety of the family haven, our laji. Older women began trilling the zalgrita, keening the song of homecoming as they accompanied us indoors.

We came across the threshold into a home emanating the warmth of jovial men bringing out their home-distilled arak and women warming up foods shaped all day by their own hands. We were conjoined in a feast a world apart from the one we had been offered in the Club Du Lubnan. It exuded the aroma of our aunts' and cousins' hands, the musk of goats and sheep grazed on the slopes above us, the salt and bitter herbal bite of the alkaline earth itself. We were given a meal I shall never forget, for ever since I have carried it homeward, into every one of my body's cells." (Nabhan, 2002, pp.23-24)



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