Tuesday, 23 December 2008

" Les Nourritures Terrestres"...

The title is borrowed from André Gide's famous work, best translated as "Earthly Nourishment." However, I don't think this translation does it much justice...nor would "Earthly Food" because all food is earthly and by the same token all nourishment starts on an earthly basis...first with the mother's breast.

I find it quite strange that this relationship to "earthly nourishment" is rather
skewed in the West. Let me give you an example.

Today I met with J. I met J. in some conference some months ago and we exchanged numbers. She calls me and suggests we meet for coffee. J is from Europe, from France to be more precise. Although J. has a pretty face, I noticed her body kind of emaciated, almost anorexic. From afar she looked as if she had the physiology of a male. Flat all over. No hips, no buttocks, no breasts...I was not sure if this was due to severe repeated dieting or to a "natural" constitution.

When we ordered our coffee, the waiter asked if anything else would "please us", and he mentioned a list of freshly made pastries - forêt noire, millefeuilles, apple tart with vanilla ice cream...I don't really have a sweet tooth but every now and then I like to indulge in pastries. So I asked J. if she would like anything from the pastry trolley.

Her reaction quickly dispelled my sense of curiosity as to her physique. She refused with an emphatic, strong NON Merci ! At first, I was slightly startled. After all no one hurled an insult towards her nor made an inappropriate ouverture... My initial doubt was confirmed. J was horrified by the idea of enjoying "forbidden foods".

I wasn't. So I ordered a millefeuilles and took my time savoring it...

Our exchange, or rather J's conversational exchange with me was as flat as her physique, which left me wondering why did she contact me in the first place...

But J.did mention, en passant, that she found Oriental dancing "grotesque" yet she never missed an occasion to watch it. I found that paradox equally startling.

I left our meeting with a sense of unease...as if I had come face to face with a living dead. Not your usual - lost it all, bereaved - living dead but another kind of living dead. A Western living dead.

Here was a woman who had a good job, and who according to her, was enjoying herself "in such a foreign country", had friends and had hobbies, one of which was travelling throughout the Middle East to "learn more about these foreign countries" , yet she was so dead... flat affect, flat expression, flat dead.

Even when she talked about subjects that excited her, she was equally flat, as if nothing gave her nourishment...as if she has been going hungry for so long, and no food, any kind of food will ever satisfy...

This uneasy feeling did not leave me and to tell you frankly I was very glad to leave...That kind of death - a soul death - is the most difficult one to deal with...and the most unattractive too.

On my way home, I stopped by the grocer's to pick up some "earthly nourishment" for this evening's dinner.

And in reaction to this emotional zombie I had just met, I bought way too much food, more than actually needed, as if to unconsciously compensate for the "waste land" I had just visited and maybe to defiantly affirm to myself that despite it all, my soul is still alive and kicking in earthly matters, be it food or other forms of nourishment...and as if to drive the point, even further, I deliberately took extra time in picking up the food items I needed, smelling them, touching them, enquiring about their freshness, their "place of birth", feeling them, contemplating their colors, and even tasting them...

And this evening I cooked differently from most evenings. I watched with awareness what I was doing, heightening my senses, observing, listening to the pots simmering...I had to turn it into a ceremony of the senses, wanting to shake off the lingering impressions I had retained from that deadly meeting.

Later on, I went into an orgiastic mode and listed all my favorite (moods) <- that is an uncorrected Freudian slip, I meant foods. Then I listed all my favorite smells associated with food - a solitary orgy of earthly nourishment. I concluded that Rice is my favorite grain. Rice with saffron, dried raisins and almonds, rice with cardamon and cinnamon, rice with green fava beans and dill, rice with lentils topped with golden brown onion rings, rice with sour cherries, rice with spicy minced meat and carrots, rice with shreds of dried orange, rice cooked in a well scented tomato sauce, rice with vermicelli, rice salad with peas and tuna fish and tomatoes adorned with parsley...

I also realised that prawns are another food "aphrodisiac" for me. Prawns sautés in fresh coriander and garlic, curry prawns with mango chutney, prawn cocktails with avocado and lime juice, sweet and sour prawns, prawns with bamboo shoots, prawns with tagliatelle and fresh ginger, spicy prawns cooked with onions and rice...

I also noted that I love a carrot salad in orange and lemon juice, mixed with black olives and cinnamon. Actually the list of salads is too long, but I will also add fatoosh, with rocca, cucumber, tomatoes, mint, spring onions and sumac plus olive oil and lemon juice and of course tabouleh - parsley, bulgur or cracked wheat, mint, onions and tomatoes.

The list is getting too long and I can't write it all down...

But I do have a special place reserved for desserts and mind you I don't have a sweet tooth !

Sorbets - in particular flavored ones with cardamon and cinnamon, topped with pistachios, walnuts and almonds, mocca ice cream with fresh cream and chocolate sauce, cheese kunafah with little syrup, kahee - an Iraqi delicatessen made of thin layers of puffed dough and filled with fresh buffalo cream, ma'amool- semolina based - either stuffed with pistachios or walnuts and covered with a dust of ice sugar, crème caramel, orange salad with cinnamon and roasted sesame grains soaked in honey and rosewater, rice pudding with rosewater, orange blossom water, sugar and topped with a cocktail of nuts, lynchees in syrup, mangoes blended into a purée and served with mint leaves, baked apples with cinnamon, honey and cream...

I think I better stop here...J. is missing out on so much. And mind you, I don't even consider myself an epicurian nor a hedonist...I guess as an Arab woman, I am not considered "liberated" enough to be either...Ha!

And before I sign off, I leave you with a short poem from André Gide which I will try to translate for you.

"Nourritures !
Je m'attends à vous, nourritures !
Ma faim ne se posera pas à mi-route ;
Elle ne se taira que satisfaite ;
Des morales n'en sauraient venir à bout
Et de privations je n'ai jamais pu nourrir que mon âme.
Satisfactions ! je vous cherche.
Vous êtes belles comme les aurores d'été."

Earthly Food
I am awaiting you, o' Food !
My hunger will not pause half way ;
it will only be silenced when satisfied ;
Morality will not quench it
and from Deprivation I was only able to feed my soul,
Satisfaction! I seek you.
You are as beautiful as a Summer's dawn...

P.S : Of course, you do understand that this post is not only about Earthly Food per se, well at least I hope you do...

Painting : Iraqi artist, Saad Ali.