February 2, 2016

HABR | A Plate Called Home

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The table is set: plate after plate overflowing with hummus, baba ghanoush, labneh, olives, cheese, meat, grape leaves, sambosak, dates, tabbouleh. Inviting aromas waft through the air: mint, parsley, citrus, yoghurt, bulgur. The food of my culture and my childhood remains with me as I remember my family and dream of home.

As we grow, we absorb our culture, and it shapes us in more ways than we realize.  Our cultures influences the smells we like, the tastes that delight us, the music that we prefer and the voices we like to hear. These preferences become part of our identities, even if we leave behind the places that helped instill them in us.

Food is an important part of our cultural identity and indicative of the lifestyles we lead. Food is more than survival and good taste; it is a performance of identity. The nature of Arabic food, for example, is to be shared amongst many. Whether they are shared with friends or family, meals are communal events that celebrate and strengthen the close ties people have with those around them. Mealtimes represent a cultural orientation towards community and family, and families who can afford to do so make a habit of coming together to share meals regularly.

Food becomes a part of who we are. When we smell food, we remember all that accompanies it: the people present at meal times, the places that we ate at and the rituals we performed. Cooking regional dishes creates memories that we take with us wherever we go and, through them, we create a notion of home.

Last year, my family relocated from the Middle East to the U.S. I knew I would miss the place I had made into home, but I didn’t realize just how much. I joked that out of everything, I would miss the food the most, but I didn’t anticipate that it would be food that made me realize how far I was from home. I could not go to my favorite corner falafel shop when a craving set in. In fact, I could not order any Arabic food expecting it to be made authentically and as I liked it. Food was the puzzle piece that I could not make fit in my new environment, and my inability to find something so integral to the sense of home made it all the more clear that things had really changed.

Food is an important part of life for diaspora communities, those that have been scattered from their homes across the world. In environments that are new and sometimes hostile, food gives people a way to remember the familiar and feel at home. It is a way to preserve culture and stability while adapting to a new way of life in a place with different norms. People preserve cuisines as a way of holding on to a part of their identities.

As people adapt into their new communities, their food does too. Traditional foods become hybrids of the new and the old, the Eastern and the Western and the authentic and the innovative. Though food is a way to hold on to home, it is also a means of showing the evolution of culture in diaspora communities. Foods change as they are passed down through generations, even when aspects like language are lost. As communities change and adapt to their new homes, their identity and all that comprises it changes too.

I contemplate these thoughts as I consider my own personal identity. Moving is hard, no matter how many times I’ve done it, and it is especially hard after spending seven years in one place. I find myself missing home the way I remember it, not yet ready to accept my place in a new country.

I still have a knee-jerk reaction of horror when I see the many different (often ridiculous) flavors of hummus  — marketed from garlic jalapeño to pumpkin spice — and I was personally offended when I had to pay 11 dollars for a falafel. This feeling was made worse when I was subsequently offered Sriracha to put on my sandwich. It is strange for me to live in a place where the food I eat everyday is seen as some sort of trendy health craze and where an integral part of my culture is taken and twisted in order to make profit. Slowly, I will get used to it; as I settle into my new life, my relationship with my food will change. As I become more Americanized, I will accept my food becoming that way, too. I will adapt and change, fusing my old homes with the new. Yet I don’t know if the day will come when I will crave a shawarma and find myself able to eat something I truly know and that reminds me of home.

Katy Habr is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. On the Margin runs alternate Wednesdays  this semester.