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Ever Wondered Who Invented your Food?

Amidst writing an article on Mediterranean grains, the research and reading I’ve been doing has taken places and taken me back in time.

In Mediterranean Grains and Greens, Paula Wolfert, who traveled and lived in homes of Mediterranean families, describes the steps of processing bulgur. She quotes a Turkish food writer who says,

Up until fifty years ago we had a ceremony to celebrate the harvest. Everyone who wanted to make bulgur would go to a special public horse-powered mill in the countryside. The women, our grandmothers, would stay there for for two days boiling wheat kernels until they swelled, drying the kernels on flat roofs, then cracking and sieving them to separate the bulgur by size. During this period, when our grandmothers cooked and worked together, and everyone ate bulgur morning, noon, and night, many new bulgur dishes were invented.

Clifford Wright, in A Mediterranean Feast, tracks where and when certain foods showed up in the Mediterranean. He narrates that couscous was invented by the Berber in North Africa, adopted by Arabs afterward, and it somehow showed up in the Eastern Mediterranean as it was mentioned by a historian, named Al-Maqqari, who wrote in Damascus in the seventeenth century. Wright goes on to add,

A century earlier the famed Arab traveler Ibn Battuta (1308-1378?) also mentioned couscous.

I turned to my grandmother to ask her how her mother prepared food. Similar stories. A group of women gathered once a year to make maftool (also called moghrabyeh, which are the Middle Eastern names for couscous) and store it for the whole year. My grandmother, a young teenager back then, and her siblings took sheets spread with maftool to the roof to let it air dry. The storage area of their house supplied maftool, rice, bulgur, and other foods and kept the family full year-round.

Middle Eastern maftool dish. Source: Flickr. By: Myahya.

This may not seem interesting to all. But for me, combine food and history, and I’m all lost.

Readings and stories such as these triggered my own memories about preparing food. My mom would bring bags of fresh pea pods, lay them on a clean large used-up bed sheet in the backyard, and my siblings and I would participate in getting the peas out of the pods. She used to buy fresh molookhyeh in season, use the same sheet, and we’d help her pick the leaves from the stems so she could store it for the rest of the year. She used to bring several pounds of fresh Nabulsi cheese, set a big pot of boiling water, and flash boil the cheese before storing it in water and salt, again, for the rest of the year.

Nabulsi cheese. Source: Flickr. By: Roobee.

It suddenly hit me that I have many more memories of food ceremonies–we didn’t look at them this way back then–where all house members got involved. I can remember my mom discussing with her friends or relatives what produce or others they stored:

Don’t forget it’s okra season, make sure your store and freeze some

And it also hit me that my mom now, fifteen or twenty years later, doesn’t do all these things anymore. Why? Modern food systems.

It made me a little sad that my kids won’t get to experience that. But honestly, I wouldn’t want to clean up bags of pea pods. If I had to, I wouldn’t have time to go to school, work, or write this blog.

This brought the National Nutrition Month theme of this year, “Nutrition from the Ground Up,” back to my mind. Maybe “from the Ground Up” is not necessarily all about soil, plants, bugs, and chemicals. Maybe it’s all about from childhood memories to adulthood, from past to present to future, from grandparent to child to grandchild.

Maybe local markets and house gardens are not all about good and sustainable for the environment. Maybe they are our subconscious way to bring love, warmth, and joy to our lives. To create a feeling of home, regardless of what home means to each and every one of us. To bring back memories, flavors, aromas of the past and of those who we love.

I’m confident that regardless of where you grew up, you have memories and stories to tell about your food. Tell us one of your stories. How much are you interested in knowing the history behind your everyday foods?

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  • Crystal's Cozy Kitchen March 25, 2010, 12:34 pm

    Sidetracking a little, my older sister started collecting older cookbooks. In one from about the 1950’s she found a recipe for pizza/spaghetti sauce which called for 1 can of cream of mushroom soup and 1 can of tomato soup. At that moment we understood why my grandmother makes hers that way! I am personally glad that we have real Italian recipes available now!

  • Stella March 26, 2010, 5:49 pm

    I’m very interested in knowing the history, Nour. I’m even more interested in knowing where my food comes from and how it is grown/cultivated!

  • Nour El-Zibdeh, RD March 26, 2010, 8:27 pm

    Crystal: That’s a fun project! If you want old, history, and traditions for Italian cooking, I recommend you read the books I mentioned in this post. They are a fun to read. And they have really authentic recipes šŸ™‚

    Stella: this is the hot topic now! People want to know where their food comes from (not necessarily the history, but the farm, how much it traveled, etc) because that tells them something about the quality… I think it matters and I’m glad I’m not the only one who cares šŸ™‚

  • TwinToddlersDad March 27, 2010, 3:07 pm

    I think you touched upon a very interesting and powerful idea here. In the age of supermarkets and fast food, we have totally lost our most basic connection with food. I like to think of it as the “software” of food, which you could say is linked to our memories and culture. The “hardware” of food is what we seem to care the most about these days – the nutrients, the calories, the country of origin, organic or not etc. But in moving away from home cooked meals, we have lost the power of the software of food.

    I am not suggesting that we give up the convenience of modern life and go back to doing things the way our grandparents did a hundred years ago. But wouldn’t it be nice to leverage all the wonderful things technology has given us to develop our own software of food? Wouldn’t it be nice to create a new culture once again?

    Thank you for the thought provoking article! I think your message is right on with the theme of Nutrition from the Ground Up!

  • tasteofbeirut March 27, 2010, 10:24 pm

    Nour

    I see that we read the same cookbooks! I was totally engrossed in your post, it also brought back similar experiences related to food preparation in Lebanon with my grandmother being the master of ceremony! Nowadays, I see these traditions only in scattered villages in the mountains and they are actually fading away, which makes me sad.
    RE” your question on grape leaves, yes they are also stuffed with meat but this one is meatless and eaten room temperature as a mezze.

  • Nour El-Zibdeh, RD March 28, 2010, 8:05 pm

    TwinToddlerDad: very interesting metaphor about hardware vs software. I like it šŸ™‚ I think we need to get to a balance. Sometimes I feel I spend more time that I need in the kitchen, for me, some meals, and some specific foods are worth the extra effort. I wish I thought about that when you were answering the question by your experts.

    Jumana: I love those books. I borrowed them from the library but I want to buy and keep them in my own home library. a fun reading they are. I’m glad you got to think of your grandmother šŸ™‚ I agree it’s sad. Life changes and we can’t do much about it. But we can try to reserve as many flavors as we can šŸ™‚
    Thanks for the answer too