‘Bread is practically sacred’: how the taste of home sustained my refuge
June 13, 2019 7:13 AM   Subscribe

A Guardian long-read about food and identity Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon has written a book: My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong, from which this is an excerpt. Quote beneath the fold

The value and meaning of food is always necessarily altered, just like everything else, by displacement. For one thing, “our” food is either unavailable or scarce in the new place, at least it was at the beginning. Therefore, it becomes a mark of loss, which makes it essential for all nostalgic discourse. For years after their arrival, my mother would deliver analytical soliloquies on, say, the ineffable yet substantial differences between “our” sour cream and the Canadian (“their”) kind. The authenticity of “our” food exactly matches the authenticity of our life in the past. Conversely, the inauthenticity of our life in displacement can be tasted in “their” food. In Mama’s discourse, our sour cream is a stable category, possessing unchanging qualities correlating to the unchanging, authentic principles that guided our previous life – the principles that were violated and, indeed, destroyed by the war and subsequent displacement.
Our food, in other words, stands for the authentic life we used to live, which is no longer available except as a model for this new, elsewhere life. It is therefore important that the food-related practices from the previous life be reconstructed in the new context. The food, if made properly, might be where authenticity is partially restored, despite the displacement. While that authenticity was available in the previous life, it requires tremendous effort to rebuild it in the new one, where the torturous possibility that nothing could ever be the way it used to be is continuously present, like a big nose on a face.
posted by mumimor (5 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
Once or twice I took my parents to a white-tablecloth restaurant within my financial reach, insisting that they must enjoy the experience. Instead, they were confused by the long, convoluted descriptions of the dishes, suspicious of the server’s solicitude and pessimistic about the nutritional value of the pretty arrangement. “We’ll be hungry in an hour,” Mama would pronounce, inescapably projecting into the unstable future.
This rings familiar to me, many of my friends (also children of immigrants) have stories about taking parents to a fine dining place that our parents loathed. This is especially true if its a fine dining version of the home cuisine. A recent acquaintance (whose parents are relatively well off) mentioned that his Chinese immigrant parents love to go to the $1.50 a plate dim sum restaurant.

That said, I think that Koreans in Korea have had several decades longer to recover from civil war, so restaurant food in general is a thing. Taking a visitor to a restaurant in a hotel in Korea is a way of honoring them because those restaurants still tend to be the most expensive and the most likely to have French or Japanese chefs.

(Also does two posts on Slavic cultures count as a trend for MF?)
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:11 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


i loved this piece so much. being an immigrant is to exist outside, and his painstaking "this is what food means to us" was so eye-opening. and i was tickled that the one cuisine his parents like is chinese.
posted by honey badger at 6:25 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


I really like Aleksandar Hemon's writing. Previously I have read "The Book of My Lives", which was highly recommended on Mefi.

"To throw food away is a sin against the generations of poverty. This is also why a special value is ascribed to the last and smallest edible particles: to the meat around the joint bone, to the heel of bread or to the burnt potato sticking to the bottom of the roasting pan. I was brought up to believe that these were particularly tasty, only to undergo an epiphany a few years ago, realising in a single painful moment that it was all poor people’s bullshit, nothing but peasant propaganda."

This part rings a particular bell. My mom's favorite modern kitchen implement is a set of silicon spatulas, especially the smallest one, which enables her to scrape clean any pot or bowl. It doesn't matter whether it's porridge, pancake batter or stew, the last droplets are always the most precious to her and must be collected, not wasted.
posted by of strange foe at 1:41 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


This part rings a particular bell. My mom's favorite modern kitchen implement is a set of silicon spatulas, especially the smallest one, which enables her to scrape clean any pot or bowl. It doesn't matter whether it's porridge, pancake batter or stew, the last droplets are always the most precious to her and must be collected, not wasted.
Ha ha, I can see myself there. Recently there was a post by Kenji on Serious Eats on how to clean your hands after working a dough (with flour), and one of the comments really confused me (paraphrased): well then how do you clean your mixing bowl? I was just thinking why would there be anything in the mixing bowl? Don't you have a spatula?

For most people in the world, even if you are middle class, you don't have to go far back before you find that culture of care and restraint. Waste not. So if you have learnt to cook from your family, you'll have all of these habits. North America is unique in that several generations in a row have been able to let go of that culture because prepared food has been widely available since the 1950's or something.
posted by mumimor at 1:43 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


This piece already has me wondering if there's something more to my lamentations about not being able to get decent New Mexican food in all the places I've been living.
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 12:05 PM on June 15


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