I grew up in the southern United States; food is a tremendous part of my culture. Thanks to family, friends and spending years with a second family (my “North Carolina Grandma“, a.k.a. my babysitter) after school I am too familiar with some pretty tasty foods: macaroni and cheese, fried okra, ham biscuits, green beans and collard greens (or any vegetable) cooked for hours with some sort of ham, fried chicken, potato salad, sweet iced tea, butter on everything, dessert after every dinner. I would watch my friends snack on a livermush sandwich or crunch on a handful of fried pork rinds (two things I just could not bring myself to eat). Most likely, I am still alive because I stopped eating those lovely foods on a regular basis before I turned ten years old. My family tried to eat healthier and I still attempt to do the same.
Food is still a big part of my life. I try to disconnect it from love and care and to see it solely as nutrition for my body but I don’t think I will ever be able to separate it from my roots, my tradition, my culture. The older I get the more I see that my food, our foods—seem to be connected. My husband is Sri Lankan and our home towns are quite a distance from each other but we both grew up with spicy food and drinking very sweet tea to combat the heat. In both families, love was communicated to the family through food and the cook(s) felt love in return depending how much a meal was enjoyed.
The best meal I ate in Liberia was a ‘green soup’ at a tiny stand in a small village. The taste so clearly reminded me of my Grandmother’s greens that I fought back tears and the urge to go back to the kitchen to see if she was there (she passed away in 2001, so of course she wasn’t…). The soup wasn’t pretty but the best meals rarely are.
In Rwanda, the same connection occurred. One of the best soups I have ever tasted took me back to sweltering summers, in a hot kitchen and the distinct taste of fresh vegetables cooked for a late dinner after a long day of harvesting them from the back yard garden.
It happened again in DRC as I filled my plate with vegetables at a lunch buffet. The same hostess who urged me to take the varied meats, and looked incredulous as I declined all meat offered, later stopped by and nodded in approval as she noticed my cleaned plate. The potatoes, cabbage, beans, greens and carrots were all gone. Again, each dish could have come from that steamy summer kitchen where we had to speak up to be heard over the crickets and cicadas loudly chirping through the screen windows and doors.
How could I be pulled back to my childhood memories when I was so far away from those places? How could these meals seem so familiar to me when I had not been here before? I considered historical connections and recipes passed along generations but those connections seemed too impossible, the links were too thin. Riding in a bus over the “hills” of the Rwandan countryside, seeing the crowded farmland that covered every bit of space on the steep mountainsides, made me recall my Grandmother’s childhood home. She grew up on the side of a rocky mountaintop and her family farmed tobacco on that steep, stone covered land.
The food connections I experienced, for which I am grateful, were from a shared culture of poverty, resourcefulness, creativity and love.