The food that shows us ourselves

I spoke at a conference in Beirut earlier this year, ArabNet. To be honest, half the reason I said yes to this event was because I wanted to see Beirut. For those of you under 30, when I was a teenager the Lebanese capital was tantamount to Afghanistan. The old war is behind them now, but the country does border Syria. There were buildings with bullet holes, soldiers, checkpoints and barriers everywhere, as well as large swaths of construction as the government tries to rebuild the city.

The organizers of ArabNet held a speakers dinner during the event, which is pretty typical of most conferences. We were all gathered in the pleasant dining room at the top of the hotel where we were staying. The lights of Beirut twinkled outside the windows. At our table was myself- from Britain by way of America, a Frenchman – by way of Britain, two Spanish men, a Greek lady, someone I think was from Singapore and two Lebanese hosts. I have sat at this type of table at FinTech conferences many times before in cities all over the world.

Our two hosts smiled broadly. “This hotel has a very well-known kitchen, we hope you like the meal. We’re having…steak and chips!” The table glanced at each other. (I don’t want to sound ungrateful, the steak and chips were very nice) until someone said ‘Oh, I assumed we would be having Lebanese food’. The two hosts looked at each other before turning to us and asking ‘Why?’

It got me thinking about how we present ourselves as diverse members of the global community. The things we see as commonplace, other see as exotic, and vice versa. Our hosts probably ate Lebanese food every day, and they advised the chef at the hotel to serve a meal us ‘Western-folks’ would like – something that would show us that Beirut was a modern city, capable of hosting people from all over the world. Why would a meze of humus and kebabs and falafel be something that would impress? When ‘steak and chips’ was where you would take people on an indulgent meal in New York or London.

A few years ago my son’s school was holding a ‘foods of the world’ cooking day. They invited the parents to bring in food from their ethnic heritage for the children to eat. (My son’s school at the time was in Lewisham in London and the children there spoke over 70 languages. I’m not an elite, middle class liberal who doesn’t know what it is like to like next to immigrants. My husband sleeps with one every day).

Our son’s teacher pulled me over and asked, ‘Maybe you could cook something, American?’ I sneered, ‘What, do you want me to bring in McDonalds?’ I shouldn’t have said that – it’s not fair on America.  I ended up making chocolate chip cookies (invented in Massachusetts).

I am often asked what food I miss from America. This is often from Americans who seem to think, once you leave the country there will be nothing to eat except incomprehensible foreign food they won’t be able to digest. Trust me, if there is any country in the world with food similar to America – it’s the UK. I have a kitchen cabinet full of Oreos to prove it. And to be honest, the ‘Should I just bring in McDonalds?’ isn’t that far off. The ubiquitous Golden Arches is what most of the world thinks of when they think of American food. I was once in Hong Kong and decided to take an hour-long boat journey, by myself, to a remote fishing village where the guidebooks said waterside cafes would grab a fish off a boat for you and cook it to order. I stepped off the ferry that had sped through Hong Kong harbour and was greeted with a red, white and yellow McDonalds sign right by the docks. If you just can’t bear to eat anything other than chicken McNuggets while on holiday, you have to go pretty far to not be near one.

So what would I serve, where would I take someone, who asked ‘what food makes you think of your home’? I know the answer to that – and none of it would be what I would call exotic.

I would take them to the Lobster Hut in Plymouth, Mass for fried clams. Or to just about any place in New York for pizza, the way it is supposed to taste. I would serve them beef hotdogs, not from a jar, BBQ’d and served with mustard. I would boil them corn on the cob, complete with the silken threads that stick in your teeth. My mother’s banana bread. My Aunt’s cornbread stuffing (made in a toaster oven) or experimentally flavored pizzelle cookies. I would have cucumber slices in white wine vinegar, which was always on the table at my paternal grandmother’s house (trust me, for some reasons it works) and an open bag of Hersey’s Kisses for grandchildren to steal.

I would make you a batch of Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies from the recipe that comes on the back of a yellow Nestle bag.

That is the food that makes me think of home. That is the food that makes me think of America. The food that would show that the US is a modern country, capable of hosting people from all over the world.

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