Around the Tables Around the Globe

December 10, 2009
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Boiled brains dangled from sticks, congealed blood floated like Jell-O in thick red fluid, gouged eyeballs and severed feet laid about. No, this isn’t a torture scene or even that of a reality TV show, but merely the contents of dinner tables I have shared. Food goes much deeper than just the nutrients it provides; it goes to the very fiber of a culture itself. The appreciation of local delicacies, the sharing of stories around the table, and the traditional preparation of the common meal all serve as windows into the very heart of any society.

One such evening began as we were seated at a round table overlooking the busy city. In the middle was a giant pot; much like something you would see at a fondue restaurant. Our hostess, dressed in her kimono, brought out a hot teapot and began to pour thick red pig’s blood into the pot. The liquid began to boil and emit a stomach wrenching smell. Plates of chicken feet, unknown animal stomachs, three-foot long intestines, and fresh slippery brains were proudly placed before us. We stabbed the mystery meat with our chopsticks and plunged them into the boiling blood. Since we barely knew a word of Chinese, we smiled weakly as we apprehensively loaded our plates with our now rubberized meats. We quickly gulped down the slimy substance and were now ready to dig in – not only into the food but also into the culture itself.

The ability that I now have to control my gag reflex has given me the chance to do much more than just say I have eaten eyeballs. I have had the opportunity to sit in kitchens around the world and learn from people, to listen to the stories about their lives, their triumphs and their difficulties. Gathering around the dinner table, whether it is in the boroughs of New York or on the floor of a hut in Kenya, a meal is a time that allows us to relate to one another and uncover our commonalities, as well as appreciate our differences.

Through these experiences the one constant that flows through all of my encounters is my treasured trips into the kitchens where meals are prepared with utmost pride. When I left my table in Nairobi and found my way to the separate cooking hut, I walked into a joyful cooking lesson unlike anything found on Food Network. Fifteen women, who were dressed in brightly colored fabrics, circled a fire pit in the floor and filled the hut with sounds of robust laughter and rhythmic singing. They welcomed me into their circle and proudly showed me the ways to prepare their favorite dishes. Before I knew it, I was eating hot mandazis fresh off the fire and learning how to make their beloved African chai. For the brief time that I joined in the laughter and dance, there was no barrier of culture or race. I was one of them.
My passion to study international cultures has been fueled by my opportunity to travel to several different countries around the world. No matter where I go in life, I will always carry a piece of these cultures inside of me. My quiet, modest hostess in India, who humbly taught me to make dal, lives in my heart alongside the stout Sicilian woman who exuberantly hugged my head to her bosom as she insisted I accept her homemade gelato. In my quest to get to know the peoples of the world, I believe the best place to start is in the kitchens around the tables around the globe.

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