Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Food, Conviviality, and Resistance in Lebanon

Via CHOW’s food media blog The Grinder, the L.A. Times presents a fascinating story about a group of Lebanese chefs and food producers creating their own forms of public resistance in the war-torn region. As Louise Roug writes:

“In a sort of mutiny of the bounty, a small cadre of gourmets and bons vivants has defiantly kept restaurants and produce markets open. They have pulled off a bread festival and held several dinners for visiting Italians with the Slow Food movement, which encourages biodiversity and saving traditional foods around the world.

“ ‘Food is important, but more so is going out,’ Abboud said. ‘It's an act of defiance.’ ”

Two general reactions:

--If there is anything close to a consensus viewpoint in the academic scholarship on food history and culture, it is that food is often central in the formation of communities, regardless of contextual factors. As an example, French historian Jean-Louis Flandrin argues that for the last several thousand years, people have used food to create “convivial” events such as feasts and banquets; Daniel Sack finds that American Protestants have made food a indispensable component of church functions; and folklore scholars have used ethnographic methodology to establish that food allows different groups to express their cultural identities. Consequently, it isn’t surprising that the Lebanese chefs, gourmets, and producers are drawing heavily from their food background as a means of establishing themselves amidst the country’s violence.

--From a historical standpoint, food quality tends to decline within a country that is at war; Britain’s use of Potato Pete and Doctor Carrot as propaganda characters during the Second World War is an apt (not to mention colorful) example. Yet Nemr Abboud and Walid Ataya’s decision to keep their restaurant open, as well as Kamal Mouzawak’s organization of a bread festival, demonstrates how important good food with quality ingredients and preparation can be to the sustenance and spirit of a culture during difficult times. Even with America beginning to reach a rapid phase of growth in its awareness and consumption of organic food, perhaps we all can take heed from this example.

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