13 August 2009

Food: History and culture

Learning how our ancestors prepared their traditional foods enables us to understand them better.

The Los Angeles Times reported on a food conference for schoolteachers held at UCLA.

Learning to make stuffed grape leaves is a lesson that reaches far beyond cooking, to world trade, expository writing, even marriage and family traditions. In fact, the requirements of that last part hit home with some of the schoolteachers trying their hands at making dolmas one morning at UCLA.

"There may be a couple of you who remain spinsters until you get your technique down," warns Barbara Petzen, outreach director of the Middle East Policy Council, who tells the group that a young woman would be under enormous pressure to make perfect stuffed grape leaves for the family of her fiancé.

They should be as thin as a pinkie finger, stuffed so they do not burst when cooking, and spiced to the future mother-in-law's tastes.
The instructor called this one of the great culinary tests.

[Among the Persians, a marriageable girl had to be able to clean large amounts of herbs quickly and chop them finely (although I don't think anyone does this by hand anymore; even I had a Cuisinart in Iran a long time ago!); had to know how to finely dice ingredients for Shirazi salad (finely diced cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, mint, parsley in a dressing of fresh lemon or lime juice and olive oil). Another test was fesenjan, the classic walnut-and-pomegranate stew with chicken or duck.]

Sixty K-12 teachers participated in "It's a matter of taste," a 10-day conference given by UCLA's International Institute and the UCLA History Geography Project. Besides rolling dolmeh, they also studied brain development and food, agriculture in medieval Europe, the spice trade, the role of rice in globalization, the politics of hunger, and McDonald's in the Middle East.

The workshop (for credit) was to provide not only fodder for classroom lessons but much more.

The workshops have been held for 30 years, sometimes about regions of the world, sometimes organized thematically, according to Jonathan Friedlander, UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Studies assistant director and a workshop organizer. and an organizer of the conferences.

"I teach language, and there's always room for culture," says Maria Salazar, a Spanish teacher at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. "It's very important to me that I incorporate not just Latino culture but other cultures of the students in my classes."

Food is a "compelling way into culture and history and science," says Joe Lewis, an English teacher at North Hollywood High who says he uses recipes in lessons about writing.

Lewis is one of the teachers whose dolma-rolling skills might have caused a little trouble if he were a young woman trying to impress prospective in-laws. But as a teacher, he says, he is gathering plenty of fodder for his classes.
In the Middle East, cooking and food preparation is commonly a group activity with women sitting around a table and preparing certain specialties for a family event. However, with so many women now working outside the home, some of these customs are endangered.

The recipe seems simple: rice stuffing rolled up in a leaf and braised. But the variety of stuffings and the cultural connotations make it a complicated dish. For some people, adding currants is essential; for others that would make the result "absolutely vile," Petzen says. Palestinians use cumin and allspice; Iranians not only put chopped mint into the stuffing but also might layer it on the grape leaves to increase the mint flavor.
Petzen's recipe includes ingredients from around the world:

Rice, originally from the banks of the Yangtze River in China, was being grown in the Middle East by the first century; grape leaves from the Nile Delta; cinnamon from India; nutmeg from Indonesia; olive oil from the Middle East; pine nuts from Italy; currants from Greece; salt from Timbuktu; dill and parsley from the Mediterranean; and for those who use it, tomato from the New World.
Linda Civitello, author of "Cuisine and Culture," does a seminar with a potato.

She begins in 1537, when the Spanish ate potatoes for the first time, in Colombia. And she stops, among other places, in England, where in 1586, Queen Elizabeth's chef first served them; Russia, where Peter the Great introduced them in the late 17th century; Sweden in 1764, when the government promoted growing them; and of course, Ireland, where a potato famine killed a million people in the mid-1800s.

Civitello also talks about the Columbian exchange, the monumental swap of foodstuffs when Columbus brought from the New World to the Old such things as tomatoes, turkey, corn, hot peppers, vanilla and peanuts. And when the Old World gave the New pigs, cows, sheep, cabbage, lentils, oranges, apples and bananas.
Food is also teaching about exploration, pirates, slavery, religious traditions, trade, culture and agriculture, among other subjects.

Read the complete article at the link above.

By the way, dolmeh is the Persian spelling, while dolma is used in other countries.

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