For most women, the kitchen is a sacred place. It is not only the place where food turns into breakfast, lunch, or dinner but where women tell stories from generation to generation; it is where history and heritage pass on from mother to daughter.
Suffice to say I was more than happy to discover that The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey, a brilliant cookbook by Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt, was just that: a cookbook that also described itself as “a documentary portrait of the Gaza Strip.” There are many ways to tell a story of history and heritage, so why through cooking?
“Because food is the essence of the everyday. Beyond all the discourses, the positions and the polemics, there is kitchen. And even in Gaza, that most tortured strip of land, hundreds of thousands of women every day find ways to sustain their families and friends in body and spirit,” the authors write on their blog.
El-Haddad, also widely known as @Gazamom on Twitter, explained their objective was to “use food as a narrative device.” She and her co-writer, Maggie Schmitt, visited the kitchens of women from different social backgrounds and spent a day with them as they watched the Gazan women cook their traditional dishes. They also had the chance to hear their stories, engage in conversations, and witness discussions that took place in the household. When all of this came together, it created what is so much more than just a cookbook, The Gaza Kitchen.
"Our shared love of food cannot solve all the problems"
Both authors also emphasized that food plays a big role in memory and identity. They talked about the villages that they could not visit simply because they no longer exist yet their cuisine found a way to survive, passed on from generation to generation, and today they can still be remembered because we can still taste their food.
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“Food is a link to the past,” El-Haddad noted. “The new generation of Gaza is maintaining very specific identities when it comes to food. They are very strict about the way the local dishes should be cooked and prepared.”
Since The Gaza Kitchen is not your grandmother’s traditional cookbook, but full of information about the history and the current stage of Gaza as well as recipes, I asked Laila El-Haddad whether or not she have taken the role of an educator as well as an author. She paused for a few moments before she said that she doesn’t necessarily consider herself as an educator. “It never even accrued to me until I went back to Gaza in 2010,” she adds, and met several young women and bloggers who got in touch with her, expressing their admiration for El-Haddad as an inspiration.
One of the main objects of this project was to document a different side of Gaza, a side we don’t get to see very often. However, to be able to do this they had to not only enter their very private space: the kitchen, but also, in order to tell the story of the Gazan people through food, they had to ask them to share their family recipes, stories and pictures.
To the authors’ relief, once they heard why these two women were asking to enter their kitchen, and their lives, Gazan people were more than welcoming and eager to share. El-Haddad and Schmitt discovered that these people were actually eager to talk about something other than politics, borders, the siege or the rockets.
Today, when we turn on the TV or open up a newspaper, the chances are we are not going to come across news from Gaza regarding food. The political issues, war and the never ending conflict could easily make us forget that Gaza is so much more than that: it’s a rich culture, bearing many fascinating stories waiting to be heard and I feel lucky that I had the chance to hear some of them.
They are using the ‘micro-touch’, as Maggie Schmitt puts it, to look at people, stories, households and economy in order to help people get a better understanding of the political issues of Gaza. However, Schmitt adds, “If we can use food as a way to start talking about the bigger issues, then we have an entry point. But food should not be taken out of context. Our shared love of food cannot solve all the problems.”
True, maybe food cannot be the ultimate recipe for peace but it sure can be a starting point for us to have a better understanding of each other.