People in the West African country of Mauritania view heavier women as presenting the ideal of beauty, while considering those with slender frames as bringing shame on their families. Mothers begin force-feeding their daughters as young as 10 years old with cow’s milk and fatty meats.
That seems especially odd in the U.S., where thinness is an important measure of beauty and some adolescent girls go so far as to make themselves sick with anorexia or bulimia to lose weight.
Many of us take for granted that we eat food to survive and perhaps to share with others, but there is much more to it. University of Virginia students taking the summer course, “Food and Meaning in Africa and the Diaspora,” have been learning how people express their cultures through the food they prepare and eat, who prepares it and for what purpose.
Lisa Toccafondi Shutt, a lecturer in the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, has taught a similar class for the College of Arts & Sciences’ anthropology department, where she earned her Ph.D. in 2010, as well as for the Women, Gender & Sexuality Program. She also directs the undergraduate programs in African-American and African studies.
“In all cultures, people create self-identity, claim ethnic and national affiliation and affirm maleness and femaleness with the foods they consume, purchase, prepare, select or order from a menu,” Shutt wrote in describing the class. The course also explores food and eating in relationship to such topics as taboo, sexuality, bodies, ritual, kinship, beauty, and restraint and excess, she said.
Looking into African cultures and other places in the world where people of African descent have migrated, settled or been forced to move – the meaning of “diaspora” – the course covered food traditions in several countries, such as Morocco, Ethiopia and Kenya. They also learned about food culture in the Caribbean nations of Belize and El Salvador, as well as in their own families.
Mauritanian women in urban areas have begun to speak out against the tradition of fattening, called “leblouh,” becoming more aware that the practice leads to health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes and hypertension, Shutt said. It remains prevalent in rural areas, however, and the big girls are viewed as wealthy and socially acceptable, as well as beautiful. “Approximately 75 percent of rural girls are forcibly fattened by their families; it is believed, probably correctly, that girls’ parents would have a great deal of difficulty in finding husbands for their daughters if they were to remain slender.”
She said it was hard for the students to understand and accept such opposite ideas of beauty and health, “but these students are sophisticated and they have opened their minds and worked through the information, each having his or her own ‘aha!’ moment.”
Fourth-year sociology major Madeline Hilbrant had such a moment. “In the U.S., we think that thin is pretty and in [parts of] Africa they think that it is pretty to be fat and bigger,” she said. “This has been meaningful to me, because when I get caught up in that kind of thing, I just remember that it is not worldwide.”
In most cultures, women cook the foods for the family, but men often have special things they cook or times they participate, such as grilling meat or carving the Thanksgiving turkey. “We talked about how in Africa, men are often the slaughterers, the elite chefs, the writers of cookbooks and photographers of food, and their consumption habits in the home and on the street influence national cooking trends,” Shutt said.
Shutt began the course by asking her nine students about foods and rituals in their own cultures. In one of the first classes, they talked about favorite dishes and who made them, plus how and when they were made.
Jean-Phillipe Nau, a third-year political science major from Haiti, talked about fried plantains – a type of banana that is considered the national dish – and how his mother made her own large mortar and pestle in which to mash the plantains. Two students from Nigeria responded that fried plantains in their culture are sliced rather than mashed, showing that the same foods can be prepared differently in different places.
One of them, Nenneya Shields, a French major who will graduate in December, talked about the curry stew her mother makes. Shutt explained that the British picked up curry when they colonized India and took it to other colonies, including Nigeria, and that’s how it ended up being a favorite food there.
For Landover, Md. native Kyrrel Latimer, five-layer macaroni and cheese is the special dish his mother makes for him when he goes home from college. His grandmother and aunt also make it, and it has a secret ingredient they wouldn’t tell him when he asked for the recipe, he said. Shutt commented that there’s often a secret ingredient in a family recipe.
At Christmastime, Bethany Branson of Jackson, Miss. said her family makes Kris Kringle cookies, and she now makes them for her friends at U.Va. She won’t bake the cookies at a different time because they are part of the holiday tradition, said Branson, a religious studies and elementary education major.
The class also discussed how special foods connect people and evoke memories of family experiences. Tyler Gurney of Richmond said he realized he remembers food more than anything else from his childhood, and has since observed what a great hostess his mother is.
Shutt pointed out that hospitality and cooking for people you love are important aspects of culture.
To sample foods from different cultures, the class went to three restaurants over the four weeks: Alhamraa, which serves Moroccan food; Mi Canton, which features food from El Salvador; and Mel’s Café, which specializes in the foods of the American South – what some might call “soul food.” The class discussed the debate about whether and in what context foods, such as fried chicken, are considered Southern or African-American, and how stereotypes play into that.
When the group went to Alhamraa, Shutt said the Moroccan feast was “a transformational experience for these students, none of whom had tasted Moroccan food before.”
Karim Sellam, the owner and chef, told the students that while the herbs used in Moroccan cooking are local to Morocco, the spices are from far away in the East – from India, for instance. Sellam said Morocco and the rest of Africa were most likely hooked into global trade networks long before Marco Polo’s 13th-century travels.
“We often think about Africa as an isolated continent, but this type of evidence shows that Africa has long both influenced and been influenced by what we now call globalization,” Shutt said.
Before they went to Mi Canton, the students asked if they could have the meal served “family style” as it was at Alhamraa, because that “encouraged such a sense of communality,” she said. “We dined on pupusas, pork and fried yucca, chicken and green bananas, all with cabbage and a delicious red peppery sauce on top of the food.”
Hilbrant said, “It was really cool to actually get to eat the food we were learning about. It made for a very hands-on experience.”
One of the most meaningful things to Nau, he said, has been how sharing food with his classmates enabled him to build relationships beyond the people who were already part of his everyday life.
“I’ve learned about the globalization of international as well as domestic cuisines as essential to our own experiences, and about how food plays an important role in shaping our economic, social, geopolitical norms,” he also said.
The course “effectively takes you out of your own country and into another without physically traveling,” Shields said. “Opening the mind and broadening perspectives are some of the most important and useful tools gained from education.”
And in this course, that education also tasted delicious.