Long Read – Cooking Between Cultures: Finding Myself through Food and Memory
“Tell me again how you met Nonno,” I asked. Little balls of potato dough squished up against my fingers as I pressed each one on the outer edge of a woven, wicker basket – its ribbed texture imprinting the dumplings. I was eleven years old and making gnocchi with my grandmother from scratch.
“At school,” she replied, kneading a large ball of dough into a pile of white flour on the table. The table cloth was older than me, its juicy cartoon watermelons smiling beneath a protective plastic covering. “But we were some years apart. We didn’t know each other too good.”
A chasm occurred the day my Nonno died. A deep crevice was grooved into the family. Not a singular line dividing people, but a rip in time, forever separating what came before from what would follow. No one knew it at first, but over time the shape of the family would change and expand, drawing lines across maps and spanning into different civilizations. The loss was felt but not understood. No one could yet know that he was one of the hinge-pins of the family, an island in the river of his offspring that we used to move around and were shaped by. With him gone, the water gushed forth unrestrained.
I arranged each dumpling in rows across a wooden board covered in a towel. When it was full, we would take it down to the cool cellar to set for a while before dinner. The basement used to have chariot-patterned wallpaper, wood paneling and a golden shag carpet so deep that we would regularly lose things in it – a tooth knocked out during a sibling pillow fight, the few coins of our precious allowance, the toenails my uncle used to clip in front of the television.
One summer, when my grandmother was visiting relatives in her hometown for the first time in almost twenty years, the toilet in the basement cracked and water flooded the bathroom, the second kitchen, the storage room, everywhere but the cellar where the drain was blocked off by a misplaced piece of wood. My grandmother arrived home to the stench of molded walls and soggy carpet – a wall-sized portrait of John Paul II smiling down on the mess, his image crinkled around the edges, his bright red cloak spotted with the humidity.
The greatest loss of this flood was my Nonno’s rocking chair. It had sat unoccupied for fifteen years, save for the few times, when we were all younger, that I and my cousins would jump on it and take turns pulling the lever to make the footrest appear. The chair was upholstered with patterned tweed and had leather arms that were ripped open by tiny, rambunctious fingers, the soft yellow foam inside spilling out and onto the floor for Nanna to sweep up. One of my uncles had offered many times to fix the tears, to reupholster the chair, to give it a more modern look, maybe so that someone would use it. But while my grandmother picked wild flowers in Italy, and walked through the town with her childhood friends throwing the yellow petals in the street to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, water from the flood soaked through that chair and consumed it.
Before that time, the smell of bread had been baked into those walls and my childhood was spent laughing with cousins across the “kid’s table” where countless spreads of fried eggplant, battered broccoli and glass bottles of Coke had been devoured over the years. Even as we got older, long having outgrown the status of being children, we continued forming memories there, where hundreds of pasta noodles had been served, drenched in my Nanna’s fried tomato sauce, where the bottle caps of Stappj Chinotto rattled after being popped off with a Banff souvenir opener, and endless games of briscola had been dealt and fought over.
Despite all of this and summers spent wrapping fava bean sprouts around hockey sticks in the garden or winters spent preparing homemade sausages in the basement cool-rooms of our uncles, it took a long time for me to realize that I was different than other kids at my schools. Growing up, I had a dear friend, Anne, who never failed to point this out to me. German in her background, Anne was a broad-shouldered hockey player with short, unruly hair often capped by a toque and a CD collection that rivals most libraries. Her deep baritone voice confused a lot of people but for me she was loyal Anne, always there to share my lunches at break times between classes
This is where the distinction may have started. I would cart full grocery bags of leftover spaghetti and homemade meatballs to school, always packed with two forks for sharing. Later in the day, I’d whip out a mean prosciutto panino with Gloria pepper sauce and a crispy roll that would crumble to the ground whenever I ripped it in two for Anne to eat. Even the fiery temper I exhibited in history class, never backing down from a philosophical argument, was usually chalked up to my Mediterranean blood– Anne chirping in the background about her feisty cannoli-wielding friend.
But these revelations about difference never sunk in for me. In primary school, my mother had become involved with members of the Baha’i Faith and our family friends went from dipping biscotti in cappuccinos to preparing saffron tea and baklava for community potlucks. In the third grade, I would cart Lebanese manoush with a side of dates to class and it would serve as the first of many times that I was sent to sit by myself in the corner of the classroom because the pita and meat drenched in exotic spices cast a smell over the peanut butter sandwiches and orange juice boxes of my classmates.
In our classroom readers one day, our teacher had us tell a story about a young boy who brought his Italian subs to class and was ridiculed out of the room, his peers chanting: Vincenzo eats stinky meat! Vincenzo eats stinky meat! More than a decade later, at a library rummage sale, I would find a faded copy of this exact reader, its cover creased and faded, but the front image of a clown on a unicycle unmistakably imprinted in my memory. Flipping through the pages, I came upon the small illustrations that accompanied the text: of Vincenzo’s head drooping as he put his sandwich back in his plastic bag, of him going hungry that day, of him explaining to his father why he hadn’t eaten his lunch.
The realization that I was different didn’t even come with comparisons of my hairy forearms against the soft, blonde down of my class’s Brittany. Or in the later realization that some people only had soup or hot dogs for dinner – eaten at the kitchen table – rather than the regular multiple-course meals my mother was in the habit of serving in the dining room. My brother, Daniel, and I had our television hours limited and grew up gyrating equally to the latest pop tunes from Turkey or classic Latin beats from Chile, but the understanding that this was a gulf between us and other people wasn’t clear. One day, he came home from school asking my mother what a nigger was. His Muslim friend had been chased around the playground with this word pounding in his ears and erupting in bruises across his arms from little fists, angry and misguided.
It was not until my cousin and I sat down at a restaurant in Venice that I realized, at the age of twenty-three, that I was Italian. The waiter handed us an English language menu with entries like “Ham and noodles” or “Thick noodles and seasonal vegetables in a dairy-based sauce”. We stared at the list, eyebrows pushed together in concentration. Finally, I signaled to the server to bring us the Italian menu and breathed a heavy sigh of relief when I saw names I could understand, like spaghetti alla pancetta or linguine carbonara.
By that time, I was already Muslim. Which was always fascinating to me because of where my blood lines come from: a tiny village in the Calabrese hills called Maione, a region fiercely resistant to Muslim colonizers. Built into a slope, the houses of Maione stack on top of one another as though clamouring to the top of the height. Two other villages, Grimaldi and Attilia, are around four kilometres from Maione, each perched atop their own mount with all eyes on the Savuto River valley. How deep the valley runs is unknown as it folds and overlaps in on itself after pouring out from the Santa Lucerna Mountains. Hundreds of olive tree farms and vineyards grow at varying stages of cultivation depending on whether whole families abandoned them to immigration or if at least one relative was left behind to care for the land.
A short walk down the main street takes you to a small bronze monument. A man with his suitcase facing west. An homage to the region’s diaspora, the lost sons of Calabria, thousands of Italians who would migrate to Canada, the United States and around the world after being choked out by the stifling squeeze of poverty. Poverty imposed by the economic policies of the government after unification, splitting the country into North, Central and South: father, son and the Holy Ghost.
The first settlement in our family’s region came as a result of unrest and upheaval. Roots uprooted and put down again. In 872 CE, during the sacks of the Muslims in the area, people came together by forming the commune of Santa Caterina. What it could have looked like then, one can only imagine: walnut trees not yet tamed; soil not yet broken; stone houses not yet carved into the mountainside. Twenty-five kilometres away, the Muslims moved into the larger city of Catanzaro, trying to impose submission like tying the branch of a tree to alter how it grows. But to no avail. The residents fought back, pushing them first into the hills, where dreams of minarets punctuating the landscape would die, then back to their island colony of Sicily. Branches might break under pressure or they may grow stronger and more resistant to stress. Far easier would be to control the light as sun-seeking leaves will always yield to it.
Looking for the light is what brought me to the Islam my ancestors had resisted. I had taken my shahadah a month before my cousin and I left for that trip Italy in 2010. After months of research, I eventually partook in the ritual of fasting. The month of Ramadan was in the summer that year and the long northern days meant going for 18 hours without food or water, spending my days structured by self-discipline, only to feel the deepest gratitude when the sun dipped below the horizon and I could finally bite into the chewy flesh of a soft date.
Tears rolled down my cheeks every time I broke my fast that first year, and for many years thereafter, where I would say a quiet prayer alone, contemplating the miracle that was Food and the humility that comes from not consuming it. Food became a sign of being loved, a gift imparted by the One who knows me better than I know myself. Whereas, before, Food had always symbolized family, its absence suddenly came to signify a way of life, ascetic and self-negating, an internal submission that I had only begun to understand.
Shortly after my cousin and I arrived in Italy, after we had discovered just how Italian we were at that restaurant in Venice, we traveled to Florence where I would meet my future husband, Bassam – a man from a small village in the center of Morocco. Through our relationship, I would journey to his land to deepen my practice of Islam, build a school together and find myself through a culture rapidly becoming my own.
BaHajj passed me a steaming thimbleful of tea drowned in sugar. The base of all tea in Morocco is Chinese gunpowder green tea, steeped too long at a rolling boil and mixed with fresh medicinal herbs of endless variety. I brought the glass to my nose and breathed in the musky aroma of cloves. I was surprised that it was clove tea, as the most common variety in Morocco is na’a na’a (mint) whose etymology links back to its deeper meaning: Gift from Allah.
Tea is crucial in Morocco. Carpets and marriages are haggled over it, disputes settled, futures decided, friendships made and sometimes broken. A Moroccan cannot feel comfortable with a person until they’ve shared a pot of tea. I remember back to the first night I met Bassam – his need for tea was like an insatiable itch with him practically tiptoeing around until we’d settled at a table, our hands warmed by the glasses, and he could finally, slowly, exhale his life story into the room.
And now, sitting in front of his grandfather, I too exhaled, savouring the tea with a knowing smile on my face. Cloves are actually a dried flower bud from the evergreen family. They were originally native to the remote Spice Islands before they became domesticated across the Middle East and Europe. Cloves were an unusual choice for Moroccan tea, but BaHajj has a wisdom about him that resonates deeply, a pure expression of his ever-constant and patient practice of Islam. Of course, BaHajj’s home would be the only place on my journey where I could savour the woodsy sweetness of cloves as they warmed me from the inside out.
A cup of tea not only has importance in Morocco, but it is also the measurement by which one learns. Each day can be recalled by the conversations and lessons had around the salon table, sweets near at hand, and steaming cups at the ready. I never forgot that clove tea because it came with an impossible story: the story of BaHajj’s name.
Every Muslim is obligated to embark on a pilgrimage to Makkah once in their life inshaa Allah (God-Willing). Besides being one of the five pillars of Islam, the compulsion to undertake such a journey is affirmed every moment of the five daily obligatory prayers. The Qibla (direction of prayer) faces Makkah as it was divinely ordained fourteen centuries ago, and to this day, Muslims all over the world point themselves towards Saudi Arabia as they prostrate before their Lord.
Leaving behind a pregnant wife, BaHajj, pulled by a longing incomprehensible to most, set out for Makkah on foot almost forty years ago. Stretching across the entirety of North Africa, the 4567 kilometres he traversed represented the previous western limit of the Islamic empire. Morocco, known for its Arabic name Al-Maghrib meaning sunset, is the final setting point where the light of Islam rose from Makkah in the east, a place where even the sun bows to Allah along with His devoted followers.
BaHajj walked for two years before arriving at the point that every Muslim dreams of since the first moment they imagined it – standing at the threshold of Al-Masjid-al-Haram, staring in awe at the Ka’aba. One can only imagine how he felt as he entered the arena for worship, dressed in the same identical white cloth outfit as his brothers and sisters around him, circling the centre of the Islamic faith seven times to emulate the route of the heavens above.
The first year I lived in Morocco, I dreamt of the Ka’aba every night. The heat in Morocco was too much for me to adapt to so I would head to the roof of our small, rural home every evening with a blanket, a pillow and my Qur’an. I would read and recite the Arabic verses under a boundless sky full of stars, shrinking in the finite smallness of my body in the face of an expanding universe in ecstatic motion, made manageable through divine poetry whispered by a mortal below the heavens from which it came. A reused pop bottle full of water would sweat next to my makeshift bed on the concrete roof and throughout the night, as the constellations passed across the sky before me, I would drink it in, replenishing everything lost by sweat in the heat of the day. Particularly when fasting during the day in extreme heat, water came to represent a cleansing form of mercy from ritual ablutions before prayer to taking fully-clothed showers in 53 degree heat.
Growing up Catholic, water held a different meaning, squirreled away in holy basins of the Italian Church, sanctified by a community priest. I remember dipping my fingers into it on the evening of my Nonno’s wake, expecting it to feel different than other waters. It never did.
Wooden pews were stuffed to capacity that night, with the anguished standing and kneeling in earnest. A massive Christ gazed down on the scene from his cross, trickles of blood from his crown of thorns. Dusty fans churned the heavy August air, thickened by the whine of the organ. The heavy scent of frankincense would hang over the mourners and tiny droplets of blessed water would seek them out from the holy vessel sprayed by the priest. Hail Mary full of grace. Incantations muttered in unison. Our Lord is with thee. Meditations permeating thoughts. Blessed art thou among women. Tissues soaked with briny tears. And blessed is the fruit of thy womb. Arms placed over shoulders, lending support. Holy Mary, pray for us sinners.
Supplications for understanding and forgiveness. Now and at the hour of our death.
I stared at my hands inside stained white gloves, lacy at the wrists. I swung my feet, leafed through the satin pages of an Italian bible, mouthed the words to songs I never learned by heart. When everyone stood to take the communion wafer, I stayed in my place, not losing sight of my mother as she went up to accept the sacrament. A sip of wine, a bitter cracker, the blood and body of Christ. After the service, Daniel and I stood near the front door while dozens of people passed kisses and their regrets to my mom above our heads. My brother stood in his pressed suit, his mushroom cut hair in place, his lips pursed, before wandering off in the embrace of an uncle. He was older. He had more memories.
“Go give Nanna a hug,” my mother whispered in my ear. My grandmother stood, surrounded by women, clutching her hands over her stomach. I wandered over to her and stood there on the outside of the circle, looking up at her. Uncomprehending. One of the ladies took her leave from the group and my Nanna saw me standing there. She crooked her neck to the left, the same way we all do before our faces contort in pain and tears fall from our eyes. We had inherited the same cry from her. Her children, her grandchildren. The same contorted neck, the same apologetic grimace.
When I was around that same age, I had stood in the kitchen of my dad’s new house one day, watching him make a salad for dinner, humming as he sliced pickled artichokes and cucumbers. Daddy, I whispered. Yes, sweetheart, he chimed. The crooked neck, the tears. He put down the knife, turning towards me, wiping his hands on his pants. What’s wrong, pupa? Once the flood starts it can’t be stopped until the water runs out. In between sobs, I sputtered, I just wanted to tell you, I love you. I had always found that impossible to do.
One of the most satisfying things about those rooftop evenings in Morocco was waiting for the call to prayer before dawn. Everything was still and silent, ripple-less like a glassy lake under the moonlit night. The call would start in the distance Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar. God is the Greatest, God is the Greatest. Before the muezzin could move onto the next line another mosque would start in another direction, and another, and another, until the sky was saturated with calls to worship God, to come prostrate for His Sake, each singing voice filling the night with a strange light even though the darkness remained.
The animals who had remained silent to this point would begin to stir and the roosters would start crowing. Eventually, the lights in our neighbours homes began to flick on, the sound of feet shuffling in leather slippers on tiled floors would begin, leading to running water streams in their washrooms that could be heard as cleansing rituals began. I would lean back on my pillow, feeling the hard concrete of the ceiling against my back, taking in the sounds of those stirring for submission, hearing the kickstarting of a motorcycle or groggy Assalamu alaikums between neighbours as they met in the street on the way to the mosque. After a time, I would rise and spiral down the stairs to wake Amina, my mother-in-law, to pray together in the main salon.
After our prostrations, she would tie her hair up in a short scarf, tuck her dress into the sides of her apron and we would head into the kitchen to put on the tea and begin preparing the bread for the late morning risers in the house. Watching her mix the flour and yeast in a large clay platter, the same way every morning, beginning with Bismillah and dutifully kneading the dough that would be baked in a hot pan over a gas stove, I came to learn what it meant for food to be seen as sacred. Beyond the fact that Moroccans attribute a special sanctity to bread, picking it up off the street if it is found there or collecting scraps of it in separate containers for storage after every meal, the preparation of this food is an act of love in a society where family is the most important social unit.
In Morocco, bread is both a utensil and a vessel, used for scooping up savoury tajines, or holding skewers of barbecued meat. More often than not, it is a meal in itself, ripped into bite-sized pieces and dipped into olive oil pressed by hand the same morning. Bread is found in proverbs and metaphors, where a mystical divine power called Baraka is attributed to it or it comes to represent the community itself. Ever since the famous exodus of their Jews after 1948, Moroccans have said that their souk (marketplace) without them is like bread without salt.
As the sun starts to peek in through the windows and the rest of the house begins to stir, I watch Amina checking on the flattened rounds of dough, rising beneath a dark cloth, before baking them in the pan one by one. As the scent of flour and yeast hits my nose and the heat coming off the open burner warms my cheek, I close my eyes and find in this moment, a hundred memories just like it. I find my grandmother, my ancestors, my reversion, the chasms in my family, the bridges too, the eternal crossings of oceans in search of homelands, a billion prayers facing east and countless wishes beneath an endless amount of stars much older than our own history. These moments, if we can make the space for them, are crystallizations of time, frozen for inspection by an inquisitive but fluid mind which is looking for itself in them, finding both everything and nothing.
Nakita Valerio is the owner and editor-in-chief of The Drawing Board. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta. Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.