Food is an integral part of any culture. It is a unifying force; bringing together family, friends, and strangers. Every bite is a story one shared with millions of people they never met, and just like any popular culture, food conquers on our behalf; transforming a distant people into recognizable flavours. It has the power to break down prejudice, and is often the first introduction one has to a mysterious new culture; acting as the quiet ambassador of an immigrant population. In church food is symbolic; bread, the body of Christ, and wine the blood. However at home it is much less somber. The preparation often reflects years of knowledge passed down through oral tradition, and the ingredients; a reflection of social class, family history, and the season. Food, and food culture is more than eating. It is an honest reflection of its people.
However, this was not something I always understood. Food was something I immensely and greedily enjoyed, but never took the time to did deeper and look at it from an objective point of view. Perhaps because the flavours I loved were so close to me, I could not analyze them beyond my nostalgia. However the opportunity presented itself to me one afternoon at my boyfriend's place. I was invited over to take part in a traditional Chinese ceremony. His mother, Marie-Ange, was preparing to pay respects to her long-time deceased father. When I walked through the front door I saw a table on the far wall decorated like an altar. Draped in a red cloth, there was incense burning, a bowl containing exactly three oranges, seven wine glasses full to the brim and, sitting at the very centre, a photo of her father. At this point, Marie-Ange was still in the kitchen preparing her father's favourite meal; a whole boiled chicken with ginger and garlic with white rice on the side. While we all waited for the ceremony to begin the family took the time to educate me on the meaning of the displayed food on the altar. The three oranges represented prosperity; their rich colour reminiscent of gold, and the number three, good luck. Although this was something I may have already guessed, the seven wine glasses were still puzzling me. They went on to explain that one glass was for their grandfather while the other six were for his friends in heaven who would also be joining us. So it seemed we, the living, were only one part of a much larger party. When she was finally done she called us to gather around. She presented the chicken and rice on a platter before the photo of her father and, holding incense between her palms, said a silent prayer to him. The prayer wasn't the typical Our Father; it was much more familiar. She was filling him in on all that had happened that year, and one by one called her children forward, introducing them first, so they could also pay respects to him. Finally I was called forward, and introduced as her son's girlfriend. A little nervous I shuffled forward and, holding incense between my palms, offered a formal greeting then bashfully receded. I felt strangely self-conscious and pondered afterward “I wonder what he thought of me...” We stood silently a little longer, while Marie-Ange invited her father to begin. We then dispersed. However, we would gather together again to complete the ceremony at supper where, as a family, we would enjoy the food that was presented during the ceremony.
Eating the food that was offered to her father felt particularly poignant to me. It seemed so foreign, yet perfectly appropriate. How often do we reminisce about people long gone, only to feel as though we have forgotten so much? Sometimes our memory, like an old photograph, becomes faded - bleached over time - and the shadows and colours that once provided so much depth become flat. This is why this ceremony felt like such a cathartic experience. On one hand, it offers a solemn moment to pay respects to a loved one in the privacy and comfort of your home but more importantly, through the act of cooking the meal, creates an occasion where you become immersed in the memory of the loved one. Enveloped in the aroma of the familiar, you are reminded in a real and tangible way of that person.i To cook for them is a loving and proactive experience which will then be shared with an entire family who, through eating this meal, will for that evening have a tangible connection to their memories and feel united, comforted, and satisfied.