“Cule, cule. Lauren. Jessica. Cule!”
I do not know Colloquial Moroccan Arabic, but in the limited time since my arrival in Fez, I have learned the word cul, or eat. My host mother, Helema, a warm, round babushka of a woman who is easily in her seventies, likewise knows nothing of English, which makes for many a confusing conversation, often including ridiculous pantomimes. Three times a day, however, we speak in the international language of food – and let me tell you…the Moroccan dialect of this particular language is especially delicious.
Lauren and I sit down to traditional home-cooked meals every day, a welcome change from ordering out every night in Turkey. For breakfast we are presented with warm khubz (round bread, bought fresh on every street corner each morning) and oil, butter, hazelnut spread and cheese to put on it. On some mornings, we’ll eat dates, potato soup or more bread (perhaps of the baguette variety). And we always drink traditional mint tea, a sweet blend of green tea and natural mint springs that is much sweeter and fresher than the black variety we so often received in Istanbul.
Lunch is the most important meal of the day, and the whole city seems to shut down from about noon to three in order to enjoy it (don’t you dare try to catch a cab in this time frame – it’s nearly impossible). Typically, a large tagine (a large clay cooking oven) is presented, filled with some combination of chicken, potatoes, carrots, beans, lamb, lentils and a hearty sauce. The prominent spice market in the medina (the old, walled city in which we all live) ensures that each meal is especially flavorful and inherently unique, kicking and biting in new and exciting ways. If we’re especially lucky (and typically on Fridays, the Muslim holy day), we’ll have couscous (a production that can take hours to prepare). Dinner is much of the same, but on a smaller scale, and dessert tends to take shape in the form of ripe round pomegranates.
While the food itself is new and different, perhaps more surprising is the process of eating it. The highly valued community manifests itself in the dining room in the form of communal eating. There is no sense of “mine” and “yours,” only “ours.” There is one cup on the table. One large tagine serving dish heaped with the meal of the hour. And khubz, of course, lots of khubz, broken and passed on the table surface by whomever is sitting closest to it, becoming, in a way, your silverware. At a nod from the matriarch, everyone digs into the tagine, hands grubbily grabbing at the meat, pushing lentils onto the small chunks of khubz that disappear quickly before the next chunk is dipped in. Hands get saucy and sticky, but they have been washed, so there is no need to fear germs. One hand may shoot out, and the single cup is filled with tap water (or, on special occasions, Fanta) and then passed and sipped from by everyone at the table before they continue to fill their mouth with the delicacies on the table. Having grown up in a culture where “my plate, my fork, my cup” is such a priority and regularity, this style of eating felt uncomfortable at first. Now, however, I see the beauty of the practice and in the trust it requires from your fellow eaters. Also, less dishes, which is always a plus.
Another thing that has shaken my cultural culinary ethics has been the visibility of this food on the streets before it makes its way to the tagine on our table. Wandering the medina is like being Alice in the gardens of Wonderland, except instead of running into the croquet game of the Red Queen, you turn a dark, twisted corner and come face-to-face with your supper. Imagine, if you will, the head of a camel, its fur matted with the blood of its own slaughter, its tongue limp and coarse, the back of its neck a tangle of exposed arteries, bone and nerves that had only hours before powered the life of this great desert beast. The head hangs over slabs of meat, obviously its legs, hips, torso and hump, now conveniently priced for the housewives of Fez. The sight alone is enough to nauseate; I won’t ask you to imagine the smell.
As uncomfortable as I am facing my meals while I mean to be shopping for a new bag, I recognize that the system may not be all bad. There are obvious benefits that come with knowing where your food comes from, a certain respect for the creatures that give their life for your meal and an awareness of what exactly you’re putting into your body on a daily basis. When you buy food in the medina, be it fruit, meat or sweet, you know exactly what you’re getting. You can see the man who grew and plucked your apples, you see the chicken who will soon be plucked and chopped, much like her sister on the shelf next to her. You see the flies, you smell the blood, you hear the sawing of dense bone.
Many of us have been informed that during our time here, we’ll get to witness firsthand the ritual slaughter of a lamb in our home entryways to commemorate the sacrifice Abraham made when God spared the life of his only son, Isaac. Then we’ll get to help prepare dinner with the freshest of meat, plucked right from the threshold we cross over each day. The idea is uncomfortable for most of us TIMEers to think about, vegetarians and meat-lovers alike. I myself, used to eating our farm’s pigs for dinner (Snowflake and Boar-ak Obama being especially delicious pork chops), wince at the idea of witnessing this particular ritual firsthand. However, it does not faze the Moroccans, who laugh at our discomfort even in the planning process. They are obviously much more aware and in tune to the origin of their food, and much more respectful of the animals from which it comes. This mentality is something I do envy, considering that the “origin” of most of my meat at home happens to be from my local Cub Foods.
These two ethical distinctions – that of sharing and that of sight – create a cultural nexus around food and mealtimes. That, at least, is something me and my taste buds can get behind. Anyone who knows me understands how hard it is for me to pass up any delicious cuisine, so I’m learning to push past my reservations in favor of enjoying the delectable delicacies presented to me right and left. While “cule, cule” (eat, eat) may be a part of my limited Moroccan vocabulary, I’m having a much harder time mastering “sh’beAt” (I’m full). My stomach certainly doesn’t seem to mind!