The first step to understanding a new culture or place and feeling at home there is understanding the words for food. That means when you don’t belong somewhere, its often the first thing that throws you. If you no longer know how to ask for a sandwich, then how are you supposed to fit in? You are automatically exposed as a fake, a fraud and an outsider.
How do we learn about a new language? First we learn how to say our name, then how old we are and where we come from (already philosophically problematic for me), then we learn how to count, and in the next step we learn how to ask for food. ‘Dos cerveza por favor’, ‘un croque monsieur s’il vous plait’, ‘ich liebe Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte’, ‘twa fash suppers, n’a pickled ingin please pal’. You get the idea.
This is the story of my life. When I moved to Shropshire aged 8 and didn’t know what a ‘butty box’ was. When I left home for Scotland and was sent out to get ‘the messages’, or didn’t know that ‘juice’ meant pop, unless it was ‘dilutant juice’ and meant squash (unless it was ‘ginger’). When I moved to Leeds and didn’t understand that ‘going on the pasty run’ meant buying bacon butties (see Shropshire for reference), or that pronouncing makanek or kibbeh the wrong way when ordering Lebanese food in Abu Dhabi would insight at best hilarity and, at worst, embarrassed ridicule. If we don’t know how to ask for the food we want to eat, then we automatically point ourselves out as ‘other’. Therefore, our first step to fitting into a new place is always how to adapt and adopt the names for the local cuisine. Maybe we live there, maybe we are just visiting on holiday, but if you understand the difference between your souvlaki and your soufflé then you are halfway there to being accepted and feeling at home.
Don’t underestimate the importance of food for defining how we fit in and helping us to make sense of the world. It shapes us (often literally) and develops our understanding of a place, region or culture. Loving and being able to name your food gives you a sense of belonging that you can never understand until you find yourself unable to explain your desire for a jacket potato in a land that only has room for dauphinois. Sharing a meal with others, on the other hand, needs no translation. So Slàinte Mhath my friends, and I leave you with this to decipher if you need to:
‘Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.’