‘Tis the season to feed and to be fed. Christmas and the surrounding holidays have got me thinking a lot about why we celebrate special occasions by feeding each other- our family, our friends, those we love, and maybe even those we don’t know particularly well. In the U.S. we don’t normally spend too much time in the kitchen, preparing, cooking, and plating labor-intensive dishes- but come November and December, we’re roasting 20 lb. turkeys, sugaring hundreds of tiny cookies, melting chocolate for ganache truffles, peeling apples for pie, and kneading all sorts of crusts and breads—all for the sake of others (okay, maybe we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor a little).
It’s an exceptional time of the year to be hospitable. But in other parts of the world, and in other cultures, hospitality is a year-round tradition, expectation, and joy. Since I’ve had the awesome opportunity to do a good bit of traveling to different countries, I’ve had the equally awesome opportunity to eat my way around the world, in the kitchens (and living room floors, and straw huts) of some of the most talented and generous cooks I’ve ever known. They’re not professionals, but their capacity to wow on an often limited budget is just as impressive as any restaurant chef—if not more. Here, a few of my favorite experiences…
I’ve written about it before, but Moroccans are truly some of the most kind-hearted and generous people I’ve ever encountered. The best meals I’ve ever have all been eaten on plastic wrapped coffee tables in Moroccan living rooms. I’ve feasted on mounds of golden couscous, stewed meats with dried fruit and nuts, flaky pastry encasing spiced chicken, hot, fried breads and pastries, all accompanied by sweet mint tea. Here, one of my favorite dishes, and a local specialty to the coastal city of Tangiers: whole baked white fish layered with sliced potatoes and peppers, seasoned with cumin and paprika and garnished with olives and drizzled in beldi olive oil (the extra-strong, dark green oil sourced from the countryside). My best friend in Morocco, Amina, made this for me again and again in her little apartment, with nothing more than a square pan and plastic-handled knife, and always, always with grace and charm.
Germany, international community
While not technically a meal, I had to share this experience as a part of my repertoire of awesome experiences in international hospitality. This past summer I spent a few weeks in Germany working with international refugees. On one particularly exhausting day, when I was aching to sit down, drink a hot tea, and have just a bite to eat before we hosted an event in a local park, I wandered over to a blanket with a few women on it, who appeared to be Middle Eastern. Turns out they were Syrian, and thank God, they had crumbly, nutty homemade cookies and a thermos of hot tea. Urging me to sit with them, filling up my cup, and showering me with sweet sesame cookies, they were my angels that day. I gratefully sat down and thanked God for the much-needed mid-afternoon tea break essential to Middle Eastern culture.
During my three months in this country to the east of South Africa, I found Mozambican culture to be reserved but extremely kind. One afternoon, I ate in the home (by American standards, a bamboo shack) of one tiny, beautiful mother who fed us plates of matapa, basically foraged spinach stewed with ground peanuts and coconut milk, along with a cornstarch pudding. Unlike anything I’ve ever eaten in the U.S.- or anywhere- this dish turned out to be satisfying, delicious, and strangely addictive (further helpings are always offered). This photo was the first this lovely woman had ever seen of herself—her comment? “I’m beautiful!” I wholeheartedly agreed.
The United States
Americans are not known for stellar hospitality, but I have some friends who can put together a magazine-worthy meal for a group of friends with finesse. I was lucky enough to go to not one but two “Friendsgivings” in November, in addition to an actual “Thanksgiving”. If you didn’t already know “Friendsgiving” is a feast you share with your friends, in case you a) live far from your family or b) love turkey, stuffing, and gravy so much, you must celebrate Thanksgiving more than once. My girlfriend Kelliann served a lucky group of us a three course feast, complete with baked bone marrow appetizer, the best potato dish I’ve ever had in my life (cream is, of course, the magic ingredient), and poached pears with crème fraiche for dessert. I’m still dreaming of this meal. Kelliann pulled the entire Thanksgiving feast off singlehandedly, and made it all appear as if we were modeling for Kinfolk magazine. She’s a gem.
Conclusion? Hospitality is an international treasure and an under-appreciated gift. I want to learn to cultivate it more than just during the winter months, and take the time to create something beautiful and delicious for friends and family all-year round.