Language House event brings North-African and Levantine food cultures and traditions to the table

By Maxine Friedman

The University of Maryland’s Language House hosted an event, Food Odysseys: Tastes, Techniques and Terroirs, Wednesday night via Zoom for students and faculty to learn about “food and im(migration) in North Africa and the Levant,” according to the Language House’s Instagram post.  

The Language House Immersion Program, one of UMD’s 29 living-learning programs, “provides students who are serious about language learning with the opportunity for daily language and cultural immersion in an organized environment,” according to their website.

The program, which is also connected to the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, offers ten different “language clusters,” such as Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Persian, Russian and Spanish, according to their website. 

Each year, the program hosts several events for students to attend and interact with other clusters. Such events include barbecues or tea times on the terrace of St. Mary’s Hall, the residence of Language House students, or in-person lectures about cultures around the world. 

Around 40 students and UMD professors participated in the online event on Wednesday, according to Marilyn Matar, the director of the Language House Immersion Program.

“The idea was to have interactive talks and involve the students in those topics and have more [of] a discussion. Not a pure, you know, lecture,” Matar said.  

Those who attended the event were able to engage in discussion and a Q&A session after the presentations concluded. Maxine Friedman/Stories Beneath the Shell

There were three designated speakers for the event: Anny Gaul, assistant professor of Arabic Studies at UMD; Sylvie Durmelat, associate professor of French and francophone studies at Georgetown University; and Antonio Tahhan, a Syrian-American food writer and researcher. 

Gaul, the first speaker of the night, presented “Morocco’s Migrating Pastry: Medieval Stuffing, Modern Shell.” During her presentation, Gaul talked about the history of the traditional Moroccan dish called bstila, a sweet and salty stuffed pastry.  

According to Gaul, the history of Moroccan food and culture isn’t “always a rosy picture.” In her presentation, she spoke about the colonial violence and enslavement that existed in North Africa. 

“But learning those histories can help us arrive at a more inclusive, honest and, hopefully, more just accounting of how we got to where we are today,” Gaul said in an email. 

Durmelat was the second speaker of the night with her presentation titled “The Circulation of the Couscous Pot: Indigenous Technique, Colonial Commodity.” The Georgetown University professor explained the commodification and industrialization of couscous in French Algeria and France. Durmelat also noted the significance of the couscous pot. 

Durmelat explaining the history of the couscous pot. Maxine Friedman/Stories Beneath the Shell

“This pierced artifact is actually racialized and functions as an overlooked objective memory that flags the uncharted overlap between France and Algeria,” Durmelat said in the presentation. 

Tahhan finished the program off with his presentation, “Cultivating Cultures: Clay Pot Yogurt in the Levant,” and discussed the history of yogurt and the significance of clay pots in Syria. He also incorporated a cooking demonstration to teach everyone how to make yogurt from scratch, using the recipes and traditions taught by most Syrian tetas, or grandmothers. 

Tahhan demonstrating how to make yogurt from scratch in a clay pot. Maxine Friedman/Stories Beneath the Shellm

“I never actually got to visit Syria until I was an adult – until I was in college,” Tahhan said. “So what I used instead to navigate my Syrian identity and understand what that means is food.”

Gaul said the event was able to remind students and faculty about the interconnectedness of various foods and cultures around the world. 

“Food odysseys remind us that we’ve always lived in connected, entangled worlds,” Gaul said. “Instead of fixating on authentic or pure versions of a particular dish –– or any cultural phenomenon, really –– learning to think not in terms of fixed categories but ‘odysseys’ like these gives us a much richer sense not only of what we are eating and who we are.” 

Matar emphasized the importance of having this event, despite being in the midst of a global pandemic. 

“First, I think doing these events that are, after all, connected to diversity and inclusion, it really echoes the message of our campus – of our president, currently,” Matar said. “Right now, it’s not only the pandemic of the COVID-19, but it’s also the other pandemics, as they’re calling them, everything that was happening with racism and all these things. So, it just is important to continue these discussions during this time.”

According to Gaul, there have already been conversations about doing the event again in person once the pandemic subsides. She said she’s looking forward to returning on-campus to have more open-ended and casual discussions which are, in her opinion, some of the best and most fun exchanges.

“That’s what I’ve missed most about university life since the start of the pandemic,” Gaul said. “These events outside of the classroom where the discussion might range from comparisons across cultures to practical cooking tips to wide-ranging historical questions.”

Featured photo: Gaul presents the history of the popular Moroccan dish, bstila. Maxine Friedman/Stories Beneath the Shell

Correction: the headline has been updated to refer to the correct region of foods that were presented.

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