My grandmom was of Pennsylvania Dutch descent. I remember as a child how we used to make the long 500 mile journey from Tennessee to see her every year - us three kids piled into the back of a station wagon. What a spread grandmom used to set out before us - so many exotic foods: Lebanon bologna, hard cheeses, fresh rhubarb and gooseberries. But nothing could compare with her scrapple and Shoo Fly Pie.
They were simple foods - foods that had I first stumbled upon them as an adult in saner moments of health consciousness, I probably wouldn't have been attracted to. After all, scrapple is made of pork scraps and cornmeal, and Shoo Fly Pie is little more than flour and molasses. But years later, how can I describe this strange overpowering obsession I have to taste these dishes whenever I get the chance. What is it about food that draws us back to childhood into a web of associations far more complex than the taste of food itself?
For several years now, our readers have been urging us to create an issue about food. We've hesitated. It's much easier to enjoy food and its ambiance than to write about it. But we finally took the plunge. Don't be fooled, despite the title, this issue really isn't much about food at all - at least in the physical sense. You'll find no recipes though there is a photo directory featuring some of the traditional dishes.
Mostly this issue delves into the deeper levels of human relationships. For example, the article about Medieval Etiquette is really about traditional norms that have developed how people show each other respect. And the proverbs and everyday Azeri expressions with their analogies to the nature of food serve as an excuse for directing and shaping other people's behavior.
Health is another topic. Azerbaijanis are known for their longevity. Secrets of food combining that have been known for centuries are just as applicable today as they were in the past. Curiously, the secret to long life according to Azerbaijanis seems to be in the way food is combined. Compensatory methods are used to counter the negative effects of fat. "Enjoy meat and dairy products," centenarians would tell us, "but combine them with the use of lemon, vinegar, garlic, fresh green herbs, yogurt, pomegranate juice and spices like sumakh to dissolve fat that could be harmful to the human organism."
Admittedly, we've had fun working on this issue. We visited some of the major central open markets in Baku and become stuffed with ever so many dried fruits and nuts. Our explorations about the prevalence of beliefs related to the "Evil Eye" led us right to the front steps of Baku's new McDonald's where a bright blue evil eye hangs poised at the entrance.
And the individuals we've consulted while working on this issue - culinary specialist Tahir Amiraslanov, chef photographer Hosein Hoseinzade and medical historian Farid Alakbarov - have been among the most passionate that we've ever worked with in researching any topic these past eight years.
We'll have to admit to moments of frustration as well. Last year, when we published our Century Series, over and over again we were struck with how damaging the Soviet period has been in eradicating Azerbaijan's history. For any subject, we discovered huge black holes of memory loss - Oil Baron architecture, pre-Revolutionary government, literature, alphabet changes or whatever.
And once again, the same can be said about cuisine. It becomes especially evident when the cuisine of Azerbaijanis who live in the Republic (Northern Azerbaijan) is compared with those who in Iran (Southern Azerbaijan). During the Soviet period, Russians imposed their diet of cabbage, potatoes and bread replacing the traditional everyday fare of rice. Dramatic changes in cuisine are the result.
Rather naively, we thought that food was an innocuous subject but soon discovered that politics, history, economics and religion have been mighty forces in shaping the cuisine of the region and in determining what people eat. Food is not simply a question of climactic or agricultural feasibility.
They say that the amount of food eaten by a 70-year-old American of average income is about 1500 times his weight. If true, that means that a person weighing 150 pounds may have consumed 225,000 pounds of food in a lifetime. With such statistics in hand, should anyone doubt the central role that food plays in our lives in shaping our beliefs. We hope these pages provide an introduction to such a weighty subject. "Nush olsun - Bon appetite!"
From Azerbaijan International (8.3) Autumn 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.