on food and home

In mid-February 2019, LitHub published “How Food Connects Us to Home: On the Power of Family Recipes,” an excerpt from Ayelet Tsabari’s new memoir, The Art of Leaving. In this excerpt Tsabari evokes the power of family recipes—from Yemeni soup to her mother’s cake—to construct and make home. While as a child she sought to extricate herself from the weight of a foreign identity, as an adult in a new city, she actively sought the solace of the familiar: “In respites between writing,” she writes, “I spend hours toiling away in the kitchen, filling it up with the smells of my childhood in an effort to make the place feel homier, to make me more motherly, the only way I know how.”

For Tsabari, those smells and flavours that she once refused, became markers of a longer lineage:

“Yemeni soup was one of the dishes my mother had learned from her mother after she got married. It was a recipe my grandmother had been taught by her aunt who raised her in Yemen, a recipe that made it through the desert and across the sea, surviving for decades, never written down. When my mother was a child, this soup constituted their weekly serving of meat. My grandmother gave the chicken wings to the girls so they could fly away, marry off, and the legs to the boys, so they could form the foundation of the house.”

Cooking itself becomes part of an ongoing conversation with her mother, a way that they come to learn about and from each other, and in this way, that they carry those traditions further.

Priya Krishna’s “For South Asians, Yogurt Starter is an Heirloom,”  meanwhile, appeared in the New York Times at the very end of February. This exploration of migration, identity, and belonging focuses directly on the humble yogurt starter, in Krishna’s words, “the ingredient that not only gives each yogurt its unique, familiar flavor, but also allows yogurt makers to preserve and perpetuate their heritage across time and space.”

Krishna’s father’s starter is over twenty-five years old, cared for through moves and also, through inevitable accidents. When Krishna and her sister ate up all the yogurt without accounting for the need for starter, their father rescued them: he always kept two starters, saving extra in the freezer for precisely such situations.

A tomato raita. But with store-bought, not homemade, yogurt.

In these family stories, yogurt starter takes up the quality of myth and legend, with stories of starters hidden in luggage, carefully packaged to avoid the all-seeing eyes of customs officers and scanners. In these stories yogurt starters are material evocations of migrations, tangible markers of cultural, ethnic, geographic, and culinary identity. Yogurt starters are intimate markers of family, belonging, and home. In the words of Priya Krishna, “a long-lived starter culture can become an heirloom, the physical representation of a lineage that can be passed on to future generations.”

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