Inside the classroom
A day in the life
Inside the classroom
I wanted to teach something cultural, and fun. Teaching my other courses is fun, but the subject matter is not so much—although it can be very dramatic.
Food for thought
While in Algeria a few years ago, Associate Professor Amal Ghazal made a few discoveries about North African eating habits. For starters, a few days into her visit she discovered the meat she had been regularly served was camel—accorded her as the food presented to an honoured guest. But what really surprised Dr. Ghazal, who is from Lebanon, was how difficult it was to get “local” bread.
No matter how conservative the Islamic dress of the women walking in the street, she says, they can be counted on to be carrying baguettes rather than round-shaped Algerian bread. Part of the legacy of French colonialism is that this icon, the baguette, has been fully normalized as a household staple.
The reasons why such historicultural shifts happen is just one of the items on the menu in Dr. Ghazal's course, Food for Thought: History and the Culinary Cultures of the Islamic World (HIST 3515).
“I wanted to teach something cultural, and fun,” she says. “Teaching my other courses is fun, but the subject matter is not so much—although it can be very dramatic.”
The politics of food
Dr. Ghazal, a self-confessed foodie, says that food can serve not only as a “window into Islamic customs,” it can also serve a political purpose: dismantling stereotypes about Islamic cultures.
It’s harder to hold dehumanizing views of Muslims, she says, once you realize that “they do the stuff that everybody does.”
The history of food is also another way into the historic connection between “Islamic civilization and later European civilization,” going back to the Crusaders who were “shocked by the exotic food” that they encountered in the Middle East.
Dr. Ghazal is also interested in how certain foods or cuisines become “nationalized”—that is, identified as native or natural to a particular nation-state. Examples of this include the way that couscous, hummus, and falafel are now staples of Israeli cuisine, or how tomato sauce with yogurt is a differentiator between Lebanese/Syrian and Turkish food.
She says that over the course of the term, she has her students “collect recipes that come with a story,” and assigns them the task of researching that story. She ends the term with a banquet, at which the students explain the history of the various dishes at the meal.
So how much food history is enough? The frequently homesick professor confesses that immersion in her native cuisine is a way to cope. With enough attention and time spent, she says with a laugh, “maybe I'll stop feeling nostalgic!”