Food. Like dance or song, its ability to unify extends beyond the limits of border or language. Good food is good food, no matter if you’re American or Moroccan, English speaking or Arabic speaking. B’neen. Delicious.
But there is one thing that gets in the way of food’s mystifying power of unity: table etiquette. Just as food brings people together, table etiquette rips us apart. I often feel confused or at loss for how to properly navigate different situations involving food, so I’ve decided to piece together some of the most puzzling table etiquette situations that I’ve experienced so far.
- Explaining food allergies
Ahh Morocco, the land where food allergies rarely exist. Food is fresh, all-natural, and organic, without the hassle of going through the certification process to prove it and the soaring cost. Without all preservatives in food (and I am sure lots of other scientific reasons that are above my understanding of the immune system), few Moroccans have allergies and many don’t understand what it means. A typical conversation with a Moroccan who is offering me food that has nuts in it goes like this:
-Here, please, take some
-Oh, thank you very much, but I’m all set.
As they hand you the food with nuts, “No, just take some, no problem.”
-Thank you but I can’t, I have an allergy. I can’t eat nuts.
They stare blankly at me and wait for me to explain.
-It closes my throat. I can’t eat nuts, or I have to go the hospital. I could die.
Often, this same conversation happens two or three times. Eventually, they stop trying to serve me and decide that no matter what, I am not going to eat what they are serving me. This is the most common miscommunication I have experienced in Morocco. It is partly because Moroccans are so hospitable and do often serve me food. It is also because allergies are not common here and many people don’t know what they are. I don’t blame the people here who don’t know why I can’t eat nuts. On the contrary, I am often scared of offending the person offering me food. They often seem offended that I won’t even just try a little of what there offering me. I gladly would, if that wouldn’t mean heading to the hospital on a regular basis.
- When and where to eat on a shared plate
Traditionally, Moroccans share meals from the same large plate or platter. The group gathers around the table, and each person eats the portion directly in front of them with bread from their right hand. This is something you learn at the beginning of orientation.
If I am home for lunch, I eat with my family in this way. Typically, lunch is the most filling meal of the day, and we often eat couscous, tagine, or kefta. Couscous is small grains cooked in a delicious broth, typically with chicken and vegetables layered on top. Tagine is typically meat and vegetables slow-cooked in a sauce, while kefta is meatballs cooked in a sauce. These foods are all eaten from the same platter.
The first time I ate with them, I still had so many questions. I know you’re supposed to eat with your right hand, but I’m a lefty. I made a very big point of saying “I’m a lefty” during the meal so they would excuse me from eating solely with my right hand. I also wasn’t quite sure how to go about dividing up the portions. You eat what is in front of you, but do you leave a little bit of food in between your section and the next person’s section? How did my host mom so skillfully get the meat off the bone with a piece of bread? I tried and it took me 5 minutes.
I have gotten more skillful at eating in this style. It only takes me three minutes to get meat off the bone with a piece of bread, you don’t really leave food in between your section and the next person’s, and as long as I wash my hands before dinner, I don’t feel the need to constantly remind everyone that I’m a lefty.
That’s not to say that I’m sure of everything when it comes to table etiquette. Today, my host mother had set aside my dinner because I had told her that I was coming home late after finishing up some work. I go to sit and eat and look at my plate. It’s a normal dinner, plus one big addition. An entire artichoke. I looked at the artichoke unsure. While artichokes are eaten in the US, I had never seen a full one. People always talk about artichoke hearts, so I was guessing what I had to eat was in the middle. But how would I get there?
I start to eat the rest of my dinner, too hungry to think about my artichoke problem. Finally, I’m about halfway through my meal. I decide now is the right time to ask. I head to the living room, get my host mom’s attention, and ask her to show me how to eat it. She laughs and has me bring it over. She and her sister show me to put the leaves in my mouth and scrape the part you eat off with your teeth. I head back to the table, and start scraping away. But, not wanting to make her think I wasted any of the good part, I slowly and carefully scrape each leaf.
A long time passes. She comes in to the kitchen, and to her surprise, sees me with my artichoke.
–Elyse, you haven’t finished yet?! She asks in disbelief.
-It takes a long time!
-Elyse, you have to take a bunch of leaves at a time! Well, it’s fine, just put it on the counter.
Her voice carries the hint of exasperation.
The best way to handle miscommunication concerning table etiquette, from my experience, has been careful observation and asking when necessary. But, as in the case of the artichokes, even that can backfire.