Perhaps the best way to illustrate the difference in food culture from country to country is to tell of when I first emigrated to America. I landed in Washington, D.C., where I studied the English language at Georgetown University, and where I got my first taste of American hospitality. The international student advisor invited our class to his home for coffee. Offered with the coffee was a piece of apple pie with vanilla ice cream.
According to my culture, when the host or hostess first offers food or drink, it is the height of courtesy to turn down the first couple of offers. Back in Damascus, good manners requires that we somehow show that we are well fed at home and that we had no need for additional food.
The problem was that I was indeed hungry when I went to the advisor’s home, but I declined the first offer to heavenly smelling apple pie and ice cream. Instead of re-offering, a routine which, in Damascus, is done two or three more times, (again, an act designed to show generous the host or hostess is) my host gave my pie and ice cream to the next person in line, and never came back to offer again.
The flip side of this hospitality coin is what happens in the Arab world. Should you go to someone’s home not hungry, perhaps just having eaten, you will find that you are about to commit a grave social error. One of the hallmarks of people in the Arab world is their pride in offering hospitality. This is a practice undertaken by most Syrian families. Generally, when you accept an invitation for dinner an Arab home, you really should go there in an extreme state of hunger. If the host or hostess has even heard a rumor about a dish you might like, they will prepare it for you, even if they’ve heard about five or then dishes that are your favorite. And if one doesn’t eat from each one, one must be prepared for a heavy guilt trip.
“I spent two days preparing this for you.”
“My eighty year old mother came from her home especially to help cook this food.”
“My husband left his work two hours early to get the special ingredients for this dish.”
And on and on.
Last summer my own mother undertook this same practice with me while I was on vacation there. Although I’ve been faithful to the treadmill for a long time, I allowed her to force feed me –she is great cook and I have no will power–until I could no longer protest. Then one day toward the end of my stay at home, she commented that my derriere was actually rocking back and forth when I walked.