The infamous fruit from the tree of knowledge is not, biblically speaking, an apple. Its species is never specified and has historically been theorized to be a fig, citron, wheat berry, pomegranate or even a bunch of grapes. Of course, Christianity was pretty set in the tradition of the apple by the time of the Renaissance’s end—probably not a coincidence, since a defining characteristic of Renaissance artwork was combining Abrahamic stories with Hellenistic motifs (i.e. that of Eden with the golden apples of the Hesperides). When you reach for an apple to start your day, you probably don’t take a bite and think, “yummy, tastes like a symbolic representation of forbidden knowledge.” Maybe, if you’re a specific kind of person, Eden does occur to you – or maybe the apples of Greek myths, fairy-tale stepmothers or cocky male leads in Blockbuster movies with too many sequels (Indiana Jones, Jack Sparrow, James T. Kirk). Probably not. But would you be reaching for that apple at all if it weren’t for the ready convenience born of the fruit’s popularity? Would it be so popular if it weren’t for the universal symbolism? At what point can personal usage, regional convenience and cultural importance of a food be separated from each other?
But foods of significance don’t have to necessarily come from a great universal tradition. In The Walking Dead, a moment of nostalgia is given over to the pre-apocalyptic memory of the “godawful” pancakes that the (spoilers) dead Lori would insist on making, in her husband’s words, “because she wanted us to be the kind of family that have pancakes on Sunday.” This kind of association links a simple meal with a preconceived notion of “the kind of family” expected to partake in it. The all-American household may have no official credo, but its parameters show themselves through snapshots of culturally specific traditions: mothers cooking Sunday meals, fathers saying grace, generations collaborating on Thanksgiving turkey or apple pie.
Having been raised primarily by a Cuban immigrant, I was never particularly in touch with Thanksgiving traditions. When I moved to the U.K. for university, however, my European housemates insisted on some sort of a celebration. We counted out change, substituted water for milk and chicken for turkey and sat on the floor because we didn’t own enough chairs for the six of us. Instead of football after dinner, we played Cards Against Humanity, then went clubbing. It wasn’t very Norman Rockwell, but how many TV shows have hammered in the “found family” trope with scenes like that?
The truth is that while the ideals presented in Rockwell’s paintings (freedom of speech and worship, from want and fear) might be universal, many of us don’t necessarily fit into the narrative illustrated in his depictions of them. Whether through ethnicity, sexuality or other marginalizing factor, not being the kind of person expected to share in these traditions automatically distances us from them and leads us to create our own or to adapt them – whether that leads to multicultural, student-budget versions of Thanksgiving or whatever particular variation is created by individual circumstance.
The forming of tradition by circumstance is, in itself, a bit of a tradition, both universally and for the cultures within which I was raised. My family is Spanish Romani and immigrated to Cuba during Franco’s regime and then to the U.S. during Castro’s, all in the few generations before I moved to the U.K. during Trump’s. The vast majority of my mother’s “ancestral recipes” tended to be something like, “put this in, if you have it, or this, if you don’t, and then any of these three other things, if you have them— if not, you can do without.” They’re not the kinds of ancestral recipes people expect when you talk about cultural food, which is why I was so delighted to read, in her article for the Daily Meal, Jessica Ready’s take on her family’s Romani recipes: “There’s flour, water, oil, and salt if you want. Cook it till it’s done. End of recipe.” In a people traditionally nomadic, albeit by necessity, it’s really not so surprising that adaptability would be paramount.
More surprising, from an outsider’s perspective, is the degree to which this resembles the Cuban philosophy, at least post-Revolution. The closest thing we had in our house to proper traditional recipes came from between the blue, paperback covers of Cocina al minuto, the cookbook that was the companion to Cuban icon Nitza Villapol’s show of the same name. What made Villapol so culturally important overall was not, however, her traditionalism, but just the opposite: as the Revolution progressed and basic foods became rationed or scarce, she used her airtime to teach Cubans ways to make new versions of old meals, – for example, the traditional picadillo with cornmeal instead of meat, – to adapt recipes that had been passed through generations to fit the country’s shifting resources and consequent identity.
My housemates write out their family recipes for me on slips of paper. In return, I tell them a thousand little tricks of ingredient-substitution and modifications but can give no precise recipes, because my ancestors have never lived in one place long enough to have become acclimated to a “local cuisine”—what we have is a cultural attitude, perhaps, a shared appreciation for spices and vinegar and a general agreement that food is meant to be adjusted according to circumstance.
Increasingly, I’ve become interested in the idea that food can change who you are. I’m not a baker, but on the day of Trump’s election I made a five-layer cake that towered impressively in a kitchen stocked principally with rice and 20p packs of powdered soup. I told anyone who asked that I was trying to distract myself, but – more honestly – my motivation was defiance. I didn’t exactly think Trump would win, but I wasn’t surprised when he did. The fact that he’d gotten so far was enough. There was no way to be alright watching the same xenophobia that chases my people across the world combine with the authoritarian power-mongering that had robbed my family of a country twice within a few generations. There was no way to not be terrified of the
rising numbers who agreed with him. The embracing of Trump’s idealism was a rejection of my people’s personhoods; endowing them with power was attempting to rob us of ours. So, somehow, a cake became rebellion. The next morning I’d be texting friends back in the states about organizations and safe houses, but that night, there was nothing to do but stare at the polls—or I could watch out of one eye and use the other to marvel at just how sweet and how large a cake could be. To me, sitting with my flatmates in our little house across the sea, by making this celebration-feast in the middle of our small apocalypse, I was saying, “Fuck you. Hate me, that’s fine. I’m going to get drunk and eat cake and you can’t do a damn thing, not to me, not here, not now.” That was the ideal. The reality, of course, was that I was terrified: a queer teenage girl from a poor immigrant family that didn’t even have a country to go back to. I didn’t feel like a girl who would eat cake to spite hateful ideologies—but all I had to do was make that cake and sit down with a knife and fork, and I became her.
Food can come to stand for anything: through narrative symbolism, the accumulated significance of cultural ritual, or sheer force of intent. In making and consuming it, we participate in this continually evolving allegory. To be distanced from the traditions we’ve spent our childhoods being shown as representative of the ideals we should all hope for is often tantamount to being distanced from the cultures that created them. In recognizing this, a certain amount of mourning is, at times, involved. Other times, or afterwards, what this entails is space for creation. When the incredibly varied conditions of human life freely influence tradition, tradition’s very definition expands until not just my cultures’, but, hopefully, a more widely accepted interpretation might focus on ideals as more inherent than which ingredients to use: which is why I quite enjoy the statement of being a queer Romani Cuban, baking my found-family an apple pie and giving Trump’s America the finger from the ocean’s other side.
For more about Romani food, I suggest Jessica Reidy’s articles, “How to Eat Like a Real ‘Gypsy'” and “Romani Cuisine & Cultural Persistence”. For more about Nitza Villapol, I suggest Suzanne Cope’s, “When Revolution Came to the Kitchens of Cuba”.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Magdalena Rosario enjoys her anonymity but will, however, say that she is an eighteen year old student, writer, and occasional translator who is currently living in the United Kingdom, studying for a Masters of Theology. While she was living in the United States, she won national gold honours from the Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards and was published in various places under various names. She can found on tumblr.