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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

A family style meal, elbow to elbow, fingers reaching for the food

Growing up, what made summer vacations in Morocco particularly memorable was the communal meal. Especially dinner. Four homes took turns hosting a family gathering just about every day for weeks. There could easily be twenty mouths to feed, between the uncles and aunts and cousins, distant relatives, out-of-town relatives from another germosphere, or a cousin’s free-loading best friend. There were two sittings when there were that many of us; one for the adults and one for the kids. It wasn’t fancy food. Most of it was hearty and tasty. Tajines laden with fatty lamb chunks and a rotating cast of in season veggies, swimming in broth. There was always plenty of bread so we could sop it all up. Simple salads. Carrots, shredded with lemon juice and sugar, or diced with olive oil and cilantro. Salted cucumber rounds. Sweet pepper and eggplant salads too. Humble stuff most of the time. But a lot of it. I learned later that my dad helped bankroll these dinners. He had the means, and we were the visitors from overseas who imposed on the clan every other July or August. It was an imposition. But I think we all relished these mini family reunions, crowded around the table, struggling to eat and laugh and impress and retort all at the same time.

My thoughts traveled back to one such rowdy dinner after reading a series of micro-essays at The Counter, a nonprofit, independent, nonpartisan newsroom investigating the forces shaping how and what America eats. They asked folks to contribute stories about how food is figuring into the changes foisted on us by Covid-19. I read one, then another, and another. Each one made me wince with empathy, joy, or sadness. A grandmother writes about creating a ritual out of making oatmeal every day for her grandchild, born the third day of quarantine, and sheltering with her...Instead of focusing on how the pandemic is creating food-related memories for me and my family, my mind wanted to remember food gatherings of social un-distancing.

I don’t know the whole truth about what happened that night. The story is that one of my aunts laced a small section of the tajine with "h'shisha." My mother swears she got a little high because she was sitting next to the man for whom this narcotic was meant. It didn’t matter whether there was or wasn’t hashish in the food. The mere suggestion that the food might have been tampered with set the man off. I happened to be at the adult sitting that night. The guy has been a family friend for decades and a willing target of teasing and pranks.

He pushed away from the table when the fruit was brought out, and started hooting. He tried to tickle each of us under our arms as he rounded the table. My uncles egged him on. He yelled and spoke incomprehensible words. It was as if he was in a trance. Then, he leapt on the table. Someone swiftly removed the large bowl of sliced, ripe honeydew and cantaloupe just in time. Mr. Honey, as I like to call him because of his disdain for honey (and okra), started pounding the wooden table with his heels. Needless to say, it was side-splitting, pee-in-your-pants entertainment.

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