Many moons ago when I was working in Japan selling pictures on a street stall.I got to know some of the regular passers-by who would stop for a chat.
Well, chat in the loosest sense of the word. I really mean much nodding, smiling, and bowing and pointing at each other and saying ‘english’ and ‘nihongo’ (Japanese) a lot. But still some kind of fledgeling relationship between two people with very limited knowledge of each other’s language.
One day one, of these passers-bys, a well dressed (actually they all were well dressed) fairly elderly man who used to emerge from the nearby underground every evening at 7 ish, came over to me and after all the usual rigmarole of awkward half bowing and daft grinning, he handed me a very shiny red apple, nodding and beaming at me.
I was a bit surprised and firstly felt a bit awful thinking that he obviously thought I couldn’t afford to eat – (not the case – amazing what you could sell ‘kawai’- cute pictures for in Japan) and that he felt sorry for me..
When I mentioned this to someone later they explained that no, the apple wasn’t given out of pity, it was a gift. Fruit was very expensive in Japan and considered a luxury. The apple was his way of showing friendship.
Apparently melons can go for $200 a pop…
So why am I going on about an apple?
Well with all that’s been going on in this crazy old world lately, I’ve been thinking about the roles food plays in society. That food, as well as being a basic human need has other important jobs.
What this pandemic has reminded me is that food acts as a great connector, the hand of friendship.
That the giving of or sharing of food is such an integral part of our lives.
I was very excited – even moved, when a neighbour who I‘d hardly seen or spoken to pre-virus handed me some homemade salted caramel fudge over the fence one sunny lockdown afternoon. Mind you I did panic about how to reciprocate and had to cut a big chunk off a McVities ginger cake - the only vaguely homemade looking food in the house -to hand back over the fence.
Since then we have chatted regularly. The fudge giving had cemented our friendship.
Another memorable case of food gifting happened when I was four. One of my earliest memories is being absolutely distraught and inconsolable after dropping my ice cream in the street.
I was food-obsessed from a very young age.
My friend instantly stopped eating her ice cream and gave hers to me saying she didn’t really want it. Obviously I took it. I’ve always chosen my friends wisely.
I don’t think I’d give up my ice cream for anyone even now, never mind as a 4 year old but I always remember this selfless gesture.
I was the kid who, when forced to offer out crisps, screwed up the pack, put one crisp in the top of the screwed up part so that the ‘taker’ couldn’t get many.
But even so I still shared, even if it was reluctantly! Food is just wonderful for bringing people together.
All our holidays, festivals, celebrations revolve round eating and drinking. Just look at the planning and preparation that goes into that one meal that is Christmas dinner. I’m Jewish so force feeding friends and family is deeply entrenched.
At the start of the lockdown it was amazing to see how many food banks, charities and armies of volunteers mobilised themselves so quickly and efficiently to help provide food parcels, food shop or cook for the needy and vulnerable.
Yes, there were the greedy stockpilers but the huge number of individuals, small and big businesses who were rushing to help supply food to frontline workers far outweighed the stockpilers.
he pandemic also highlighted how we humans aren’t generally solitary animals and that it’s our eating and drinking culture that often brings us together and is a huge part of our lives and our social interaction.
There's even a dating programme where the chooser picks his / her dates based on the menus their prospective dates have chosen to cook. That's one programme I should not go on - I'd never be able to discard any of the menus.
How many of you were desperate during lockdown to go for a pizza or a coffee with friends or have a barbecue or Sunday roast with the family? Who dreamt of an afternoon in a beer garden?!
How many of you on your own or self isolating, Zoom called a friend whilst eating so you could 'virtually' eat with someone.
Food also helps us learn about other cultures.
The best part of travelling and visiting other countries for me is getting to try the local food and eating at local places. Although I was too chicken to try guinea pig in Peru (which is supposed to taste like chicken) and I would probably avoid bat if I ever happen to be in Wuhan.
Who knows where we’d be foodwise in the UK without the food brought to us through immigration that we’ve taken to our hearts and bellies? Generations here have now been brought up on pizza!
My partner, a hardcore curry addict almost wept with relief when he found out that some of the indian takeaways were starting to operate through lockdown. It made my lockdown a lot less stressful too -trying to work out if you could make a curry sauce using only oregano and pepper .
In a list of the top most searched recipes during lockdown chicken bhuna is up there with banana bread and fake McDonalds!
Bagels, burritos, biryani are all firmly entrenched in our vocabulary. And we’re still learning. Who had heard of a bao bun or babaganoush a few years ago?!
Maybe that’s why street food is so popular. It’s a relatively cheap way for vendors to offer and for buyers to sample a variety of different types of food.
Only yesterday, as more places started to open for business, I got stopped by two desperate, looking fellas – ‘is there anywhere open near hear we can get a kebab from? We’ve been searching for ages’ They really sounded close to tears.
I briefly explained the powers of Google search to them - briefly as they were so desperate to track down a kebab –(I don’t think the track and trace service could help) they had forgotten all aspects of social distancing. I last saw them heading off at speed in the direction of town. I do hope they found one.
However, I think one of the finest and most heart warming foodie- hands-of- friendship that can be proffered is to be invited to someone’s house for a meal. To eat their home cooked food; in their home; with their family.
When I’ve had the privilege of being invited for a meal in someone’s home- especially someone I haven’t know long or if I’ve been in another country or town it’s like a sign of acceptance or a big hug - that someone likes you (or feels sorry for you) enough to want to cook you their food and meet their family.
So although I have enjoyed trying out new recipes and using kitchen utensils I didn't know I had, I am looking forward to when we can eat and drink and ‘chew the fat’ in groups indoors again, whatever form it may take.
In the meantime, though I’ll just have to make do with watching other people eating together indoors like on Come Dine With Me or First Dates Hotel.