25 January 2010

It's always, all about food

Sharing what we love

Last week, one of the kids from our town showed up with a huge plastic bag full of fist-sized, thick skinned, bright yellow passion fruits and dumped all of them in front of me on our kitchen counter. During the right season, Tonga is incredibly rich in certain fruits and vegetables, and it's been a lesson for us in the different cultural values that go in to generosity and sharing.

In the US, we were accustomed to certain kinds of generosity; making a big meal for someone, baking a cake or pie, or spending time helping a friend with something. Baking, cooking, or helping someone took immediate time and certain special ingredients (the valuable things), and used the plentiful groceries and kitchen supplies that we had only to drive across town to get (the plentiful things). I would never think of going to a friend's house in Portland to drop off a huge bag of tomatoes, or several ears of corn, but in essence, it is the Tongan equivalent of bringing cookies to a party (not that bringing cookies would ever be snubbed here either). Most people here have bush plots where they grow a variety of crops, and so in the same way that I would make twice the amount of cake for a birthday party, knowing that I can easily just double the recipe and have plenty on hand, our neighbors in town share their harvest plenty with us and each other.

And we love what we can't have... it's not just true in soap operas

In Portland, it seemed that to make something special for friends to eat, you had expensive cheese, seafood from Washington, fresh berries, or new tomatoes from the farmers' market, or something along those lines. Having something that was fresh and local was valuable. In contrast, here, fresh and local are the norm, and are actually mostly looked upon as the poor persons' food. When we go wild over the beautiful new heads of cabbage that just got harvested from the agro college 100 metres away, or the passion fruit from our neighbors' backyard, people look at us with amused and quizzical stares. "You can't possibly want greens or cabbage, do you? Wouldn't you rather have corned beef?" our host family back in training would always ask us.

Several times, I've looked down at my plate during a feast, and realized that everything on it was from no farther than a couple of miles- the pig from next door, the taro leaves and sweet potato from the bush plot, the coconut milk squeezed from the pile of brown coconuts sitting in the back yard, the clams from the wharf fishermen, the list goes on and on.

In a wonderful twist of irony, just like we seem to value the expensive organic local vegetables and grass-fed meat in the states, people here seem to value the expensive and rare Doritos chips, corned beef, New Zealand taffy caramels, and off-brand sweet soda pop. A new friend from across the street came over and saw the puffed chicken-flavored cheese curls that had been neglected on top of our fridge since Christmas, and her eyes got wide as she recognized how long they'd been there. "Don't you like those?" she asked me incredulously. Equally convicted in my opinion, I screwed up my face. "Yuck, no we don't like them much at all," I said, and offered her the two bags. They were gone before our conversation was over.

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