Plaza Voices: A Home Instead of a Cemetery

By Breanne Vailes

This is the second installment of a two-part blog depicting Plaza staff’s perspectives, with the first focusing on family mealtimes and the second including larger communal meal settings. Heartfelt thanks goes to the following contributors -- Walid Alani (Iraq), Ernesto Escarsega (Mexico), Senaye Gebremichael (Ethiopia), Deeksha Nagar (India), and Warren Ramos (Philippines).

"If you don't eat and drink at people's homes, it is as if you visited a cemetery." This Arabic proverb shared by Walid indicates that the essence of life, including the exchange of respect and continuing long-held traditions, depends upon sharing food with one another. Plaza staff explained ways in which people communicate with one another through food-related customs.

Roles of Host and Guest
Walid, Deeksha, Ernesto, and Warren all shared that the host bears the responsibility to provide food for gatherings. It is a sign of honor for the host to provide the entire meal and for the guest to accept it. In Arabic culture, the host divides the meat and places it in front of each guest. According to Ernesto, a host in Mexico is expected to have an excess amount of food, and guests will often be offered more and more food even if they are full. Walid agrees that to “overfeed people” is expected. In Ethiopia, Mexico, and the Philippines, guests take home leftovers, a custom that Warren called “balot.” A host’s provision extends beyond the time spent within his or her home.

Special Events
Walid shared, “Food is essential in any ceremony.” Deeksha elaborated on the process for a celebration in India; the hosts who have small homes clean and disinfect the streets with lime, cover the ground with rugs, and erect a tent in a section of the street so that the neighborhood can join. Celebrations can include both food and music, and Warren shared karaoke is essential in any gathering in the Philippines.

Symbolic Gestures
Deeksha explained that there is meaning in “not just what you serve but how you serve.” Specific foods and customs can be a form of communication. For example, in Deeksha’s experience, plates are always passed with both hands on the dish, and Senaye shared that there are coffee ceremonies performed in a certain manner in Ethiopia. Customary foods can also represent different messages. For example, in India, sharing salt with someone is a sign of loyalty. On birthdays in the Philippines, family members eat noodles to symbolize a long life. And as a guest leaves a gathering in India, the host gives the guest a betel leaf with spices inside, called a “paan,” as a mouth freshener. To accept the leaf means that the guest will fulfill whatever responsibility was discussed over the meal. 

Throughout these examples, food is not just a means for bringing people together; it is also the glue that holds together ceremonies, traditions, and familial expectations. Without the sharing of food, people in these cultures would lose a vital means of communication in solidarity with their ancestors before them. A house might as well be a cemetery if food is not shared within. 

Plazas are an open community space where migrants from all over the world connect with people, information, and resources, building Denver’s global community. Come to practice a language, prepare for citizenship, pursue your goals, and create your future. Whatever you’re doing, we can help! Please see our Cultural Inclusivity web page for more information.

TIP: To learn more about world food traditions, try searching our catalog for "food habits," plus the region or country you are interested in. For instance, "Food Habits - India." To check out an item, simply place it on hold, and make an appointment for curbside pickup!

Written by Plaza Voices on January 20, 2021

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