Faith-free (almost) cooking on Egyptian TV

Anyone who knows anything about religious communities -- especially ethnic communities -- knows that food plays a crucial role in both public and private life. Wednesday-night Lutheran church suppers (hello Garrison Keillor) in the Midwest, or in Baptist fellowship halls in Texas, have quite a bit in common with breaking-the-feast dinners during Ramadan. Does food matter in Orthodox Judaism? In a Catholic parish in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn? For Hindus celebrating the seasons in Delhi? It's almost impossible to name a religion that does not, in one way or another, include some symbolic role for food and fellowship.

Here's a highly personal example. A few years ago, I wrote the following near the top of a Scripps Howard column about one man's journey from Greek Orthodoxy into a charismatic Protestant ministry and ultimately back to Orthodoxy. This Orthodox deacon is now a close friend of mine. It helps to know that his mother was raised Jewish, in Poland.

“They were married in the Greek church,” said Peter Maris, 42. “She learned to speak Greek. She learned to cook Greek. She did everything she could to show her commitment to the faith.”

Then came the parish Christmas party when his mother brought a plate of Polish cookies. His father didn’t tell this story often, because it was too painful.

“Some of the women got upset,” said Peter Maris. “They told my mother, ‘What are you doing, bringing those in here? We don’t need you and we don’t need your Polish cookies. We are Greek.’ "

The family walked out and never returned.

Why were the cookies so important on both sides of this divide?

Food matters. It has something to do with making faith incarnate in real life.

I thought of all of this when reading the Washington Post feature about Ghalia Alia Mahmoud, an unlikely new television chef in the rapidly changing land that is post-Arab-spring Egypt. Here is the top of this fascinating story:

Only in the new Egypt could Ghalia Alia Mahmoud have become a celebrity.

A woman from a poor neighborhood, she cooks in tin pots with no handles, on propane burners lit with a match, in a kitchen without measuring cups. She uses simple, cheap ingredients such as beans, pasta and vegetables, all she can afford.

In the old Egypt, Mahmoud worked as a maid. But that was before Jan. 25, the beginning of the upheaval in which the destitute and the affluent stood shoulder to shoulder in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to force the ouster of a dictator and the end of a system that celebrated the elite while a huge underclass barely subsisted.

The goal of her show is to teach basic, affordable cooking skills to the middle- and lower-class masses in Egypt, to teach ordinary people -- as the story says -- to "prepare dishes they can actually afford."

A core concept is that Mahmoud will show viewers how to feed a large family a filling meal for the equivalent of $4. This is a subject that she knows all about, based on first-hand experience.

At home, she feeds 15 people in her immediate and extended family on an income that even now does not exceed $200 a month. She cooks meat just once a week, because that’s all she and her husband, a minibus driver, can afford; on the show, meat is prepared only on Fridays. ...

On camera, Mahmoud is genuine and bubbly. She measures out ingredients in cheap plastic cups and buys vegetables for the show at the market in her poor neighborhood of Waraa. She wears fuchsia jackets and polka-dot aprons; her face is plump and inviting.

She reminds people of their favorite aunt, and her popularity has skyrocketed. Her Facebook page -- which had to be set up by a producer, Habiba Hesham, because Mahmoud can’t afford the Internet or a computer — has drawn nearly 4,000 followers in less than two weeks. Hesham sees her as a future Oprah Winfrey, a poor girl who became an American icon.

As you would imagine, as I read this story I kept waiting -- especially with the ties between the birth of her cooking show and Ramadan -- for religion to enter the picture. How does one talk about the lives of ordinary Egyptians, especially those who are not numbered in the often secularized urban elites, without discussing the role of food and fasting in Islam? How did the creators of this story avoid using the word "halal"?

Surprisingly, the story's lone reference to the religious significance of food comes near the end. While the Post team gives us no details about Mahmoud's own religious alliances or even the ways in which her skills (and new status as a celebrity) affect the practice of her faith, readers do learn one highly symbolic detail.

It is the subtle messages on her show that carry bigger lessons than the food. She offers to teach recipes to Coptic Christians who abstain from meat and dairy products during their time of fasting. She said she does it to prove that heightened sectarian tensions, which she believes are stirred up by the government, don’t exist in Egyptian neighborhoods.

(By the way, it would have been more accurate if this paragraph had said, "their times of fasting" -- plural -- rather than singular. Coptic believers fast to one degree or another more than half the year, at various times.)

What kind of response has the maid-turned-chef received with these peacemaking overtures? How is her work viewed by Muslims on the cultural left and right?

Perhaps it is too early to know, since her show is only a month old. Nevertheless, some kind of reaction is likely, since food plays such a symbolic and emotional role in daily life and in religion. Also, it is clear -- from the one example given -- that the cook in this kitchen knows that faith and food are often mixed and cannot be separated.

IMAGE: A tourist photo of an ordinary street market in Cairo.

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