A brief interaction

After a shawarma dinner this evening, a friend and I stopped into a little shop on Valencia street in San Francisco. Its shelves were lined with delicate gold jewelry and zines covering a variety of topics — intersectionality, mental illness, feminism, BDSM. The place seemed to represent a variety of (liberal) perspectives. I was into it.

While leafing through a few zines, a little recipe booklet caught my eye. The cover was bold and colorful. It was titled “Tahini” and the author had a Jewish name.

I grabbed it from the table and immediately started scanning the text for any mention of the Arabs who inspired the recipes the author claimed as hers. With each flip of a page, I grew more and more frustrated. She called the foods Israeli.

I scrutinized each sentence to try to find some semblance of credit. I think it’s totally cool to use any ingredients you want. Write about your hummus recipe. But acknowledge its origins. Hummus was around long before Israel was.

I went back and forth. Should I be upset about this? Do I deserve to feel wronged? Am I supposed to feel this way? The author obviously didn’t mean any harm. She just wrote a cookbook. But food is important to my culture. It’s just one aspect, sure, but for someone to take the food my ancestors created and call it theirs didn’t feel good.

Elena (name changed), the woman at the register, overheard my friend and I trying to make sense of our feelings. I was afraid she would be offended and try to argue. But she didn’t. She was compassionate. She said our anger was valid. She pointed out other questionable goods the store sold (e.g. Teepee-shaped incense holders) and told us she wasn’t the one choosing the products, and that she wished she had more control.

Elena said what we were experiencing was erasure. Our culture is being erased by way of a recipe book. And it’s being erased in other ways too. But I’ll get into that another time.

We left with the leftover shawarma in our hands and the acknowledgement of our existence in our hearts.