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The Pudding Belt

Day-of-honey-author_custom Journalist Annia Ciezadlo, on left, has covered wars across the Middle East for major American newspapers.

But it was writing a cookbook -- Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War -- that gave her insight into an aspect of Middle Eastern culture that suggests there's hope for peace and reconciliation even where bombs are falling today.

She discovered a broad cultural swath she calls the "Pudding Belt" that runs from Greece through the Balkans and Eastern Europe. People in those countries make a traditional pudding, or mush of grains and seeds, when someone is born or dies and then they share it with complete strangers.  The seeds and grains symbolize the cycle of life.  Sharing it with strangers is a sign that we're all caught in the same cycle.

For example the Greeks make a dish called "kolyva" when somebody dies and pass it our to passers-by no matter who they are. In fact, the important part is to share it outside your normal social circle. She discovered that similar traditions exist in Beirut, where a pudding called "mighli" is made when a baby is born. And in Turkey, a dish called "ashura" is supposed to be given out to 40 people (10 servings each to neighbors in each of the four cardinal directions). In every case, Ciezadio says the pudding has a fundamental social purpose: "[It] helps people share across sects and religion and ethnic differences."

Ciezadlo is not naive enough to think that cuisine can solve all the world's problems.  "Food connects," she says in her book. "The alchemy of eating binds you to a place and a people. This bond is fragile; people who eat together one day can kill each other the next. All the more reason we should preserve it."

Culinary traditions also give us insight into people's character and culture. And for those who think the Middle East is hoplessly mired in religious and tribal wars, the Pudding Belt offers some hope. For more, see the interview she gave NPR. (There's a recipe for Lebanese mighli at the end of the NPR piece.)




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