In the last ten days, I’ve spent more money than I care to admit at the supermarket. I go there, like I assume most Australians do, with a specific goal in mind. Four days ago there were only three items on my list: sprinkles for ice-cream, a can of olive oil, and a loaf of bread, but I ended up spending $120 and I forgot the sprinkles.
When I spoke about it with some fellow mothers at the school gate that afternoon, I realised I wasn’t the only one who was shopping a little more aimlessly than usual. Even those of us not particularly panic-buying are panic-buying by default. Although we’re not hoarding toilet paper and bags of pasta, rice and flour, we’re not shopping like we normally would. We’re shopping, we mused, with a sense of guilt. The empty shelves have prompted us to grab one or two of anything that’s left, even if there’s no sense to the item and not much we can do with it. (Case in point: This weekend I’ll be googling what to do with freekeh mix).
If we go into lockdown for two weeks, I have some items that will help tide us over with some sense of normalcy, but for the rest of time I’ll have to get creative with my stash of random items: frozen green beans, a few cans of tuna, tinned peaches, one bag of oats and jars of peanut butter. Oh and jelly. I’ve managed to find a lot of jelly.
Like most Lebanese mothers, my mum is an established stockpiler, but instead of toilet paper and paper towel, she's always stockpiled for family meals.
Over at my parents’ house, the atmosphere is a lot less frazzled. In the event of a lockdown, very little will change for my parents and sisters, except they’ll be using longlife milk instead of fresh milk and my mother won’t be ducking out to the local Lebanese butcher with her usual frequency. And the sense of calm and order in her freezer has filled me with a sense of cultural inadequacy, because my panic buying (and her lack of thereof) has made me realise that I have somewhat failed as a Lebanese mother.
Like most Lebanese mothers, my mum is an established stockpiler, but instead of toilet paper and paper towel, she's always stockpiled for family meals. Right now, as I wedge frozen berries and party pies in my freezer, hers is immaculately ordered with meat and vegetarian options catering for the four people with different tastebuds who live in her home, and in the vein of traditional Lebanese hospitality, any other people who might drop by, even if there are hundreds of them. She’s got multiple bags of Kibbe and Shish Barak dumplings (separated of course, by serving-size), a stash of spinach pies and samboosik, and her usual arsenal of frozen vegetables, chicken and mince.
The difference in our approach to catering in the time of impending disaster has got me thinking about the things we lose in the diaspora – not just obvious things like language and connections, but the skills our migrant parents acquired because they had very little money and conveniences. The very skills that they were forced to acquire. Skills that were a source of and by-product of their struggle and marginalisation have, to me right now, become skills that I should have, in hindsight, aspired to learn. In my culture at least, much of what is passed down through families takes place in the kitchen – the heart of the home where women gather to prepare what their provider husbands and fathers had gathered. It is through the process of making and preparing our at once elaborate but simple dishes where we learn about our faith, our families, our friendships and our histories.
The difference in our approach has got me thinking about the things we lose in the diaspora – the skills our migrant parents acquired because they had very little money and conveniences.
In aspiring for ‘more’ than what my parents had; in yearning for a more educated, prosperous, less struggle-filled life, I somehow missed out on a part of my culture that makes up its very fabric.
For as long as I can remember, my mother has made and frozen food well in advance, ready to be thrown into a soup or put out on the table for mezze. She’s made her own yoghurt, cheese, pickled vegetables and pizza dough, she has sunned out her Lebanese savoury porridge mix with the due diligence she would have given it in her Lebanese village, and made soap for the family by hand. She’s even frozen her ground Lebanese coffee.
If COVID-19 hadn’t forced my hand, I might not have realised this. Now, as we navigate a potential doomsday amongst empty shelves and panicked purchases, I have come to understand that while my privileges in the West have afforded me so many luxuries, they came at the cost of something more. My mother, who always had nothing, has never been out of anything, and I, who had everything at my fingertips, feel like I have missed out on so much.
Sarah Ayoub is a freelance writer.