Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Sadness of Kitchens in March 2020

Over two weeks have gone by since we determined that social isolation was our best option. So far, we have been lucky in the kitchen, having started with a well-stocked pantry, and having had a young relative go to the supermarket for fresh foods after the first week. More vendors here are now offering contactless pickup or delivery of fresh and in some cases local produce, so we hope it’s getting easier to stock the larder. Our generous next-door neighbors helped us out with the probably-temporary shortage of flour by giving us several pounds of flour they had on hand. (Actually they left it on the porch and texted us to go out and get it — no contact!)

Baking bread with our neighbors’ gift of flour.
Two sourdough loaves...
One loaf for the neighbors. Handed over without
being closer than 6 feet away.

What’s really important?

My food thoughts are not just with my own needs, but with the vast numbers of people who are fearing or already experiencing hunger. I'm thinking of those whose jobs have suddenly ceased, and who don’t know how they will afford food. I worry about children who were dependent on school lunch programs but whose schools have closed, and about college students without meals or shelter after dorm closures. I'm mindful that homeless people and refugees everywhere are subject to increased uncertainty. People already living in poverty in the US and throughout the world will be suffering even more now than in the past.

Even more pressing than the challenge of getting food to those in need, our society has enormous problems with protecting health care workers and providing care for the sick. Compared to the vast numbers of people with limited resources, to those who are already suffering from coronavirus, and to those mourning the victims, I'm extremely fortunate and grateful, and I do not want to sound like I'm complaining.

In My Kitchen

That said, here's my report on the state of my kitchen in the new circumstances of March, 2020, locked down due to the new coronavirus pandemic. I’m wondering if shortages of pantry goods are only temporary. Will catsup come back before we finish our bottle? What about Nutella? (Which I don’t use, but heard was sold out). We can live without diet Coke, which may also soon be scarce, if not already. Happily, broccoli, and in fact most fresh vegetables, seem to be plentiful, and we’ll have more local ones as spring progresses. 

These are all details: in the long run, we will have plenty of choices. On reflection we know that normal American food options for most consumers are extraordinarily generous in terms of what’s been available throughout history. We need to worry about families with limited resources and how to help them, not about a reduction of our many choices of foods.

Earlier in March, I ordered new and replacement spices from Penzey’s.
The entire Penzey company is now closed to protect their employees.
Having lots of spice is one of my good fortunes at the moment.

I’ve been using the new spices quite a bit. Here: chicken and cashews with the
new curry powder, cooked soon after the spices arrived.
Cauliflower Masala with several of my spices, new and old,
and a jar of Trader Joe’s Chutney. I wish the Trader had delivery service!
Both the chicken dishes and the cauliflower were spiced with the new curry powders and other spices from Penzey's and elsewhere. Chicken has been hard to find, but one of the local markets that offers curbside pickup had a limited supply, so I was able to cook chicken for dinner one night. I don't know if this is (was?) a local shortage or nation-wide like the flour shortage — hopefully temporary.

Hash flavored with Parisian Herbs from Penzey’s —
leftover roast beef, potatoes, red bell peppers.
Shakshouka: an egg dish I made earlier this month. Cooking eggs is easy!
Eggs have been a favorite on our table this month, but I understand that shortages are on the way. Increased demand for eggs, as well as rising egg prices, may result from the abrupt nationwide switch from eating out to home cooking. Home cooks use more eggs than restaurants, evidently. Farmers can't speed up egg supplies immediately, because to make an egg it takes a chicken that's a couple of months old. Wholesalers had extra eggs on hand for Easter, but those have all been sold already.

Finally, there’s one other issue in all kitchens now: food safety and danger from food-borne illnesses is always a concern in everyone's kitchen, but especially during the epidemic. The official word from the FDA is that food safety is not a problem, and no action other than the usual precautions about food preparation is warranted (link to FDA website). I haven’t been doing anything extra, just being as careful as I can, though I think we will soon be wiping down and sanitizing whatever we bring into the house in case it was handled by an infected individual.

Each month a number of bloggers share what’s going on in their kitchens, and link their posts at Sherry’s blog (http://sherryspickings.blogspot.com/). I hope the usual participants will describe how they’ve managed with food supplies and safety so far during the emergency that’s continuing into April. Contributors to Sherry’s blog event come from almost every part of the world, and I’m thinking their experiences will add up to a very interesting view of this global crisis.

This post copyright © 2020 by mae sander for mae food dot blogspot dot com.
If you read this at another site, it's been pirated.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Open Sesame!

From my spice shelves: sesame seeds.
These are white, but unbleached, seeds.
CORRECTED CAPTION: Cookies made last year with two types of seeds.
The black seeds, called Nigella, were one of the spices I brought back from Israel.
I thought they were black sesame seeds, but they are from a different plant.
Cooking is a pleasure and a challenge in these days of social isolation and difficulty with shopping. We are doing well at the moment. I'm making every effort for our meals to be interesting and varied in flavor. For example, sesame flavors with a middle-eastern theme were my selection for dinner last night. I chose a recipe from Ottolenghi’s cookbook Jerusalem.

Tahini -- the middle eastern sesame paste -- is a key ingredient in the sauce for Ottolenghi's meatballs.
Here are the ingredients staged for making the meatballs and the tahini sauce with lemon and garlic.
I've made them a few times before -- this time, I don't have pine nuts, but do have the other recommended seasonings.

Dinner: meatballs with tahini sauce, vine leaves stuffed with rice,
and broccoli.
Dessert: halvah or halawa, made from ground sesame seeds,
sugar, and a variety of other flavorings.
I liked halvah a lot when I was a child, despite its rather rough and unusual texture. My father would buy just a small slice of it from the delicatessen. I've eaten it in Israel, and have had it from middle-eastern markets and mainstream markets here and now. This tub of "halawa" from Lebanon came from a smallish market near our house. According to the free online dictionary (link), the English word halvah comes from the Yiddish word halva, which came from Romanian, which came from Turkish helve, which came from Arabic halwā.

Sesame flavor is also popular in the cuisines of China and Japan. Recently, I bought some 100% sesame oil at an Asian grocery store. (That was before I stopped going out!) It has a powerful flavor, and only a few drops of it create a nice balance in salad dressings and in some other dishes I've made.

Sesame has been cultivated for thousands of years -- it was the first oilseed crop that was domesticated in the history of agriculture. Among the many species of sesame plants, some are native to Africa, some to India. In The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty, he points out that the African word for sesame, benne, continues to be used in some parts of the American south, where traditional African sesame dishes are still made. Sesame was cultivated by the Romans and throughout European history.

Besides all the ethnic dishes with sesame seeds, which may in some cases be exotic or unfamiliar, American cuisine features, of course, sesame seeds on hamburger buns at McDonalds and many other hamburger chains. Sesame bagels, sesame crackers, and other breads with sesame seeds are also now a part of mainstream American food.

According to Wikipedia: "The earliest recorded use of a spice - sesame seed - comes from an Assyrian myth which claims that the gods drank sesame wine the night before they created the earth." (link)

So many wonderful foods have sesame seeds! I'm thinking of the tales of the Arabian Nights where "Open Sesame" was the magic word. Though the tale of Ali Baba and his magic cave wasn't in the Arabic original, it seems to have been invented entirely by Antoine Galland, a French writer who translated, adapted, and augmented the 1001 Nights.

Loaves of bread with sesame seeds, from Vermeer's painting
"The Milkmaid," painted around 1660.
Image of sesame plant and seed pods
by Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen
Published 1895. Source: Wikipedia.
Writing blog posts is a good activity for the time of plague! I’m also hoping to read posts from my blogger friends and see what they are doing while shut-in, working from home, or being at their workplace in very stressful circumstances. Besides blogging and taking a walk, I watched two movies today: “Guess who’s coming to dinner” from 1967 and “Bladerunner” from 1982.

This blog post copyright © 2020 by mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

What did Marco Polo Eat?

Marco Polo Traveling (source)
What did Marco Polo eat? If you google this question, the first answer is "PASTA"!! Well, he probably did eat pasta in his early life in Venice, where he was born in 1254 -- it was one of the foods that made up the Italian diet then, though not a major element of the cuisine of that time. He probably ate several varieties of noodles or filled pasta during his 17 years at the Emperor's court in China. Between the 1270s and around 1292 when he left China, pasta was a very well developed culinary specialty there, though rice then as now was the staple food. And Marco Polo likely ate a bit more pasta after he returned to Venice in the mid 1290s and until his death in 1324. Marco Polo didn't need to bring pasta from China to the Italian peninsula as the popular misconception has it -- it was already there.

Marco Polo's Travels -- from Encyclopedia Brittanica. It would be fascinating to know about all the foods he tried
as he visited so many exotic locations. However, his travel narrative has virtually no food descriptions.

The Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279) fell to Kublai Khan, leader of the vast Mongol Empire after a long era of fighting. This final takeover was immediately before Marco Polo arrived, and thus his contacts were with this famous emperor, founder of the Yuan Dynasty.  The invaders introduced new kinds of foods including many developments in the types of pasta that were prepared by Chinese cooks. Here is a summary from the book Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food:
"Considered a specialty of northern China, wheat-flour pasta was later widely adopted throughout the Yangzi basin in the wake of the political turmoil that followed the steady inroads of the Mongols beginning in the tenth century that culminated in the fall of the capital in 1179. In the culinary cross-pollinizing that followed, the array of pasta products broadened considerably. Pasta also became a more refined foodstuff, requiring new techniques that made it possible to create extremely thin sheets of dough. At the same time, the culinary preparations, which had become exceedingly varied, began to incorporate many of the finest ingredients found in a southern climate." (p. 315)
Wheat production in China had increased during the previous century because the last stand of the Song Dynasty (the Southern Song) included tax incentives to grow more of it. In the ancient capital, Kaifeng, pasta shops sold wheat pasta and other foods, including dishes like “three-freshness noodles” and “minced chicken noodles.” Stuffed pasta of that time is a predecessor of today’s tiny dumplings cooked in broth, that is, wonton. Condiments and flavorings for pasta included sesame or almond paste, meat broth, fermented milk, cucumber in soy sauce, eggplant, ginger, scallions, chives, sugar, vinegar, tofu, and various pickles. (p. 317-319)

Less detailed evidence about pasta in Italy in Marco Polo’s lifetime is available, although there are a number of references to vermicelli in documents beginning in the late Roman era.The main written evidence of pasta in Italy in Marco Polo’s time is a will that made a bequest of pasta to one of the heirs. Trade in pasta and related wheat products is reflected in contracts between Genoa and various northern Italian cities. Although some dried pasta suitable for shipping was produced in the age of Marco Polo, most pasta was made in small shops and sold fresh.

Everyone has heard the claim that Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy, and thus to the West. The source of this patently false idea is a single “fable” which appeared in 1929 in Macaroni Journal, a publication dedicated to the advancement of the American macaroni (that is, pasta) industry. The language of this silly little article is the language of fairy tales, and the anonymous author was clearly making a joke. The boat on which Marco Polo was traveling, says the fable, stopped for provisions and a sailor named Spaghetti (ha ha) went ashore where he found people cooking — yes — spaghetti. Note: The word spaghetti means little strings, in case you were wondering. The transformation of this fable into a widespread belief about culinary history appears to be a mystery. You can find a facsimile of the journal online here: 1929 Macaroni Journal, page 32.

Oh, yes, another important question: Did Marco Polo bring the idea for ice cream back from China? No. Frozen desserts like ice cream had been popular with wealthy diners in Italy since Roman times. Although he and his family were prosperous merchants, I don’t know if they had the resources to eat it, however. Maybe he did eat it at the court of the Great Khan!

Two wonderful foods, ice cream and pasta -- how could we think the very skilled Italian cooks wouldn't have developed these treats by the end of the 13th century?  All of us who are living through the current global emergency probably have a new appreciation for them. After all, pasta was one of the first commodities to disappear from grocery shelves when panic buying set in. And I bet you are like me in isolation from the pandemic and therefore really sad that one can't go to Ben and Jerry's or another ice cream shop for a treat these days.

Source for the history of pasta in China and Italy is Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food 
by Silvano Serventi and Francoise Sabban, English translation published 2002.
This blog post copyright © 2020 by mae sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Tacos in Mexico

Did you know that tacos can talk? In fact they speak Spanish, and if the subtitles to the Netflix series "Taco Chronicles" are accurate, the taco voices are rather poetic in describing their own savory excellence. The six episodes are narrated by many experts and taco lovers as well as the voices of the tacos. From them, I have learned many many things about the culture of tacos in Mexico City and in many regions of the country. Tacos go with beer -- but there are morning tacos that ease your hangover. Despite the stereotype that we USA foodies have accepted, Mexican tacos can use either  flour or corn tortillas, depending on the region and the type of taco. Lovers of tacos include people of all professions, social classes, wealth or poverty, and all ages including kids. And it looks to me as if a typical portion of tacos would be enormous!

The types of tacos considered: al pastor, carnitas, canasta (that is, tacos placed in a "canasta" or special basket for street vending), carne asada, barbacoa, and guisado. Just about all of them consist of a tortilla, highly-spiced meat filling, and the diner's choice of salsas and guacamoles. Fillings other than meat that I associate with tacos in the USA like beans, rice, ground beef preparations, eggs, vegetables, and the like are classified as "guisado" -- stew, explained in the final episode. 

The most flamboyant seller of "basket tacos" -- Lady Basket Tacos.
One day selling tacos at the Pride Parade, Lady Basket Tacos
realized how to create a persona. As I say, the
presentation of taco people is amazing.
Native Mexican peoples before the European conquest cultivated corn, agave, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, and chile peppers that go into the tacos. In the sixteenth century Spanish conquistadors introduced the animals that provide the meat -- cattle, pigs, sheep, goats. Native cooking methods using brick-lined pits were in use by the pre-columbian Mexican peoples. This part of  history is explained in cute little cartoons. Around a century ago, Lebanese immigrants introduced the vertical grills used for the al pastor tacos, but the meat was changed from traditional Middle Eastern lamb to pork seasoned with Mexican spices. In sum: tacos are fusion food and innovation is a constant!

As you watch, you see the workplaces of tortilla makers, of ranchers who raise the meat, of butchers and pit masters, of farmers who cultivate agave plants for flavoring salsa and for leaves in which to wrap meat, of the owners of taco stands, sellers in the main market of Mexico City, and even the foundry belonging to a traditional metal shop that makes huge kettles for cooking meat. Each episode is very fast, moving from place to place and taco to taco. The continuity in my view comes from the ecstatic diners who are munching into meaty, spicy, and usually greasy tacos.

Reading the subtitles is sometimes a bit distracting because there's so much going on: there are just a few snatches of conversation in English. In particular, a couple of episodes include taquerias in Los Angeles; however, the show is all Mexican-created, filmed, directed, and so on.

I would say that the director, Carlos Pérez Osorio, is a match for David Gelb who directed many of my other favorite food Netflix! Numerous interviews with food writers, chefs, taco makers, and intellectuals like anthropologists take place in what seems to be a split second. I enjoyed every bit, though I think I would only enjoy eating some of the tacos. Especially doubtful: one special salsa is made with some type of grub-like worms that grow in the roots of the agave plant. No thanks!

Tacos for Dinner in my House

When we eat tacos, we have lots of vegetables on them. In the photo, you
can see lettuce, cucumber, pickled pepper, chopped up roast beef, melted cheese,
corn salsa (from Trader Joe of course), and also other salsa. The flour tortilla
is suspected by American taco lovers, but in fact turns out to be favored
for use in at least one of the regional taco specialties.
Watching food shows on Netflix is one of many ways to
pass the time in isolation from the coronavirus. We have
begun to order curbside service for groceries and wine
from local markets -- photo is of one order, just so you know!
This post copyright © 2020 by mae sander for maefood dot blog spot dot com.
Photos from the Netflix episodes are screen shots. Other photos are my own originals.
A big thank you to the blog Beth Fish Reads  for pointing out this series, which was released last summer.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

We can take a walk in the park.

Walking around Ford Lake — still a legal activity. Just keep 6 feet from other people.
This swan’s nest is only around 10 feet from the boardwalk!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

What's in your pantry? Pasta?

Supplies of many shelf-stable food have been in great demand during the current buying frenzy induced by the coronavirus pandemic. One commodity that's been in great demand is pasta. Obviously this makes sense -- everyone knows how to cook pasta! And it can be delicious if you have only a bit of olive oil and cheese and maybe garlic if you love garlic. Most people use a can or jar of ready-made pasta sauce or canned tomato products -- another commodity that's running low. Those of us who are ambitious look up more complicated recipes: there's no limit on the number of pasta recipes!

Like many people, here in Ann Arbor Len and I are definitely eating three meals a day at home during this emergency. So I've been thinking about food a lot, and I started looking at some of my more unusual books on pasta and its role in Italian food and history. Of course pasta is also popular in many other types of cuisine, such as many types of Asian noodles. Oh, and did Marco Polo bring pasta back from China? No, it was invented there long before his travels.

I have been looking in three books with three ways of looking at pasta. Pasta by Design presents mathematical equations and diagrams for the shapes. Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food by Serventi & Sabban is a scholarly history. The Encyclopedia of Pasta by Oretta Zanini de Vita is an alphabetical list of every type of pasta in Italy, even obsolete ones no longer made (blogged here).

So... there are many ways of looking at a noodle! Here are a few that I've thought about this week. When I blogged about beans earlier this week, I searched for recipes. This post approaches pasta in several entirely different ways.

Grocery Shelves

What the pasta section looked like before the hoarding started (my photo).
Pasta section of a supermarket in New York last week. Presumably the same
in many stores throughout the nation. (Photo: Washington Post)
Slowly, we are told, most food supplies will be returning to normal. Most shortages are a result of different demand as everyone switches to home cooking and wants to have emergency food on hand. Both shoppers and suppliers will adapt, or so they say. Pasta, according to what I've read, is one of the foods that will not remain scarce.

Looking at Cavatappi, an interesting pasta shape

Several pasta makers offer this interesting shape.
Here's a dish that I made with it last week: cavatappi with
ham, peas, herbs, and olive oil. 
The book Pasta by Design by George L. Legendre probably embodies the world's most unusual way of looking at pasta: the author derived mathematical equations to describe the shape of a number of noodle types. My family is full of mathematicians and experts at graphical programming. Last year, they introduced us to this book. I didn't understand the math very well, so I asked Len to make an animation of cavatappi based on the above page of the book.

You can see the rotating noodle in the video. 

Looking at Fusilli

Fusilli. I don't remember what was in this dish.
The beginning of the 3-page entry for Fusilli in the Encyclopedia of Pasta.
Fusilli page from Pasta by Design.
Of course I could think of other things to say about pasta, but you might get bored. Above all, I'm thinking of the current suffering of the Italian nation because of the enormous effect of the virus, and I'm hoping that the dire predictions about our own country will prove inaccurate.

This post and original photos by mae sander, © 2020 for mae food dot blogspot dot com.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Edgar Allan Poe: A Tale for This Moment

"On the impossibly wealthy blocks of Fifth Avenue, scarcely a light can be seen. Nobody’s home. Most of the truly wealthy have gone, by helicopter or private jet, to the Hamptons or to an island somewhere. There can be something vexing about the thought that those whose wealth relies on the intense, close-ordered entanglement of the city abandon it in its hour of need, or dread, but they do. Still, who would not decamp to a remote island if she had one?" -- The New Yorker, "The Coronavirus Crisis Reveals New York at Its Best and Worst" by Adam Gopnik and Philip Montgomery, March 23, 2020.
Fifth Avenue, New York, where the wealthy live: from google maps.
"The Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated [by the Red Death], he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the "Red Death." -- Edgar Allen Poe, "The Masque of the Red Death."
What happened to the courtiers who had isolated themselves? The Red Death
found them: "He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped
the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the 
despairing posture of his fall." --Illustration by Arthur Rackham, from Wikipedia.
Literary parallels to the current pandemic include some very popular fictions, particularly The Plague by Camus, Death in Venice by Mann, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. I think Poe's lurid tale is also relevant -- in an obviously creepy way.

I hope you are keeping well and away from the contagion! Best wishes from mae at mae food dot blogspot dot com, and if you read this elsewhere, it shows that the pirates are still stealing my blog. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Beans and Lentils: Food for our Time

"Ladies and gentlemen come to supper,
Hot boiled beans and very good butter." 

                -- Old English nursery rhyme.

First: a message from a park bench along the path where we walked this morning while keeping our distance from others.
Panic buying inspired by the coronavirus pandemic has emptied shelves at some markets, and has exhausted supplies of particularly in-demand commodities, especially medical supplies. Last night, a wonderful relative went to the store for us and restocked our freezer, fridge, and pantry. As a result, I have fresh food like produce, meat, and milk on hand for another week or so, I'm grateful to say.

However, I've been thinking about one particular type of food that many people have been stockpiling, thanks to fear that real shortages will emerge (or to some other fears that I am not sure I even know). This food is beans -- red, white, and black beans; garbanzo beans, soy beans, lentils, and a variety of others.

On my pantry shelf: several types of beans that I bought a few weeks ago because I had used up all my previous supplies.
This was a lucky break, since I now have quite a few cans on hand -- I've shown one of each type.
The New York Times today put it this way:
"Amid all the panic shopping, the growing demand for beans has stood out as an especially potent symbol of the anxious and uncertain times. ... To some suppliers, the sudden popularity of their once-unfashionable beans feels a little surreal." (New York Times, "A Boom Time for the Bean Industry," March 22, 2020).
I've been thinking of how many different types of beans have been cultivated throughout human history, and how many different ways to cook them have been devised in every cuisine imaginable. Maybe when you think of beans, you think of Tex-Mex chili, American lentil soup, Indian dal, Japanese edamame, Japanese red bean sweets, Middle Eastern hummus and falafel, Brazilian black-bean feijoada, Italian white beans with pasta, or bean dishes from some other cuisine entirely. Yet the article in the Times speculates that somehow, many of the people who have bought large quantities of canned or dried beans really don't especially want to eat them.

Traditional French Cassoulet recipe from Serious Eats. (link)
Beans can be fancy or not-so-fancy. For example, when we were students in France years ago, we would buy a can of cassoulet for Sunday dinner when the student restaurant was closed, and warm it on our camp stove in our poorly-heated kitchen. Now cassoulet has become a very high-end dish, which we've eaten at a very elegant restaurant in Paris. Duck confit and other ingredients that accompany the white beans make cassoulet very expensive and upscale.

My cans of beans will probably all be used in pretty unimaginative dishes, I'm afraid. Well, perhaps I'll think of a few that are really good. I've searched for images of really appealing bean dishes in case you or I or anyone needs to imagine some really good ways to cook them. I haven't tried any of these recipes but I chose reliable sources, and I'd like to try them.

Cannellini-Bean Pasta With Beurre Blanc: recipe
by Tejal Rao, New York Times. (link)
Hummus with cinnamon, lemon and ginger: recipe
by Yotam Ottolenghi. (link)
Red Lentil Dal recipe from the Food Network. (link)
Green Lentil Salad from the magazine
Cuisine et Vins de France. (link)
(recipe in French)
Brazilian feijoada from the magazine Cuisine et Vins de France. (link)
(recipe in French)
Chili Colorado from Gustavo Arellano's Road Trip in Eater. (link)
I figure no one needs a chili recipe: this is one of his faves from a diner!

Of course, if you don't want to cook, there's always the option of soup
from a box or a can. Thank you, Trader Joe!

Blog post and original photos © 2020 mae sander. Other photos attributed to their sources

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Sorcery and Witchcraft: Sickness masks from the Congo

Disease has always been mysterious. Only in the past two centuries has Western medicine understood the effect of microorganisms. Now we are facing a new global threat: illness caused by the coronavirus may not be mysterious but it is definitely not under control. Most Americans this week have had to face the consequences of widespread contagion; their responses vary, as you have no doubt read in the press. I know that some readers of this blog are still clinging to the idea that there's no real threat, while most are trying to prepare. As I've written, I've been keeping away from others as we are advised.

Among the Pende people of the Congo, one way to deal with disease was to fight the witchcraft that they thought was the cause. Dancers called Mbangu performed ceremonies  to fight the witchcraft that was causing disease. Alien though such efforts may seem, I think we are all learning to understand the motives for such ceremonies.

In my collection of African masks I have a Pende Mbangu mask that vividly evokes the condition of a sick person (at least I think it does).

Our Congolese mask, used in ceremonies to cure disease and witchcraft.
From the website of the University of Michigan Museum of art, an image and explanation of a sickness mask, which was the first one I saw and which definitely made me curious about this tradition:

From the museum's documentation:
"The twisted face and dramatic opposition of black and white identify this mask as an Mbangu mask, which represents infirmity and sickness—conditions that are often attributed to witchcraft. According to a common Pende explanation, Mbangu’s half-white, half-black face represents the scars of someone who fell into the fire due to sorcery, while the asymmetry of the face and the marks on the black side are an indication of various other medical conditions. When the mask appears in performance, the dancer limps on a cane to convey the physical weakness of Mbangu, and he wears a humpback pierced with an arrow in reference to sorcerers who shoot their victims with invisible arrows." (LINK)
Many Mbangu masks appear in museum collections, in books on African art, and also on a variety of websites, as illustrated in this screen shot of a search for them:

At the website RandAfricanArt.com I found an especially good description of the Mbangu dancers and images of a number of wonderful masks, including an image of the dancers which was originally on a part of the Smithsonian website:

Unfortunately the website does not give any information about this image, and the link provided does not
explain anything about it. Link here: http://www.randafricanart.com/Pende_sickness_mask.html
Wishing good luck and good health to everyone who reads this! 

This blog post copyright © 2020 mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.