Eating Together in Chad, or the Downside of Finger Lickin' Good
Welcome to Dishing it Out, ParentDish's weekly food column. Rob Barrett is a dad who knows his way around the kitchen; his web site, Cooking For Dads, provides simple video recipes for dads (and moms!). You can read all the Dishing it Out posts here.
This was not a meal for picky eaters. There were no forks, no napkins, and no plates. Just one communal serving dish with rice mush, some kind of carpy fish (heads included) and some oily sauce. And it wasn't just this meal, it was almost every meal I ate in Chad over the last 3 weeks while doing some music recording in the middle of Africa. While the tribal music I recorded and the people groups I worked with were amazing, the meal traditions were a little different.
For Chadians, meal time is important. It has very little to do with getting food into the system and everything to do with community, bonding, respect and spending time together. To refuse to eat a meal with someone is a big insult. We would gather for a meal and someone would take around a bowl with a bar of soap and a pitcher of water. The whole table would wash their hands before any food was served. We ate with our hands, balling up some rice in our right hand before dipping it in the shared bowl of sauce. (You would only eat with your right hand - very, very important as the left hand is reserved for more unsanitary practices.) The guest would always be given the best cut of meat, in most cases the gizzard. I had enough gizzards the last 3 weeks to last me a lifetime. I'll tell you the truth, I've done a lot of work in Africa and even I had quite a time getting used to eating with double dipped fingers.
While the food was different and the eating style wasn't one that I would recommend, the placing importance on meal time as a family event is one I wish we all could do more. Most of us do it on the big days like Christmas and Thanksgiving but let the vicissitudes of life (my mother-in-law's favorite saying) get in the way of eating together most normal days. The thought of someone running off to hockey practice or dance during the middle of the Chadian meal was beyond comprehension. This was meal time and the family came together.
There was another upside. There was only one dish to wash.