Dinnerplate Identities by Britta Benson

An abstract image of a woman at the center and surrounded by pizza, burgers, donuts, pastries, and other desserts
Image Source: Canva

We all eat. Food comes and goes, always available, yet often, more of an afterthought, a side show, consumed in a rush. I see people in the street wolfing down a sandwich while speaking on the phone, no respect, no regret. Let’s stop here and linger. I’ve got something to tell you. 

This is the story of how my stomach became an Italian Indian or an Indian Italian, an adventurer, a spy, a rather complicated, open-minded soul with more layers than filo pastry and deeper fillings than the most luxurious mince pie. I’m not quite sure how this happened. The odds must have been nil, so of course, there was simply no other way. This is the story of digestive manifestation. My grand theory of everything, brought to you in a carefully prepared five course meal of a thousand words. Bon apetit.

First, the hors d’oeuvre. The starter. This sets the tone.

My mother came from a small place in central Germany. Her family had lived there since the day before the beginning of time. Mum could slice and dice an onion with the precision of a neuro-surgeon. She always held a knife in her silky smooth hand, a silver, scalpel thin pointy murder weapon, which she yielded in our kitchen like an executioner. Nobody dared to come near her when she was at work. Mum prepared the traditional recipes from her own mother’s dogeared, well thumbed cookbook, a wartime monstrosity – the book, to be sure, not my gran -, printed on paper so coarse it remained indestructible, practically still a tree, and forever growing. I remember, Mum sellotaped little notes full of new tips and tricks between the old, jaundiced pages of the bulging, bursting book, this yeasted dough of an ever expanding universe, quietly fermenting.

The original entries came in three flavours. First, the standard recipe. Second, a compromise, in case you were short of a few things. Third, a prayer, nothing but a wishlist full of ‘Ersatz’. Careful instructions on how to provide for a family, when the rations just wouldn’t stretch. Cakes made without eggs. No butter, no flour. Simply scoop up some sawdust from the shed floor, stir in hope, a sprinkle of goodwill, and then bake the lumpy mixture with the gentle heat of trust. An act of faith.

‘This will teach you all you’ll ever need to know’, Mum said. As a child, I was convinced the book covered alchemy and philosophy as well as slightly aspirational mock meat Sunday roasts. I learned the core skill of my ancestors: How to make something out of nothing. How to keep going, when you very nearly can’t, but must carry on for the sake of others. 

Now it’s time to bring in a light little dish to complement the first course.

My dad came from the small village next to mum’s insignificant home town. He, the robust son of a baker, represented the complete opposite to her sharp pointiness. Dad taught me everything through the blunt medium of bread. ‘Don’t be scared’ he said. ‘A loaf can’t be made by spectators. Also, never hurry, my dear. Bread demands patience, sourdough and rye’. Wheat was for weaklings, the quick and easy way out. ‘If you do understand bread and the need to wait, then life and love will be easy.’

Mum, the determined knife yielder, who could speed-chop root vegetables faster than a guillotine and dad, the patient kneader of deep dark bread, who could wait and wait and wait some more until the time was just right, they both made food a daily exercise, a practice in the content happiness of enough.

My parents taught me the foundations, good solid skills. There was something missing, though.

Course number three. Enter the main meal. Hearty sustenance full of flavours and delights.

Sometimes we find all we need in the seeds planted long before we were born. Sometimes we have to venture, seek out more and hope for chance encounters, the serendipidy of foccacia, ciabatta, naan and pitta bread. They sneaked into my life from the sidelines to prove that wheat was indeed not just for weaklings.

On my first journey to Florence I instantly recognized heaven. Not so much in the tricolore marble of the duomo, but in the red, white and green of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. I’ve not travelled to India yet. A little restaurant introduced me to the pleasures of the subcontinent, had me hooked and begging for more. I encountered the forbidden fruit of curiosity and the most marvelous, most dangerous fairy dust of spices. My stomach loved ginger and turmeric at the very first contact. Apparently, my heart was in desperate need of curry and chickpeas made my soul smile with glee and ghee.

Course number four. Bring out the cheese.

During my student days in France, my stomach got lined with unspeakably stinky, yet divinely delicious cheeses. Unsightly, oddshaped creations, placed on a wheatfest of baguette. Who knew paradise had a vein of blue mould running right through it? When I moved to Scotland twenty years ago, my wartime Germany inspired, eternally hopeful Indian Italian stomach-heart combo with a penchant for smelly brie, fell in love with my husband, neeps and tatties, Cranachan, flapjacks and all things oat.

I suppose, I’ve inadvertently reached course number five, the dessert trolley. Apple crumbles and custard, bread and butter puddings, baked Alaska and of course Tiramisu, always. Turns out, my belly has become a true citizen of the world over the years, a cosmopolitan, at home in many cultures, a polyglot, a mangetout. No prejudice, no pride – a philosopher happy to observe and learn.

We all eat. Sometimes we sow, we grow, prepare and stir, we chop, hope and then learn to wait for the magic.

My mum used to stick little notes into her mother’s old cookbook. I keep adding to this recipe collection, leave my trace for the next generation. I understand now, why the stomach sits so close to the heart. Food is a great teacher. An expression of time, the past, the present, the future, life and love, manifested. Tasty. Let’s savour it properly, for all that it’s worth.

After dinner mint, anyone?

-BRITTA BENSON

Britta Benson is a happiness & poetry blogging, circus skills instructing & common butterfly following German, a writer, performer & linguist thriving in Scotland, her chosen habitat since the year 2000. Read more of Britta’s work atBritta’s Blog – Letters from Scotland and Odds & Ends.

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. Terveen Gill says:

    Britta’s words are tastier than the foods she describes in her warm, witty, and comforting piece. We’ve all sought comfort and joy in our favorite foods. But Britta’s writing has taken food to a completely new level. It stands out as a personality that has its own nature, qualities, habits, and an allure of drawing people close together. The family recipe book takes me back to the days when my grandma and ma used to cook in the kitchen. The smells, the conversations, the laughter – it’s unforgettable. And the mention of Indian food made me smile wider than usual. I take pride in knowing that a lovely Scottish gal loves the cuisines of my homeland. Thank you for that and this wonderful creative piece.
    Congratulations Britta!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. brittabenson says:

      Thank you so much, Terveen. You always find such lovely words to describe my writing. I feel very honoured to be part of Masticadores India. Thanks for all your encouragement along the way. Family recipes are the best. They are treasures to pass on to the next generation. Tasty heirlooms. And then, we can venture out and make our own discoveries!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. jonicaggiano says:

    Congratulations I am so hungry right now. We learn many lessons from our families and I like how you blended them into the narrative. People who don’t experience food from all cultures are missing out. Big hugs, Joni

    Liked by 2 people

    1. brittabenson says:

      Sorry for making you feel hungry after reading this… As you can probably tell, I like my food. I love the fact that I can basically eat myself all the way across the world, one tasty plateful at a time. All in good measure, of course. Travelling through the medium of food became my hobby of choice during the pandemic, when all other travel was out of bounds. I experimented a lot and tried out many new recipes. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Joni.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jonicaggiano says:

        People who don’t try and expand their palate really miss out. Please don’t apologize for bringing back wonderful memories which I have associated with food too. I truly enjoyed your post. Blessings to you and your family. Hugs and love Joni ❤️🤗🦋🍰🥮🧁🧺

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Simply divine Britta. My gastric juices are flowing and, if there are such beasts as brain juices, heart juices, and lung juices, they too are flowing. Nay, overflowing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. brittabenson says:

      Thank you so much, Peter. Hope I haven’t made you too hungry.

      Liked by 1 person

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