Contributing writer: Camille CESBRON, Food Anthropologist
As we are all concentrating on essentials, food seems to recall an even greater place in our life. In Lebanon, Mouneh holds a central position in our diet but also in our hearts: it’s all about celebrating traditions and preserve nature’s goodness in a jar. In this article, we’re looking into the attachment to Mouneh products and how complex food acquisitions actually are to make Mouneh.
In her recently published book « Food in Cuba », Hanna Garth argues that Cuban, from all social background spend tremendous energy provisioning ingredients that reflect their cultural and national identities and they maintain an “intensely emotional” connection to their meals (Garth, H. 2020). This can be applied to Mouneh here: Lebanese would go great length to get Mouneh products or to find the right ingredients to make it and won’t settle for the most accessible items.
In recent interviews I conducted with middle class Beirutis, there was a clear reluctance to supermarket’s fresh products: they were often labelled as expensive, tasteless, full of pesticides and generally unsuitable for Mouneh. This behaviour can be interpreted as a “refusal to lower their standards for food they consume” (Garth, H. 2020) and a form of care towards the family members. Whilst the younger generation I interviewed satisfies itself with local produce from Beirut farmer’s markets, the older Beirutis often get their Mouneh produce from the producers in Bekaa or in Jabal, translating a desire to “maintain the connection between locality and food, reaching back to imagined, historic, and traditional culinary practices” (Garth, H. 2020), playing on intimate nostalgia to justify the demand to specific foods. Getting good quality fresh food is essential in the process of Mouneh production, but what is less valued and often overlooked in social sciences is the fact that foraging the right food requires time and knowledge. What knowledge are we talking about and how is it valued by individuals? We identify two types of acquisitions: first, already made Mouneh such as Kishk or sundried items and second fresh produces (herbs, vegetables, fruits) that eventually get transformed into Mouneh. By buying from the producers in bulk, the consumer makes sure to get the best quality for the best prices.
This forager knowledge is not given: it’s a complex patchwork of different experiences. It’s knowing what food tastes right and when it’s the best time to buy it. It’s also often an intricate network of producers, friends and side road stalls that each individual or family has created over the years. Therefore, family food systems are built around the reliance on a network of people and not just places.
So how do we explain such close ties between city dwellers and rural producers/retailers in Lebanon? First, the proximity to the mountain and the Bekaa makes the rural produce easily accessible from Beirut, most places are less than 2 hours-drive from the city. Second, many Beirutis are originally from outside Beirut, some will visit their family on weekends or for the holidays in the countryside, creating an opportunity for the city dwellers to acquire food. These two factors produce a unique continuity between the rural and the urban blurring the lines on the distinction of these two concepts.
It’s now clear that accessibility is not the only criteria when it comes to get food, quality and prices are two important factors that push people to create complex network of suppliers. Therefore, instead of often thinking in terms of food security, we need to consider that “the framework of adequacy can account for what is necessary beyond basic nutrition, prompting us to ask not whether a food system sustains life, but whether it sustains a particular kind of living” (Garth, H. 2020). Making Mouneh creates a strong sense of attachment because it is ultimately linked to Lebanese identity and traditions. Does our food system sustain Mouneh production? Or is it the other way round? The questions around food acquisitions are getting more attention when imports prices have gone up by 50% since 2019 and the Covid-19 situation, accentuated with the already critical economic situation in the country, hits household incomes very hard. Just last week the Agriculture PM Abbas Mortada has called the Lebanese to go work the land acknowledging the vital role of the agricultural sector in the country’s economy, more than ever. Lebanon is a tertiary economy and only 1% of the yearly budget is allocated to the agricultural sector. How these two major crises are going to change our food system? Without a strong agriculture, a system can collapse in the blink of an eye. We’ve got now the opportunity to build a strong food system that revolves around local production and can sustain our traditional food habits, strengthen the producers/ consumer networks and reduce our dependence on foreign imports.
Garth H. (2020) Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
MoA, 2014. Ministry of Agriculture Strategy 2015-2019