The Albanian Hunger Games Part II: A Better Fire in the Kitchen?

While my blog primarily focuses on questions of belonging, race, and identity, I am also exploring ways to capture stories from my  fieldwork experiences and connecting them to larger questions about ethnography. That being said, I share here some interactions with one of my closest friends. 

I mentioned Mrs. B. in my previous post about the hunger games, the one in which I I first termed the phrase “Albanian Hunger Games.” Well I’m back now with what I’m calling Part Two, and almost named “Catching Qofte” (qofte is an Albanian meatball). 

So Mrs. B. loves to cook — really she lives for it. I’m not sure if there is anything in this world that makes her happier than cooking, and she’s wonderful at it. Here’s a typical recap of lunch at her house:

Mrs. B.: Mireserdhe! (Good that you’ve come, or welcome). The table is ready and I’m just heating the soup, it’s such a good soup. Full of vegetables, a very light soup. 

We do the usual questions and updates: family check, health, how work is going, what we have done the past couple of days, comments on the weather. I ask her if I can help her prepare and she shoots me down as always, and acts so surprised that I would even ask, as her guest. We have been friends for almost six years. 

Mrs. B: We’re ready now. Only a small lunch today: soup, salad, byrek (like a pie) with beans, fish, cabbage, and peppers. Ju bëftë të mirë (bon appetite). 

Me: Bless your hands for preparing. 

And then we start eating. 

Mrs. B: (After eating a few bites) Look at how wonderful this soup is, such a good soup. And the vegetables came out beautiful. Chelsi, make sure you eat all that salad, it’s so fresh. I walked far to get it, from a village woman who you can trust. You can’t trust everybody when it comes to buying salad. 

I take more salad. 

Mrs. B: And finish those peppers too, because I won’t eat them later. You are hardly eating anything. Don’t forget I made a lot of byrek so you can take some home with you. And I made it by hand, none of that store-bought stuff. And this fish, isn’t this fish good? I prepared it well. I got it special, and at such a good rate. 

She continues eating, smiling, and singing to herself. She loves to feed people and gets so much joy out of food. The only time she stops to speak about something else is to point and yell at the political commentators on TV, for being so corrupt and betraying the people of Albania. There’s one woman in particular that she always calls a witch. I don’t even know her name but whenever I see her now on TV, I too think ‘witch’. 

Alright, so that’s what a lot of our lunches look like. We eat, catch up, she tells me stories about her childhood and her late husband. And we conclude with Turkish coffee or mountain tea. Now Mrs. B. is involved with a retired woman’s group, which consists mostly of women age 65 years and older. They meet at a center near her house, for casual conversations and activities. Sometimes they have coffee together, other times they take walks, and every now and then they take organized trips. Well one day one of the women suggested that they have a group outing to a restaurant here in Tirana. Her son is the manager there, and she claimed they had some of the best food in Tirana. All of the women had to agree to pay a fixed price and they would organize the meal with the cooks. When I saw Mrs. B. a couple of days before the outing she was excited about it, though I know that at times she, like many Albanians and especially older ones, are skeptical of eating out. What I mean is, Americans in comparison eat out often (and not necessarily just those with more money), whereas relatively speaking, Albanians do not do so as much, though many more are doing it now than were twenty years ago. My mom and I once took Mrs. B to a restaurant here in Tirana and she put on a front there, raving about how good everything was, but then a few weeks later asked me if I went to get my money back because the food was so awful. 

So, when I went back to her house the week following her group outing, and asked her how it turned out, she said, “Terrible!” The food was just unacceptable, completely subpar. She said that the woman tricked her, and that she could have made everything better at her house. Apparently it was so bad that in the end, Mrs. B. only ate pilaf (rice) because she couldn’t stand the food. After this occurred she told the story to everybody, and I mean everybody. I have heard it at least five times. Now, perhaps she was being a bit overdramatic, but I must say that I admire her passion for food. And in many ways it’s funny, especially this story she keeps retelling. The food gets worse every time the story is retold.  

This weekend though? I share all of this because Mrs. B. has set me up to play the hunger games and I don’t think I am ready to compete. For you see, Mrs. B. has invited me to her friend’s 80th birthday party, and I am delighted to be her guest. For this party, the family has rented out a place in Tirana, complete with a large dance floor and live musicians. Mrs. B. is really excited because she loves to dance. There’s just one problem though — she doesn’t trust their food to be any good. Word on the street is that it is not. So what’s her solution? I’m going to arrive at her house two hours before the party and we’ll have lunch together, a “light” lunch that she’s preparing, so as to not take any chances. BUT, this is not good for me, because I have been to parties and weddings before, and like usual, people are going to watch to see what I eat, and how much I eat of it. I have heard people whisper things like, “The American, does she like our food?” or “Let’s hope to God she is pleased with the food we serve.” When I do not eat, whether at an event or someone’s house, especially at someone’s house, then the host tries to find something that I would prefer to eat instead, since I must eat something (i.e. see the first post on the hunger games). And as many of you already know, even when you’ve even a lot, people think you haven’t eaten anything. Not to mention how people will make you eat and eat, but then tell you how much weight you have gained (I’ll save that for another post). Mrs. B. has already set the plans for Saturday though, and called me today to ensure that I will be over early. Let’s see what happens.