round pieces of flatbread with stamped images

A Taste of the Middle East

A Taste of the Middle East

A group of Williams students recently gathered in the First Congregational Church’s kitchen to prepare loaves of bread. They didn’t use mixers or food processors—just their hands, an ancient recipe for holy bread and a set of wooden Greek, Coptic and Syrian bread stamps borrowed from their professor, Febe Armanios.

As they kneaded and stamped and dusted the loaves with flour, concepts from Armanios’ class, Food in the Middle East: A History, began to snap into focus.

“We learned about the meanings and history behind bread stamping and the religious aspect of the eucharist in several different denominations,” says Rachel Morrow ’22, an Arabic studies major. “Especially in a field of study that is so sensory, creating that history in a kitchen allowed a deeper understanding and experience.”

Armanios is spending the year at Williams as the Bennett Boskey Distinguished Visiting Professor of History. She is a professor of history and co-director of the Axinn Center for the Humanities at Middlebury College. Her research focuses on the history of Christian communities in the Middle East, but she also integrates interdisciplinary elements, such as food and media studies.

She first developed the Food in the Middle East course nearly 10 years ago, when she was the only Middle East historian at Middlebury. In the years following 9/11 and the onset of the Iraq War, she says the subject became overwhelming to teach.

“I was constantly teaching things that tied back to important but grave and serious topics,” she says. “I thought students were missing out on the cultural flavor of the Middle East—how people experienced life.”

Last year, a history professor at Williams approached Armanios about the department’s visiting professorship. In adapting the food history course at Williams, she has been able to incorporate books from the library’s Special Collections, such as a history and geography of the spice trade and several modern cookbooks on Middle Eastern and North African cookery.

Teaching the class has also given Armanios the opportunity to connect with one of her own friends and mentors, Darra Goldstein, the Willcox B. and Harriet M. Adsit Professor of Russian, Emerita, at Williams and a leader in culinary history education who has authored several significant cookbooks.

Food studies is often overlooked as a serious area of study, Armanios says, even though it offers a lens through which to study gender, trade, economics, colonialism, food nationalism and more. But she wanted to take those lessons a step further by offering a series of kitchen labs as an experiential component.

“You can’t teach food without trying it,” she says. “Food is also an entryway to many of the issues I talk about in my so-called ‘regular’ classes. It allows you to see people in history differently, to imagine their experience as agents, as historical actors, as part of a connected world, as part of empires. It’s different than reading about a sultan who ruled from this period to that period.”

Three students in front of a kitchen counter work with dough and flat circles of bread. One is cutting out the circles from the dough, and two are using wooden stamps to make an impression.
Students use bread stamps in a kitchen lab for the course Food in the Middle East: A History.

In addition to the bread-stamping workshop, Armanios has held kitchen labs on marzipan, coffee, and herbs and spices, and students have tested medieval Islamic recipes.

“What made the kitchen labs so great,” says economics major Omar Ahmad ’23, “is we can take these recipes that are centuries old and put ourselves in the shoes of the cooks to gain a deeper understanding of their tastes and how they may resemble or differ from those tastes that are popular today.”

The kitchen labs have made the class a favorite among her students—at both Williams and Middlebury—whether they’re majoring in Arabic studies or simply love to cook.

Tiffany Chhuor ’22, an economics major who comes from a family of restauranteurs, says she took the class to delve into the academic side of food and was also interested in its medicinal qualities. She discovered links to Chinese medicine in Middle Eastern spices.

Noting the connections between the medicinal properties of food and its movement through the spice trade, Chhuor says: “Our ancestors and those of Middle Eastern descent used food as a way to heal their bodies. I grew up with that, but I didn’t know there was another culture that did the same thing.”

Just as Armanios hoped nearly a decade ago, the students are leaving with not only enhanced cooking prowess but a more expansive understanding of Middle Eastern culture and history.

“It’s important to understand the Middle East not as a monolithic entity,” Ahmad says. “Given how much history has shaped what people have decided to cook and eat, a single dish’s ingredients and cooking techniques can reflect centuries of history, cultures and identities.”

Febe Armanios explains the history of mansaf, a Jordanian dish of rice and lamb, in this article from NorthJersey.

Kim Catley is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va. Photographs provided by Febe Armanios.