Food as Thought: Multispecies Reflections on Food from Egypt’s Rooftops

Noha Fikry

Just Food Conference Proceedings 2021

Every fieldwork visit comes with its meal. Every morning I spent on a rooftop in urban Egypt comes with a freshly prepared hot meal that my interlocutors serve as a gesture of hospitality. Given the policed research climate in Egypt—social research is seen as a potential national threat and often met with some suspicion—I relied on my mother to accompany me to the first visits to my fieldwork homes. During every first visit, one conversation recurred:

After a few minutes sat with Malak, my mother (hereafter, mama) began her usual speech: “You know, Malak, Noha is so difficult to please when it comes to food. I always struggled to find recipes to satisfy her picky food habits. She doesn’t eat red meat at all, except for minced meat so heavily seasoned that you don’t get the slightest taste of meat. She only eats chicken, but not just that, it is only chicken breasts that she accepts. Her food habits are disastrous.” Malak laughs so intensely, while staring at me in surprise: “You are missing out on a lot. We will have to work on changing those food habits,” assuring mama that her food will make me change my mind. Mama shakes her head with certainty, warning Malak of my heavy-headedness. I smile in fieldwork-awkwardness. Malak quickly concludes: “Okay, macaruna béchamel and firakh pané[1] it is, then, although this is such a poor choice.” Mama smiles in relief. (Fieldnotes, July 15, 2017)

Much more than fieldwork small talk, these moments of joking over my food habits, or inquiring about my meat intake, were central to my interlocutors’ understanding of rooftops and the importance of rooftop multispecies relations for their food. Intrigued by these conversations over meals and the critique of [my] upper-middle class food sensibilities,  I use this essay to take food as thought through paying closer attention to the values associated with food vis-à-vis my positionality as an upper-middle class researcher among working and lower-middle class families.

On a number of rooftops in urban Egypt, lower-middle and working class families rear a variety of animals—including chickens, goats, rabbits, and geese—for household sustenance. This takes place in extended family homes that are four-to-five stories high. Given their class background, my interlocutors always complained of a lack of access to “clean” meat proteins, since most of the available sources are either too expensive or too suspiciously cheap or frozen. They thus resort to raising their own meat and poultry through capitalizing on their rooftops to secure most of their household meat intake. Hospitality to guests is uncompromisable in Egypt, usually best expressed through food. Since my fieldwork visits stretched to full mornings, it was most appropriate for my interlocutors to serve me a full meal of carbohydrates and proteins at least once a week, which can be very costly. The conversation above, while factually true, was our indirect way of managing this cost of fieldwork meals. Through highlighting my picky, but remarkably uncostly, food habits, mama made sure that my interlocutors always serve me the least financially burdensome food items.

This monotony of fieldwork meals and my food choices were always the object of sarcasm and lamenting critique from my interlocutors. They usually asked why I hated red meat or why I always chose chicken breasts only. Their theory was that I never liked red meat, because I never reared my own meat. They usually asked if I ever knew where our household meat comes from or what it was fed, and I would always shrug in total ignorance. They thus contrasted my upper-middle class way of purchasing red meat to their intimate multispecies ways of nurturing and growing their own meat intake.

Primarily a female domain, rooftops are where women practice intimate knowledge of their household food. Rearing and nurturing rooftop animals is how women provide trusted and well-nourished meals to their families. Nurturing rooftop animals includes love, but more importantly controlling feed to these animals. Mainly relying on household leftovers and fodder, women spend hours preparing rooftop meals everyday, which ensures a particular taste of rooftop animals. The value of these rooftop animals mostly lies in [knowing] their past—rooftop animals’ intricately-known, nurtured, and controlled feed is what gives them their distinctive taste. By contrast, my interlocutors pointed to the lack of awareness of an animal’s feed among upper-middle classes who rely on store-bought proteins, which are usually fed fishmeal and meat leftovers that result in a compromised taste. For my interlocutors, this compromised taste is the main reason of my abstinence from red meat. Unlike buying a chicken or a goat from a butcher or a market, then, rearing my own animals on rooftop ensures their distinctive taste, since I control and carefully prepare the feed of my food.  

On urban rooftops in Egypt, gendered multispecies relations between women and animals are what allow women to feed their families well. In a country where lower-middle and working class families cannot afford trusted meat proteins, it is women who use their rooftops as critical sites of food provisioning. Beyond cost, however, rooftop rearing exposes an understanding of taste as dictated by the quality of an animal’s feed, that which upper-middle classes are incapable of realizing through store-bought proteins. These reflections came about through taking food as thought, by paying close attention to fieldwork small talk over meals and lunches. Rooftop food, in its relations of provisioning, feeding, preparing, and serving, provides valuable insight on class inequalities, researcher positionality, and multispecies relations in contemporary Egypt.

[1] Macaruna Béchamel is a casserole of penne pasta cooked with béchamel, a thick white sauce, and minced meat. Firakh pané is another culinary staple in Egyptian households made of homemade fried boneless chicken breasts. Together, pasta and firakh pané are arguably the closest to a contemporary Egyptian “national dish”. Whenever a mother is bored of cooking or runs out of ideas, the quickest and easiest answer is pasta and firakh pané which supposedly do not take much time, ingredients, or cooking skills to put together.

Noha Fikray is a PhD student of sociocultural anthropology with a specialization in food studies at the University of Toronto. She is interested in food, human-animal relations, and rural-urban food linkages in Egypt and elsewhere. Noha’s PhD research explores human-animal relations of food and household rearing practices among small farmers in rural Egypt.