Food, perhaps more than anything, gives us a sense of who we are. In this series, regular blogger Victoria Brown interviews traders about the foods that are important to them, and how their experiences of food have shaped their identity. This month: Anne Gumuschian of Le Marché du Quartier
Words: Victoria Brown
“I was always very curious about migration, and how food becomes extremely instrumental in the way that people recreate their home abroad,” says Anne Gumuschian, trader at Le Marché du Quartier, who grew up in Grenoble in the south-east of France. She is a warm and vibrant woman with an inquisitive nature, eyes that sparkle with interest and a deep and hearty laugh that puts me instantly at ease.
When I ask her where she calls home, she says “home is definitely London now, because I’ve been here quite a few years”—but as we continue to talk, it becomes clear that her identity is still very much shaped by her cultural heritage.
For Anne, identity is fluid and contextual. Her father is the son of Armenian migrants, who settled in France having fled their homeland to escape the genocide in 1915; her mother has both French and Italian roots. Anne’s heritage gives her a rich cultural repertoire to pick and choose from, depending on where she is and whom she’s speaking to: her home is London. Yet in London, she is French.
When she talks about “home France”, her memories focus on time spent in the kitchen with her female kin, picking fruit in her grandparents’ garden, and Sunday lunches with the whole family.
However, when I ask her about the foods that remind her of home, she is very clear that her Armenian heritage has been the most influential. In France, she says, it becomes more important to assert her Armenian identity.
“Life was in the kitchen,” she says. “I was always involved in helping out in one way or another.” This is how she learned to cook—watching and assisting her mother and grandmother. I imagine it is also where she developed her sense that cooking and eating should be a communal experience—something to take joy in sharing—which is reflected in the dishes Anne likes to cook.
A basic Armenian meal is made up of lots of mezze dishes, such as borek, roasted peppers, deep fried aubergines, aubergine puree, meatballs, okra, lamb cutlets, tabbouleh (“of course”), breads, chillies and pickles. These are “the foods I can make with my eyes closed.”
Even when Anne isn’t cooking Armenian food, a communal ethos comes through. In preparing food she considers the people she’s eating with, where they will be eating and “even if there’s only two of us for dinner, I always buy and make food for about 10 people.”
We may not be conscious of it, but we all use food as a way of building family, social and cultural ties. Cooking for people, eating food cooked by others, sharing food, sitting around a table; all of these acts say something about who we are.
“Food can be an instrument to present yourself to the world, but it can also be a way to make sure you don’t lose your identity,” Anne continues. “What is normally ordinary, becomes extraordinary abroad.”
When Anne’s grandparents were forced to flee their homeland, food became an important way of recreating “a little piece of home, abroad”. Two generations on, Anne can afford to be more sanguine: “I didn’t migrate for the same reasons as they did. It was a choice and it was fun to play with my identity. It was probably more out of necessity for them.”
Food, family and hospitality
Anne’s approach to cooking and eating echoes a childhood in which food, family and hospitality took centre stage. While she does it “unconsciously”, meeting around the table, whether in France or in London, and recreating sensations that she had “back home” is a vital tool for self-expression.