Cultural Transport: A Consideration on Food and Branding

Sipa-Couscous-Faris-Habayeb

We thrive in a transcontinental, food-obsessed world. We have become obsessed with the stories that diagram the journey our food makes before it lands on our plates and into our bellies. Asserting allegiance to either pretention or food integrity—you decide, we gush at sourced ingredients like sea salt from France, or anything with the seal of Denominazione di Origine Protetta from Italy.

In my travels through time and space, particularly at supermarkets or bodegas, I learned of an appreciation on the other side of the food chronicle. That is the impact price; packaging, graphics, and branding have on our journeys to sustenance. Nourishment is as metaphysical as it is a chemical reaction necessitated for survival. Color, type, graphics, and substrate are the means of transport that parcel our daily provisions. Further, their respective sensations signal the cultural and socio-economic, asserting, or alienating the consuming ethos.

As a young boy I recall patrolling the aisles of jam3iyat Al-Hilal in Doha with my father. Often, he would be on the hunt for the best deal on a gallon of Rafael Salgado Spanish olive oil. It didn’t matter if we already had plenty at home. Such vast volumes of olive oil meant my mother had to become creative in considering the spaces this oil was stowed, the most peculiar being behind my parents’ bed. As a result of my father’s obsession with grocery shopping, our kitchen was constantly abundant with tomatoes, onions, fruit, and other edibles.

My parents often bickered about my father’s over shopping. At times I was left wondering if another Gulf War was looming. In recent years, the look and feel of the Rafael Salgado gallon has changed. Today it is mostly golden, signaling the preciousness of its Spanish provenance. But when I was a child, I recalled the gargantuan structure possessing an elegant, grayish-green hue that made up for much of the gallon’s real estate. The characters “R” and “S” were also stylized accordingly, ushering an inaugural exercise in typography and a penchant for a deliciously nutty olive oil.

Going to the jam3iyeh in Doha in the 1990’s was ritual for every kid in town. Sometimes this took place right after school, before going home for lunch. This meant one could survey the impressive rows and columns of food and produce in uniform. Mine being a blue plaid, short-sleeved button up with navy trousers to match. In this assessment of edibles, grew an irresistible interest in brands.

Etched in memory is the French couscous Sipa, which you can still find today. While the design signals colonial nuances—there is a camel on the box it is packaged, I was always drawn to its simplicity and use of color. Most clever was the repetition of the camel on the box’s foreground. At the jam3iyeh, where multiple units of Sipa were exhibited in horizontal sequence, one could marvel at the jigsaw tapestry of what became a caravan of camels. If we were lucky enough to buy more than one box of the stuff, I would often emulate this display, albeit on a miniature scale, in my mother’s kitchen. It never ceased to delight.

Then there was Clara. More than a discontinued product, she is an extinct variety of vegetable ghee that will always be fixed firmly in mind. I am uncertain as to why Clara no longer exists. Her presence was both beatific and iconic. To describe Clara one must envision an elaborate illustration, bust-like, beaming with full, glossy, red lips and styled hair. She had a magnificent sensibility, contrasted against a tin that was painted blue. If there were such a thing as an artifact of Arab Pop Art, this was it. But more than that, Clara summoned my mother. Canonized for household martyrdom, she was perfect in her sensibilities, making peace with my father’s quirks, embodying the aspirational female Arab champion, often marketed on television by way of vegetable oil and American laundry detergent.

Words and Illustration by Faris Habayeb

This illustration and article first appeared in [wherever] magazine, issue OO.

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