In the States as a child, I was often reminded of my “Clean Plate Club” membership and encouraged to eat everything I had been served. This was a common childhood memory among friends in college – most of our relatives had pushed us to eat entire meals, not to leave anything on the plate. This is probably because in the U.S., uneaten food, at least if it had already been served onto a plate, is usually thrown away. The “Clean Plate Club” comes at least in part as an effort to reduce food waste, but the United States is one of the worst offenders of wasting food: about 40% of food in America is uneaten and thrown out.
The pressure to eat everything on my plate in Kyrgyzstan feels very different from my days as a kid at my aunt’s house (hey Julie). It’s not so much “There are starving kids out there in the world!” as “Don’t you like my cooking?” My host mom piles mounds of plov or half a role of oromo onto my plate before I can defend myself. If I only get through half the dish, I’m questioned about whether I’m sick or didn’t like the food – what other reason could there be for me not finishing my meal?
For my first month here, I’ve felt guilty at the dinner table when I can’t finish all the food I’m served. But slowly I’m realizing that the pressure to clean my plate here is much different than at home – if there is food left, it will not be thrown away and wasted. Maybe it’ll be fed to animals on the street or on my host dad’s farm, maybe it will be added to another dish. Or, another person who hasn’t had dinner yet or didn’t get enough to eat will scoop it onto their plate.
This sort of food sharing is called geshik. It’s not just an act of kindness to share food with someone; it’s potentially a life-altering, character-shaping moment. To feed someone food directly off your plate is to transfer specific skills (polyglotism, athleticism) or character traits (sense of humor, kindness).
The other night, I sat down to my fourth plate of plov in a day and just… couldn’t. I nibbled a bit at the rice and chicken, but with three quarters of the food still on my plate, I wanted to leave the table. So, when my host sister Samira walked in, I offered to scoop everything from my plate onto hers. My host mother was thrilled – “Sami! Take it from Colleen Eje. She reads so quickly, she knows languages, she came to Kyrgyzstan, and so you can go to America!” and my other host sister, Albina, was jealous. “Can’t I have a little bit, Samira?” My host mother shushed her, saying, “No, you’ll just get married and have children and stay in Kyrgyzstan.” While there’s nothing wrong with that life path, I still think I’ll make sure Albina gets some geshik too in the next few days.
In Kyrgyzstan, don’t clean your plate; share the wealth instead.