Food for thought

Author Victoria Williamson
Author Victoria Williamson

Ahead of Book Week Scotland, author of 'The Fox Girl and White Gazelle', Victoria Williamson talks about tastes from home, how food influenced her debut novel and why she’s getting behind Scottish Refugee Council’s new fundraising appeal.

I first realised how important the flavours and smells of home were when I worked as a VSO volunteer teacher in Cameroon, West Africa. The food there was so different from anything I’d eaten before – boiled fufu corn and Njama njama (a kind of fried huckleberry leaf), rice and bean stew, ‘foot cow’ pepper soup, and egusi pudding (ground seed paste with dried crayfish).

The food I struggled most to get used to was achu and yellow soup. This unfamiliar dish was a grey, volcano-shaped mound of pounded coco yam with a play-doh like consistency, and thick yellow soup with a crushed limestone base. The first time I ate it the only way I could swallow it down was to take a big gulp of water with each bite! Try as I might to avoid it over the next two years, it turned up regularly at the end of each long school meeting, prepared by some of the female staff. We’d share a drink and a laugh together over our meal, and eventually I learned to tolerate and then grow strangely fond of the grey and yellow food that I’d struggled to swallow at first.

Towards the end of my time in Cameroon, I found my mind wandering in class when lunchtime approached, but it wasn’t the rice and beans I enjoyed so much at the local chop house I was thinking about. I couldn’t get the thought of my mother’s shepherd’s pie and cherry scones out of my head. There were times I’d even think longingly of the oxtail soup she used to make for lunch when my brothers and I would come running home from primary school, which was odd, as I didn’t even like oxtail soup!

In the months after I returned to the UK, I got to eat all of the food I’d missed – my mother’s homemade cooking, spaghetti Bolognese, moussaka, chille con carne and chocolate cake. But one day as I finished teaching a maths class just before lunch, I realised a strange thing. Instead of fantasising about the pasta and pizza, fish and chips or baked potatoes in the canteen, all I could think about was a big plate of achu and yellow soup!

That was when I finally understood. It wasn’t about the food at all. It was about the people I’d shared the food with that made the memories of it so powerful.

This experience helped me to write my debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, about a Syrian refugee who makes friends with a Glaswegian school bully. Both characters have very strong feelings about the food that reminds them of happy times with their family, and sharing their favourite food with each other helps them to bond despite their differences.

Food can play a very big part in bringing people from different cultures together, which is why I’m supporting the Scottish Refugee Council’s ‘Tastes from Home’ appeal. During my school visits over the next few months, I’ll be talking to pupils about their favourite food and why it’s so important to them, and encouraging schools to hold their own fundraising lunches and tasting sessions. I hope pupils taking part will learn the same lesson that I did from my time working abroad: that no matter where we come from, our thoughts and opinions of the food we eat are shaped by the people we share it with, and some of the best memories and friendships can be made around the dinner table.

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