Faces of FASEB

Food Is a Universal Language

Food is much more than nutrition. When you hear people talk about comfort food or how someone in their family used to prepare a dish, you hear them connecting with culture, memories, and loved ones. For Jennifer Marsh, who works in FASEB’s Office of Scientific Meetings and Conferences, it is one of the most meaningful and quickest ways to meet people.

Marsh grew up in San Diego, California. As an adult, she has lived in eight countries on five continents: the United States, England, Australia (twice, in Canberra and Melbourne), India, Tunisia, Jordan, Mexico, and Nigeria. Food has proven to be a fantastic way to learn the stories of how people live and the flavors that define a culture.

In India, Marsh provided great amusement at a wedding feast when she encountered tiny, innocent-looking chilis, magnitudes hotter than anything she had ever eaten. Her reaction made everyone around her laugh but also sparked stories where people tried to one-up each other about their experiences dealing with the heat.

While visiting Egypt, she and her family learned the Arabic phrase “fil mishmash,” فيل مشمش. It means “in your dreams.” Apricots are so popular in Egypt, but as fresh ones have a short season, people dream about them almost year-round. Saying this phrase in the marketplace, after hearing the starting price of an item, made people laugh, prices drop and sparked great conversations.

In Jordan, food was also a great icebreaker. While researching a walking tour, a butcher saw Marsh consulting a map on her phone and asked her if she was lost. He invited her into his shop to sip cokes and eat snacks while he told her the history of his neighborhood. He would not tell her any stories until the snacks arrived, and they had both tried the first bite.

The first time that Marsh tried Vegemite in Australia, she slathered it on like peanut butter—big mistake! Learning to appreciate Vegemite took down a barrier in the choir she had joined and established long-term friendships. When Marsh’s son Rhys moved to Sydney, Australia, during his gap year, Marsh’s Aussie choir friend, Andrew, welcomed Rhys into his home like his own son.

Food became a dividing issue for Marsh’s children when the family returned to the U.S. Their peers thought Radhika and Rhys were weird for never having eaten at Qdoba or other popular take-out spots. The family acquainted themselves with U.S. fast food the way they had learned about foods overseas—they had dived right in and tried it all.

COVID restrictions in Abuja, Nigeria, where Marsh most recently lived, made finding good ways into the culture a bit more challenging. By joining a book club that was truthfully more focused on what there is to eat, she learned a lot about growing up in Abuja (and that she enjoys egusi soup, jollof rice, and fried gizzards). So far, her favorite book has been The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma.

One of the things that Marsh has loved about working in FASEB’s Office of Scientific Meetings and Conferences pre-COVID is that so many colleagues loved food. Prior to COVID, people brought in goodies to share, and periodically they would order in, as many offices do. Their Lunar New Year feast was becoming a major event on the department calendar, and Marsh is hoping to celebrate it in person with her colleagues in 2023.

Food is a universal passkey for Marsh; as everyone eats, everyone has recipes, stories, and flavors to share. It opens the world and can bring people together.

Jennifer Marsh is the Analytics and Strategy Coordinator at FASEB’s Office of Scientific Meetings and Conferences.