restricted access 4. The Place of Wealth
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49«.«.« 4 ».».» The Place of Wealth Food in Abundance We took our seats at the table outside the church amid a flurry of activity. The three-hour liturgy at which two men had been ordained pastors in the Protestant church had concluded with blessings from several of the clergy in attendance, including me, a Catholic priest. Now the visiting pastors were doffing their suit coats and loosening their ties as they seated themselves for the lunch that was to follow the ordination. Women moved back and forth around the table making sure that everyone was in his proper place and that the food was laid out properly. In front of me, as I sat down, was a very large plastic basin overflowing with food of all kinds: a five-pound bag of sugar, a large bottle of soy sauce, cans of sardines and meat, packages of cookies, a whole broiled chicken in Saran Wrap, a bag containing a dozen fresh rolls, two plastic bottles of soda, and a number of other items. I looked with amazement at the container and started to rummage through it looking for something to eat. One of the women serving us stopped me and asked if perhaps I would like a sandwich to eat or perhaps a little sliced breadfruit. I picked up a tuna fish sandwich and had just started eating it when the men around me began rising from the table. Lunch was finished, barely fifteen minutes after we had seated ourselves. I stood to leave and went to the head of the table to thank our hosts. As I did, one of the women instructed me to wait until she got one of the young men to carry my fifty-pound bag of rice to my car. So three of us headed to the car—myself with a half-eaten sandwich in 50 Chapter 4 hand, a boy carrying the basin of foodstuffs that had been at my place at table, and another young man hauling the bag of rice. Micronesian generosity is legendary. Any visitor to the islands can recount tales of island largesse: attending parties and being provided with much more food than he could possibly eat, sometimes being sent off with enough to feed his family for a week. We old-timers in Chuuk always chuckled when a host announced, with typical island modesty, that he had not prepared much for his guests, just “a little bread and some water.” We knew by that time what to expect as platter after platter of food was brought out along with an assortment of drinks. The eyes of the newcomers among us would widen as they began to realize that what they expected to be a modest repast was in fact a sumptuous feast. But just in case some of the guests were not able to eat the breadfruit and taro and fish served as the main course, there was also broiled chicken, sandwiches, and cookies. Food has always held a central place in island culture. “Come and eat” or “Have you eaten?” was once the standard greeting to a passerby in place of a hello. It was an invitation to stop by and share food with the people of that household. When a family was undergoing hardship of any sort, especially when they had lost someone to death, neighbors responded by showing their concern in the form of food gifts to the family. Food gifts were a gesture of support to those in distress; they were an assurance of solidarity when shared within the family; they were everywhere a sign of care and a token of love. To provide food for someone was to nourish that person, to show that you valued that person highly. To share food with another household was to strengthen and seal the bond of affection between your family and that household. In Micronesia it was the shared food itself, not the act of eating together, that was significant as a bonding element. The food might simply be wrapped and presented to the recipients to be used when and how they wanted. Generally, the sharing of food in the islands did not take the form of the conviviality of an Italian family enjoying a meal that may last all Sunday afternoon, bubbling with conversation the whole time. Families rarely ate together as family groups, and when they did they usually did not intersperse conversation with eating . As the late Fr. Felix Yaoch often recalled, Palauans used...