The one thing I never got used to in the US was the food. Tasteless chicken, tasteless beef, all-fat pork, syrupy pan-cakes, cheese, sweet maize (corn), lobster, raw spinach, rubbery hot-dogs, tofu and broccoli were some of the things I had to deal with. While at Stanford, I developed my own ‘default’ menu. If ever I walked into the dining hall and found that lasagna was the main dish, I’d head straight to the burger/hot-dog food station. At least I ate those quickly and immediately erased their memory with soft drinks.
But it wasn’t just dining hall food. I bought a $20 full chicken at a farmer’s market once. I’d heard of ‘full chicken’ before, but had never seen what it actually was. When I tried to slice this one, a reddish fluid seeped out. I lost all appetite threw the chicken out. And then I went to an all-Asian church and tried their rice-and-seedlings-swimming-deep-in-watery-soup. I never went back to the church. Seaweed turned out to be a bad idea too. Raw fish didn’t make the cut either, even when seasoned with wasabi. It was mostly bad, but I did have the occasional good meal – Italian meatballs and spaghetti, Chinese dumplings, and Mongolian beef and rice, to mention a lot. Still, undercooked but charred beef with cheese in a burger roll was the staple. With coke.
“Always try new food,” they said. That was my attitude when I one day visited Esther’s* grandparents during a Christmas break. She was a good friend and had invited me over for dinner. There, I had the horror of witnessing a crab boil to death in a large open pot while I got taught how to use crab-forks – small, double-toothed forks for exploring every fleshy part of a crab. When the monster was finally served, I failed to hide my dislike for it. “Add some mayonnaise,” they urged. I did, but it didn’t change anything. So they offered me cabbage. You see, even in Zimbabwe, I absolutely hate cabbage. But I ate it all night trying to avoid the crab. They were very impressed by my affinity for cabbage, but let-down a bit because I hadn’t eaten the crab. “You won’t like it,” they never said.
I vowed never to eat crab again, and turned down all subsequent offers. Moreover, I stopped trying any new food, instead opting for the tried and tested default menu – burgers, hot-dogs and soda. I was getting thin though (because I wasn’t eating much of the default food either). (I was so thin that, when I asked this girl if I could join her on her routine jogs, she stared at me from toe to head contemplatively before declaring, “No, I think you’re already fine.”) And so I ate more and more burgers, and hot-dogs, and pizza, and boiled eggs, and rice. I began to thoroughly detest dining hall food, and meals became unpleasant experience for me. How I missed Zimbabwean food! And how I craved non-dining hall food!
So, when Esther invited me to her grandparents’ home for a meal again, I leapt at the opportunity. They were great people, and I was genuinely excited to see them again. But one of the reasons I was excited was because I would get to eat something other than dining hall food. They seemed to know that because, when I got there, they were very excited to announce what they had on the menu. “We’ve got your favorite!” grandma exclaimed with a wide smile.
No, she wasn’t carrying a live crab. She was carrying the biggest head of cabbage I had ever seen.