America

America 5: “We’ve Got Your Favorite!”

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.

Bon Appetit!

*pseudonym

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20 thoughts on “America 5: “We’ve Got Your Favorite!”

  1. Just remember that we feel, as a whole, the same way about what passes for food in Zimbabwe as well. 🙂 Too many corn porridge with odd things in them, overcooked meets w/ oily spices…and WTF is that sour corn drink?????

    No, really! Food is the hardest part when traveling to a totally different culture. It’ll mess you up because it takes away any sense of a place and time of comfort and relaxation.

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    • I definitely agree. I always wonder what people think about our mopane worms…

      But what adds a whole level of excitement is when you have no choice but to eat that corn porridge/overcooked meat/sour corn drink/mopane worm…

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      • Most wouldn’t even touch them – food panic! I, on the other hand like them, either dry as a snack chip or in a spicy peanut sauce over rice…not in the corn porridge though. I’m from “The South” and we have our own corn porridge, grits. Yours is the perfect combination of similar and different to be unpalatable to me, as I imagine grits would be to you.

        As for excitement – that was my point. You don’t get a resting state when you have no choice but to eat that “wrong” food. That’s what makes it hard.

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        • Right on! In fact, a Southern friend of mine thought I’d like grits because I’m used to corn porridge, but I didn’t.

          I did love honey cornbread though. And of course Kentucky fried chicken was the bomb! Chain restaurant food yes, but still good!

          I also thoroughly enjoyed the food at this Cajun place…

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          • A friendly tip – Don’t wax rhapsodic over fried chicken in the US. You’re feeding a nasty and sort of false stereotype.

            That you liked the Cajun place doesn’t surprise me though. I seem to remember – it’s been 20+ years – that Zimbabwean food is much more heavily seasoned / spiced than the US norm.

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              • That Black people LOVE fried chicken. And, of course, meeting one stereotype just reinforces the others…

                I personally find it stupid. Yes, in the US, Blacks seem to like fried chicken more consistently than Whites do – along with watermelon and many other foods. The thing is that Southerners of any color tend to like those foods and when many Blacks moved north after our civil war they brought their tastes in food with them.

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                • Ooooh that. You know, I ‘discovered’ my love for fried chicken well before I realized that was a stereotype in the US. In fact, I was oblivious of the whole thing. Even when I asked this girl from Texas who went to my church to teach me a little bit of “the Southern accent.” You know the phrase she taught me to say? “I would like some fried chicken.” And there I was proudly saying it out to everyone at her encouragement.

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