Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Hunger for Taste

Since our group had decided not to leave the Busara Festival grounds to find dinner, we had some snacks to keep us going. Three paper plates later we were satisfied and left the litter on the ground next to us for later disposal- the festival organizers had forgotten to put bins out. I was zoning out mildly at that point, I think the Ugandan troupe was on (great drumming but seriously chaotic transitions) when a couple of young boys came and sat near us and to the front. I thought I was imagining things when a small hand darted out to grab a water bottle, quick as a snake. It was empty, although the paper plates were not: three quarters of a puffy naan, one and a half vegetable samosas, chilli sauce- the remains of our meal.

An older boy, this one alone, came and sat to our left. He had been carting a crate around collecting empty bottles but he set it down and sat on it, ostensibly to enjoy the music. This time I was ready. Sure enough, he casually reached over to appropriate the samosas but found himself blocked off by the boys who had come over earlier. They had a stiff staring contest, and I have to say that the young boys were infinitely more fearsome than the teenager. He backed down. All of this happened quietly, at the very periphery of our group, easily missed.

Just that afternoon we had had a discussion about the crappy food critics in the papers. As I declaimed from my soapbox about the fluctuating quality of food in Paradisan restaurants, someone brought me up short and said that maybe it wasn’t appropriate to worry about things like food criticism in a country where many people can’t afford one balanced and nourishing meal per day. Point taken: perhaps food criticism can be painted as self-indulgent bourgeois decadence. But then again, perhaps not. Ironically, we battled it out over a fantastic lunch at a spot overlooking the sea.

There is a deeper point to be made here. When is it appropriate to care about what we put in our mouths, to make that a mission? Food is one of the most democratic of sensory experiences, and is the stuff of life itself. I have only ever been truly, deeply hungry once to date, and I cannot recommend it. The twist, of course, is that at the time I was surrounded by relatives who deliberately let me starve. I suspect they enjoyed it, our little family iteration of class warfare. Sure, food is about meeting a basic need. But it is also about the politics of a clan, a society. When I ate again in friendlier surroundings, after my encounter with starvation, I shared three tiny fish over steamed bananas with two other women. Barely a fingertip of salt, and I don’t know if we even had cooking oil, but the love with which it was seasoned made it one of the unforgettable meals of my life.

There is of course the idea that food criticism belongs to those who obsess about the thickness of a home-made mayonnaise, or slurping down perfect Kobe beef burgers stuffed with blue cheese and truffles. There is a time and place for that, just as there is a time and place for hand-tooled Italian leather shoes and precision Swiss watches with kinetic mechanisms. But a true gourmand is omni-voracious and can tell you that there is as much pleasure to be found a simple soup as there is in foamed sauces.

Those boys who were scavenging our leftovers don’t have the time to give a shit about whether the pastry on the samosas they filched was crisp or soggy. That much is undeniable. In a perfect world, they would have someone to make sure they ate right. Someone should care about whether their bowl of beans had enough coconut milk, if it was too thin. Someone should remember to slip them their favorite treats whenever possible: grilled shrimp from Forodhani perhaps, or a square of halwa. Someone should love them through their palate*.

Tasting love and celebrating life through the palate- this is, in the end, what an obsession with good food is really about. I believe that even the meanest slum, the meanest village has a natural gourmet, someone who will take the time to make her ugali smoother perhaps, or his brewed beer particularly satisfying, or his stew deliciously fatty. It is a talent, like an eye for color or perfect pitch. Perhaps the real bourgeois sin is to think that that They, Those Others, are too damn Poor to appreciate the fundamental pleasure of food the way that We the Rich can apparently afford to do. Really?

* I have to plug this book: Delicious by Sherry Thomas is probably the ultimate gift for the gourmande slash romance reader in your life. Her characters’ relationships to food are poetry and philosophy all at once.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm. That story reminds me of a time many years back, when we went on a beach picnic with family friends, and had packed way too much food. The mums decided to give the remaining stuff to some kids who had been hanging around, taking the piss of our little outing. I was against the idea, not just coz of their behaviour, but I thought it came across as an embarrassing hand-out - here's our left-overs! So I refused to give out, the maternals did it, and were sharply rejected - we don't need your left-overs. Still makes me cringe to remember.
    Move on to rather more recently, and me and the sis are having a bite on the beach (yes, again) and these two kids, clean and well-fed, come and ask for some of our food. Changing times/mores.

    Anyway, yes, I agree that it's a bit insular/holier-than-thou to think that only We can appreciate good food and They can't. On any mtaa, there will be the go-to person for maandazi, another for vitumbua, another for chapati, etc., though just about every woman worth her salt there can make them all.

    That comment also reminded me of friends who were at a bar, and a save-africans-from-themselves type questioned their spending X-thousand shillings on drinks when there's the Poors in "your very own backyard". Apparently we're fiddling as Rome burns while telling the Poors to eat cake. Or something. And yet, there she was too, not saving Africans from themselves. Or maybe she was!


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