I found a food store store the other day, in a mall, and I thought I was in America.
I walked in and there was Lindt’s chocolate, gourmet spelt, coconut healthy junk food, expensive candles and organic towels, rows of lotions made in California. I rubbed my fingers over the yoga mats semi-reverently. I found a tiny bag of black beans tucked into a dusty corner, and bought it along with some fancy American cherry chapstick.
Then I wanted more: soymilk, whole wheat tortillas. What I miss most about home, after the people, is the food. I want Cowboy Queso from Kerbey Lane. I want my mom’s Halloween chili. I want the waiter to know what I’m talking about when I pronounce “pollo” with a “y”. I want to be able to buy frosting ready-made from the store, and Pilsbury chocolate chip cookie dough.
This craving for familiarity is bizarre, because the food here is high-quality, and undeniably better than most food at home. I have sensual, almost religious experiences with strawberries, guava juice, carrots. This morning time stopped when I bit into a slice of pineapple. My first banana on this continent was on campus, and in public, and really it should have been in private. My roommate dedicated her facebook status to a nectarine. Bunches of grapes in the cafeteria are 5 rand, or about 50 cents, and I eat them like candy, and they burst in my mouth like the best kind of ambrosia.
I have a spiritual affinity with the produce here.
Food, though, is the physical manifestation of your relationship with a place; here the spices are curry and masala and peri-peri, and all I wanted was chili powder. I have yet to eat a sandwich without mayonnaise. There is no ketchup, only tomato sauce which is thin and translucent and sugary. No hope of mustard.
Being something of a health freak, I am aware that the number one source of saturated fat in the average American’s diet is ground beef; hoping to avoid this, I search in vain for ground turkey. Instead, I locate ground ostrich, which I have tasted, and which has a wetter stringier taste than ground beef. It’s neither bad nor particularly good.
Yesterday I accidentally made a cake with springbok butter.
I was not previously aware anyone had ever milked an antelope.
The small things transform your experience of a place so that you discover your new between-classes lunch: a chicken peri-peri toasted whole wheat sub, inside which mayonnaise is unavoidable. You make a cake, and the icing tastes unusually creamy and exotic. You eat a a burger and it’s bird meat. Fries are consumed with a condiment that’s not quite ketchup. You try to make chili, but there are no black beans and no chili powder.
It’s not that the food is bad. It’s actually fresher, sweeter, stronger, fuller. But food is one of the few things in the world that is equally a product of the land and the human, since humans give it back. In the old Irish fairy legends, you were never supposed to ingest anything in the fairyland because otherwise time slipped and you stayed there, intoxicated, for hundreds of years or forever, unaware that you were under a spell. There’s a reason food has this power:
food is the most intimate connection a human can ever have with a place.
Food was the first inkling I had that I was in a foreign country. Things taste different here. You can try African or Chinese or Mexican or Indian or French or Japanese cuisine in the U.S., but it will lend an American spin to your palate. Just as if you tried it in India, it would taste Indian.
I’ve eaten food here, sustained myself on plants grown in another country, consumed meals that have never heard of America, let alone been Americanized. Browsing through a store with food made in California, I blink, I feel a sudden sneaking euphoria, and I suspect I’ve been in Africa the fairyland. Time has stopped.
I’m under a spell.