“Life teaches you how to live it if you live long enough.” –Tony Bennett
I’ve lived and traveled around the world as an international math and science teacher for 11 years, starting as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania straight out of college since I didn’t want to get a real job, then as an ESL teacher in South Korea after not readjusting well in the States, then again for the 8 years during Dubya’s presidency. So, I taught in five different countries and visited about 20 more. Despite the wide variety of experiences, I ate my way through every one of them.
I’ve never been accused of being a picky eater, but living in developing countries challenged that. Everyone should try it. I don’t mean “visiting” a developing country for a few days or a couple of weeks. I’m talking about living there for at least a year or longer, on a reduced budget, where you have to re-strategize your how you obtain nourishment.
If you have enough money to maintain your normal feeding habits, then it doesn’t really count, especially when you can afford to pay ten times as much for authentic bottle of American ketchup. There’re bottles of red condiment to be found in practically every country, but it’s not the same. In Tanzania, they had Peptang. I credit Peptang for breaking my taste for ketchup. Not that I found it delicious. Just the opposite. I’d much rather eat my food without any condiment besides a little salt, than to use a ketchup imposter. To this day, you’ll find several varieties of hot sauce in my refrigerator and no ketchup.
When I saved up my money and wanted a gastronomic splurge, I bought a very waxy chocolate or cheese. Perhaps it was a mild cheddar, but it was just called “cheese.” I’d never learned the Swahili word for “cheese” since the people who sold it all spoke English. And there were two choices: having cheese or not.
Next stop: Seoul, South Korea. The smell of rice hung in the air. I ate rice at least once a day even though I had the money to eat at American chain restaurants. I’d mostly broken my American eating habit, but the one food I paid premium price for was Quaker Oats. How lovely were the mornings I woke up and made a bowl of hot, steamy oatmeal with sugar, cinnamon and a nice pat of Korean butter. I don’t recall Korean butter tasting much different than American butter. But I assure you, a little butter makes everything better.
The only fats my grandmother ever cooked with were butter, lard, fatback, and vegetable oil. I never saw a bottle of those fancy oils in her kitchen such as olive, sesame, grapeseed, or sunflower. My grandmother never even made rice for a savory dish, preparing it solely for rice pudding.
Once I got to Alexandria, Egypt, I should have outgrown food cravings. After all, I’d lived and traveled around the world for years, but every country offered a different twist. In Egypt, I could only get alcohol at major hotels and other places that catered to tourists, but could smoke all the flavored tobacco to my lungs’ content. Foraging for alcohol became one of my new hobbies. When I visited the States during the summer break, I bought a flask; so I could always have a mixed drink no matter which restaurant I visited.
Yet, there was something about Egyptian butter. I couldn’t quite wrap my taste buds around it until one day I found myself reaching for the salt. I hardly ever salt my food, but when I butter a biscuit, my mouth has the expectations of salted butter. I cannot say that I craved salted butter, but I began mixing salt into my butter before using it.
By the time I moved to Mexico, I hadn’t eaten pork in six years. I’d given up red meat before moving to Egypt, but started eating beef again. Pork wasn’t available there or if it was, it was harder to find that alcohol.
As soon as I moved to Monterrey, I noticed premade sandwiches labelled “cheese sandwich,” which clearly had a slice of ham, as if the concept of a “sandwich” implied ham along with two slices of bread. I avoided pork when it was obvious, so my first pork poisoning came in form of a frozen burrito labelled “res.” In my basic understanding of Spanish, “res” meant “beef.”
People tried to convince me that I must have food poisoned, but after living in Tanzania and Egypt, I knew what food poisoning felt like. This wasn’t that. This was stomach cramps without fever or diarrhea. My poor small intestines, which hadn’t made enzymes to digest pork in nearly six years, scrambled to breakdown that swine.
The second pork poisoning came a few months later, when silly me thought it was a good idea to eat a gyro, not realizing that the meat spinning on the vertical spit wasn’t lamb nor goat. It was so delicious, I should’ve known it was pork.
I grew up in the South where every cooked green vegetable was flavored with bacon grease, lard or actual strips of bacon. Real bacon bits on salads. Somehow, Mexicans had out porked even my family. My grandmother had mixed pork brains in scrambled eggs, fried chitlins, and prepared something I’ve never tried since it never appealed to me, pigs’ feet. Nonetheless, Mexicans would’ve made my grandmother proud in all their inventive ways of incorporating pork.
Finally, I reworked pork back into my diet just so I wouldn’t have to suffer pork-poisoning stomach cramps again. I didn’t have to actually prepare it at home—just order practically any savory food and I’d just about be guaranteed to consume something that had pork.
With the continued evolution of my palate, I surprised myself after moving to Honduras. All I could think about was grits. I’d mentioned grits so much that one of my American colleagues brought me a canister when she visited home. I was a little embarrassed that I’d talked about grits that much, but of course, I readily took my comfort food and prepared it the way I loved it the best: a pat of butter and sugar and with a side homemade salmon cakes. (Salmon cake side bar: last time I took my homemade salmon cakes to a dinner party, a woman wanted to eat the partially eaten cakes off my plate rather than get up and serve herself seconds! Now you know that’s serious.)
Sometimes I went to as many as three different grocery stores to get all the ingredients I needed to recreate a dish I was craving. I explored the world of baking quiches, made Indian and Caribbean curries and above and beyond everything else, I’d fill half my shopping basket with fresh produce. At last, I’d arrived at a place where not only was the food fresh, but inexpensive, especially if I steered clear of prepackaged American foods and condiments.
Since relocating to Austin, I no longer have food cravings, which were probably more related to homesickness than anything else. My diet still mostly consists of produce, freshly ground spices, seafood, and poultry. And every now and again, with my childhood favorites, just a little pat of butter.