by Bob Baker
Eating abroad was dramatically different from the food we had in East Baltimore where I grew up in Canton, near the docks. Mom cooked and served great Central European stodge: potatoes, pork, cabbage, sauerkraut, steak, peas, chicken and noodles. By the grace of living on Chesapeake Bay, we also had in summer times, ineffable crab cakes and crab soup. Winter times, Dad sometimes shucked in the kitchen, a whole bushel of the world’s best oysters fresh from the Chincoteague River. They have almost no iodine aftertaste as they grow in a mix of fresh and salt water.
Across the seas in the Foreign Service my tables had new yum yums: chilies, chapattis, bugs, bear, serpents, ducks, coffees, fruits and sometimes servings and settings more splendid than any kitchen in Baltimore.
Rajat Neogy took me to the Hindu Lodge on a hill high above Kampala, Uganda, for amazing vegetarian Indian meals. The owner circled around the crowded, noisy tables full of talk and laughter with a huge tin tray covered with hot chapattis. He tossed them next to your plate, hot and steaming. You used them to scoop up from bowls and plates: chick peas, sour cream cucumbers, green pickles, mango chutneys, beds of yellow rice, all laid out on the big tray on the table. His fat brown fingers ended in memorable black half- moons under his finger nails, but I never once was sick. And that although the African wash up crew crouched barefoot in ragged shorts and shirts over open gutters in the kitchen. They scraped waste off the plates and into the water running down the gutter and outside down the hillside. Then they used old scrub brushes to wash our plates, cups, saucers, forks and knives in rusty buckets of greasy, but hot and soapy water. You walked through the kitchen with its crouching scullions to reach the lavatory. That was a walled off small room to one side of the kitchen. You pointed or squatted over a hole in a porcelain footplate. There was a yellowed sink with a brass faucet next to the hole so you could wash your hands. Next to that was a roller on the wall with a thin hand towel in a continuous loop around the roller. At one time, long, long ago, someone had been able to dry his hands on the towel and the next person could pull the towel to a fresh, dry section. When I touched it, the cloth was so greasy and slick it was almost waterproof. I dried my hands on my shirt.
The traditional Indian version of an after dinner mint was pan, a green patty which tasted like lipstick but with its betel nut leaves, fennel, slaked lime, etc. calmed the raging chilies coursing through your veins after the meal. It also seared all bacteria within twenty feet, slaying them instantly and with no ill effects left behind. Pan even gave you fresh breath. Well, comparatively speaking.
In Mali, our cook, Ahmadou, fixed a lunch of a fresh baguette from the French bakery (the French imported the special wheat flour to keep the Parisian taste) eaten with a big bowl of silvery little fishes cooked in oil. You ate them whole, like healthy French fries. Some lunch times, the back kitchen steps were spattered with blood until Ahmadou threw buckets of water to wash it away. He had butchered a couple dozen frogs and fried up the legs, delicious, shaped like, but tastier and much less fat, than chicken legs. An old guy in Mali’s traditional long robe rode a rusty bicycle down our street every day, croaking loudly, “Granwie ! Granwie!” ; that was his version of the French word for frogs. Behind his bicycle seat on each side were bulging leather saddle bags that pulsed, full of live frogs. Ahmadu called out to the old guy, bargained and then handed him some Malian Francs to buy a big kitchen bag full, then carried them to the steps behind our kitchen.
We also briefly had delicious lettuce which mysteriously appeared in the local market. Ahmadou washed it in water with iodine tablets dissolved in it to kill any bacteria. Mali’s intense sun (a plastic milk bottle the kids left in the back yard melted in the sun) killed off most European vegetables, so the lettuce was a treat. A couple weeks after we began to buy the lettuce, the American Embassy doctor told us it was being grown at the local hospital, fertilized by used bandages from the patients. We stopped eating lettuce. Our faith in iodine was not that strong.
Delicious talapia, a big fish with excellent white meat came fresh from the Niger River, a couple blocks from our house, caught daily and sold at the African market steps from the river itself.
Beef was literally chopped with an ax in hunks from a whole carcass hung from a beam in the open air butcher shop at the edge of the African market. When I brought a new Embassy family from the airport one day in the car, we had to halt briefly. A short, pagan guy in a loin cloth was crossing in front of us. He held a heavy twine string attached to a half dozen mangy dogs following him. He was headed for the small, pagan corner of the market to sell his wares. Most Malians were Muslims and despised the pagans and their doggy diet but tolerated them. The newly arrived good wife was horrified by the dog food. When she turned her head away from the pagan, she saw the big black carcass hanging by the road side. Just then, the Malian butcher raised his ax and brought it down with a whump to hack off a hunk of beef. The carcass instantly turned from black to red as the frightened flies jumped off. She got tears in her eyes and gave her husband a very dirty look. They had come straight from living in a Florentine Italian villa overlooking the Arno to this, their first African post. He had applied for the transfer to help his career. She divorced him when they got back to Washington, even though Bamako’s frog legs and baguettes were excellent.