"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–La France Profonde and the Squirts

Nouakchott was a wind-blown, ratty city with a prevailing wind that blew blue bags, scraps of paper, cardboard, and general litter into cracks and chinks, between buildings, in gutters, and between shutters, trapped them in briar fences, and caught them on the ragged telephone spars. .  The bags and paper bits collected where the wind whirled and sucked, and narrow alleyways soon became trash dumps.  There was always a goat rooting in this mess, head down against the wind, blue bags clinging to its trotters, sand and grit matting its hair.  Dust storms were the worst when the wind whipped off the desert, the sand stung and no matter how good the taping and masking of windows, sifted in and coated everything inside. 

The streets of Nouakchott were all dirt, rutted and cracked, potholed and crooked.  Drifted sand always coated the road, creating odd-shaped berms, and washboard patches, filled the potholes until the wind swirled them empty.  The streets were empty except for a few camels, the odd Land Rover and Peugeot Break, and a few white-wrapped Moors or blue-wrapped Wolofs from the south.

It was a dismal, wind-blown outpost.  It was a consignment for resident advisors on probation; a last refuge for the French ex-colons who had outlasted Independence, and who ran the stores, restaurants, and bars; worked the ports, and exported the abundant fish from the rich coastal shelf;.  There were only three respites from the grimness of the place – the Atlantic Ocean, 500 miles of unspoiled, untouched, duned beach; the Restaurant du Lyon – the only bar where the beer was cold and the only restaurant which imported food from France. “Selon l’arrivage”, said the proprietor when asked what was on the menu – depends, he said, on whether the shipment from Paris had made it through the dust storms which often closed the airport for days; but when it did come, there were lobsters, araignees de mer, oysters, filet mignon, and Camembert. 

The Café des Beaux Arts was only open on weekends for traditional midday French dinners. Nothing could have prepared me to prepare me for the scene inside, particularly after the sand and dust, litter, goats and camels outside.  It was la France profonde.  Long tables with checkered tablecloths and curtains, bottles of wine, crusts of bread, children running between and under tables, loud toasts and drunk singing, platters of fish, couscous, and steak-frites arriving to cheers, applause, and laughter.  Mauritania did not exist in here, nor did Africa.  Nor did anything outside. 

The meals I remember most, however, were far from the capital, miles in the desert.  After hours of driving through dunes where the piste often disappeared under the drifting sand, and the chauffeur guided the jeep through the dunes like a boat, never stopping, a perfection of timing through the gears, rolling with the cant of the dunes, and back onto the piste; through rough and flinty reddish Mars-like terrain; and over vast hardpacked sand plateaus, we arrived at the oasis where the prefet was waiting.  We would stay at his house of course, and were invited to a mishoui –roast goat and couscous.  The food was excellent – the meat grilled to perfection, the couscous and vegetables prepared like chebu jen with a rich tomato sauce.  There were endless thimble glasses of mint tea.

What made the dinner memorable was the setting.  We ate on carpets on the second-floor terrace, overlooking the desert.  The night was cool, the air was still, and there was a full moon silhouetting the palm trees of the oasis and the dunes.  The meal was long and leisurely.  Another refuge – this time from the heat, the sun and from the endless, , unsettling space.

The second meal was memorable for the hospitality of the host – a nurse from the local clinic who took us all in, gave us a floor to sleep on, and prepared a meal of freshly-slaughtered and roasted goat.  The trip had been a difficult one.  We had visited emaciated, near-death children at a nutrition rehabilitation center; emptied our Dopp kits of all unguents and creams for a badly burned boy lying on the side of the road; shared half our water with a nomadic camel herder who had none because he had been robbed by desert bandits.  The nurse’s hospitality was a balm, a salve which we were surprised we needed.  All of us were seasoned travellers, but this day had shaken the most inured and hardened of us.

Le Dagorne in Dakar was similar French refuge.  Run by two French women who had been in Senegal since Independence, it was bourgeois cooking at its best – coquilles de poisson, succulent pieces of fish in a cream sauce served in scallop shells; calves liver sauteed in cognac; baked grouper in fennel and cream, fresh haricots verts with garlic and butter; wine, custards and lemon tarts.  The dining area was on an open, bright, sunny, and breezy patio with trellises of bougainvillia for shade.  Le Dagorne was my refuge.  Dakar had become crime-ridden and dangerous, and I, like the expatriates of Nouakchott, needed a refuge.

Africa was a relatively healthy place for some unknown reason.  I rarely got sick, despite the dust, the flies, and the near-stagnant water pulled out of drying wells; but the squirts were an occupational hazard.  None were immune; all were chosen.  My five most notable cases of food poisoning were from elsewhere.  In no particular order of stupidity they were:

1. Ahhhh, crabs….Cracking a bushel of them on a pier overlooking the water in Manta, Ecuador.  Lots of cold beer and roasted corn on the cob.  Delicious, just like hammering them on the Eastern Shore and sucking sweet flesh from the claws.  Who thought of the cracks and crevasses in the table, the oozing crab juice festering and fulminating in them, the quick swish of the waiters dirty rag? Eight hours later, the first waves of nausea, then the gut-wrenching ralphing into a nasty toilet in a cheap hotel. Shaking and aching with fever; and then, mercifully, after another eight hours, the stomach spasms subsided, the fever and aches disappeared.  I didn’t die after all.

2. Carmel custard….Why did I ever want to eat that? I don’t even like it that much; but there I was, and there it was in Nepal in 1969, a tempting comfort food from home in this cold and drafty restaurant.  Bad decision.  I was staying in a cheap hotel and in a room so small I couldn’t stand up in it.  Again, eight hours after the meal, the scourge hit; but this time I was far from the communal toilet which was down dark, twisting and steeply-banked corridors.  It was footsteps – a Turkish toilet – and since I have never been limber (even as a kid I had to hold on to something to hunker), I had to hold on to the water faucet and sway over the hole; and because of this precarious perch had to squirt naked, so not to foul my pants with the hot, stinking streams of rice water.  Back and forth, buck naked, and freezing, down the twisting rabbit hole to the shitter. Again, eight hours later, it was all a bitter memory.

3. Ground meat …Pakistani kebabs, but ground meat nonetheless, perhaps the best salmonella medium after eggs; each strand of ground hamburger and the warm places between them perfect media for growing bacteria.  Better than blood agar in a Petri dish.  The kebabs are grilled I argued to myself, ignoring the likely undercooking disguised by the crispy, marinated exterior, and not even considering the hidden toxins that wouldn’t be killed even by the fire of a forge.  Eight hours later….

4. Swordfish….Under the right and ideal circumstances – freshly caught, grilled or pan-seared, light lemon and butter topping, it is one of my favorite fish.  Solid like a good steak, but with an enticing sea scent, brought out by coarse sea salt.  Under the worst circumstances – frozen swordfish thawed, refrozen, thawed again in a hot kitchen, stored in a banging, and leaking refrigerator – it is deadly.  It looked so enticing.  It even had the black criss-crossed grill marks on each piece.  I went back for seconds and thirds, so hungry was I for fish after weeks in the interior of Pakistan.….

4. Eggs, sunny side up….I love sunny side up eggs.  I love the cool, viscous taste of the yoke, the warm browned butter and the firm texture of the whites.  Why, after my caramel custard episode in Nepal, did I not bend a bit and ask for them over easy? Was the delight of that runny yoke, the sweet butter and the luscious toast with marmalade that compelling? Yes, and while staying in an apartment in Tbilisi, I had sunny side up eggs every morning.  Only on my way out of Georgia to London did it hit, waves of nausea and fever.  Only through great will did I manage to hold the rest in until I got to the airport Hilton; but was so debilitated that I had to prepare home-remedy ORS – salt and sugar in fizzy water (who cared about the proportions?) to rehydrate my poor body.  Then Immodium to cement me up proper on the flight to Dhaka.  This time it wasn’t over in eight hours, but eight days.  The Bangladeshis asked if I only ate soft-boiled eggs, tea, and toast and never the sumptuous curries prepared by the office every day.  Foreigners can be suspected of everything, we all know, and it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that this particular gringo had eaten only this pablum his whole life.

5. Lambi Creole…., a dish usually safe; but in this one instance in Port-au-Prince the cook must have had his thumb in the sauce.  It made no difference that all night I hustled onto the balcony and past one of the best views of the city and the harbor; the serious squirts give no quarter.  Pale, shaking, and semi-recovered I went into the office.  No sympathy there, just a laughting “O, Monsieur Parlato, maintenant vous etes un vrai Haitien”. 

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