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

Friday, April 15, 2011

Doing Good and Eating Well: Civilized Lunches


When I took my first job with CARE in 1968 and was about to head off for India, the organization sent a press release to my hometown newspaper. Beneath a picture of me was the caption: “Local boy does good”.

From my rooftop apartment on Peddar Road, I could see the entire city of Bombay. To the east, the shoreline of the Arabian Sea curved around from Breach Candy, along Chowpatty Beach to Nariman Point where the first new, modern buildings were being built. To the west was Bombay Harbor where both Arabian dhows and commercial freighters were anchored and where power launches left to take visitors to the offshore islands and the Elephanta caves. The Towers of Silence, the burial grounds where Parsi dead were taken to be consumed by vultures, were in a green, lush enclave in the Malabar Hills nearby, to the north I could see the endless suburbs of Bandra and Deonagar, and finally the outline of the ghats that rose to the Deccan Plateau.

From the perspective of the street Bombay, despite its sweep of beaches, palm trees, and skyscrapers, was a city of dung and horse-sweat, diesel fumes, goats, curry, rotting garbage, and human shit; rickshaw bells, scooters, street peddlers and hawkers, banging pots; cheap sari cloth, and garish Hindi movie posters.

Standing by the Gateway of India on the day of my arrival in India, looking out over the Qatari dhows anchored in the harbor and the setting sun on the Arabian Sea beyond, surrounded by holy men, hawkers, and silk-saried women, smelling sweet incense and jasmine, and eating rose-flavored sweets and bhel-puri, I knew I had made the right decision. Within a few months, I was convinced. I had a penthouse apartment overlooking the city and two servants, my office was spacious and opened onto the sea.

A car and driver were at my disposal; membership to the Breach Candy Club, an elegant seaside enclave was inexpensive and easy to arrange; air travel to the Himalayas and the valleys of Kashmir, to Khajuraho, and the beaches of Goa and Kerala was cheap and uncrowded. Every night there were concerts of classical Indian music, and recitals by the masters of the sitar, sarod, veena, and tabla were commonplace. The bazaars, markets, temples, ashrams, rikshas, holy men, Victorian rail stations, cricket fields, and elegant Parsi mansions of Bombay were right outside my door.

I remembered the article in my hometown newspaper, and as I considered my good fortune I thought: If this is doing good, I’ll take it.

My 40 years in “development” were, in the words of my friend and colleague who had joined CARE in Bombay with me, “a great ride” – a ride filled with adventure, great food, unspoiled beaches, the grand hotels of the Raj; salsa, bossa nova, meringue, and the great frescoed monasteries of Romania; but as I do today, I remember the restaurants and the food.

I have particularly fond memories of eating Nile Perch in a converted Belgian villa in Bujumbura overlooking Lake Tanganyika and the mountains rising to Kigali.  The climate was perfect, or so it seems in memory, with a light breeze coming off the Lake, a few clouds over the mountains, a perfect table on the verandah set with linen and silver, Pernod aperitifs and the sweetest, freshest fish and a crisp white Bordeaux.  I have always preferred what I called and still call “civilized lunches” – long, three course and two hour meals eaten outside, plenty of wine and a siesta to follow.  My life as an independent consultant in my post-India years was ideal for this routine.  I was on my own, responsible for my own work; and the hours were mine. 

I have always liked eating by the water, and loved the languid, easy feel that it gave to my lunches.  There was a restaurant in Bamako overlooking the Niger River.  It, like that in Bujumbura, served proper meals with linen and silver all eaten in view of fishermen on the banks or in dugout canoes or bigger boats fishing for Nile Perch (capitaine) – the same, sweet, succulent delicacy of Lake Tanganyika which can grow to over 400 lbs.  It was hot at midday, and there were flies, but the allure of a long, peaceful, and civilized meal by the River was irresistible.  The ceiling fans never cooled, but on those days where the heat and humidity were high, the moving air was fine indeed.  Ceiling fans are always part of my memories, since the early days in India before air conditioning where in summer the rotor beat was a roar, but in Spring and Fall, a rhythmic clicking, a light circulation of air.

I usually ate alone at lunch – I preferred it, actually.  I wanted no distraction from the pure enjoyment of water, warm breezes, elegant tables and food.  I realized soon after I began my two- and three-week consultancies, that relieved from responsibility and  predictable routine; and as a foreigner no longer a recognizable person, I was only me – not a husband, nor a father, son, brother, friend, or American.  I observed, heard, smelled, saw everything from my own perspective. 

The civilized lunches were everywhere – at beach restaurants on Copacabana, eating fresh hearts of palm, lobster, and shrimp; in Dakar by the sea and by the Teranga pool. A swim, drinks at the bar, three courses of French or Senegalese food, and a long siesta. Lunches on the South Coast of Haiti, at tables set under the palm trees, cold bottles of Prestige and lambi creole (conch in a spicy tomato sauce).  Ceviche and dorado on the Costa del Sol overlooking the black sand beaches and the Pacific in El Salvador.

The civilized lunches were not confined to water.  In Kiev and Bucharest I ate at grand, old Soviet hotels that had not yet been torn down.  Heavy, fatty food, but there were grand, ornate ceilings and chandeliers, polished wood floors, crisp, ironed white tablecloths, and serenading violin players.  Despite the food and over the years increasing choice of new restaurants, I kept going back to these old arks and their tuxedoed waiters, waltzes, and chintz curtains.

One of the best parts of my Third World travels were my stopovers in Europe, usually Paris or London.  The World Bank in the early days was a most generous employer.  We flew First Class to Asia and had two days stopover each way. These stopovers were the first stage of the release and identity that I mention above.  I would walk for miles with no preoccupations.  My life in Washington was already faded and gone; the airports and travel to come still days away; and India, Bangladesh, Pakistan very distant.  I saw, but processed minimally, the closest I suppose I have ever come to the Hindu ideal of being without processing.  When I was very young and in India for a year or so, I travelled to Hardwar at the source of the Ganges, one of India’s holiest places.  There was really nothing like these pilgrimage destinations – Hardwar, Allahabad, Varanasi all were kaleidoscopic for a foreigner, more going on, more weird, unusual, vivid, perplexing scenes than I could ever take in. 

In Hardwar, however, I wanted to see without processing as I had been told evolved Indians could do.  What was so mystical about this, I thought.  How hard could it be not to think for a minute, or five, or longer? The end of the story is obvious and predictable.  As I sat by the river overlooking the procession of white-wrapped bodies carried on palanquins to the burning ghats, or the scavengers with glass plates to flatten the ripples of the water so they could look for gold teeth, or the crows pecking at left bits, I processed – What is he doing? How much wood does it take to burn a body? How cold is the water? What an emerald green it is here, far from the muddied Gangetic River. 

So my stopovers in London and Paris were the best I could do; but they were far more than I could ever imagine anywhere else. 

I never ate civilized lunches on these transfers.  I preferred to graze.  I stopped for beer, then charcuterie, more beer, pickled fish, mussels, and more beer in Ghent.  Oysters, wine and cheese,more oysters, café-cognac in Paris.  Pubs and oysters in London.

In every European stopover city, my first stop was for oysters.  I knew where to go, and how long it would take, and calculated from time of arrival to swallowing the first of many cold, crisp North Atlantic oysters.  In London, I headed for the oyster bar at the old Michelin Building in South Kensington.  Rock oysters from Scotland and the Irish Sea.  In Paris at the Brasserie Terminus Nord near the Gare du Nord.  Praires, Belons, and Fines de Claires from Brittany.


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