I write this post from Malawi, Africa. I am here with my husband, Andy, until Christmas this year. Nearly two years ago I started a project here working in partnership with the Ministry of Health and the community of Chisala to build a much-needed maternity clinic, doctor’s house and guardian shelter (a place where women can come before giving birth, saving them miles of walking while in labour). Finally, after two years of fundraising, the time has come to build the clinic and we are here to oversee its construction.
This is my third time in Malawi. But really, this September marks six years that I have lived outside the U.S. In every way I feel England is home, but years have gone by and I still haven’t quite made the transition with food. Despite the stereotype, British food is good and I can cook many of the most well-known dishes with ease. I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying than sausages and mash or Toad-in-the-Hole on a chilly winter evening. And who could pass up good old fish and chips or chicken and leek pie? Not me. And despite the separating ocean, I can still get 98% of what I need to make my favorite American dishes when I feel homesick. The things I can’t get, people bring to me when they visit or I bring back myself. Most notably canned pumpkin! My friends and family are pumpkin mules every time they come to England.
In Malawi, the choices are very limited, but I can still whip up some pretty good grub. The base of which is always (almost comically) tomatoes and onions. Tomatoes, onions and chicken. Tomatoes, onions and beans. Tomatoes, onions and green vegetables. And of course, our options are pretty limited when we have only one hot plate to cook on and no oven! In the past I have made some pretty amazing chicken noodle soup and something resembling chicken fajitas. We sometimes splurge on a bar of Cadburys chocolate or a can of Heinz Baked Beans when we are visiting the nearest major town (both cost nearly 3 times as much as they would in the UK). But for the most part we try and stick to food that’s indigenous to Malawi. Because it’s far cheaper and because…we should!
So I was surprised to find myself cramming a package of stove-top Jiffy Pop and a bag of quick grits into my already overstuffed bags when we were packing for Africa. Andy gave me a look that said, “Are you kidding me with this?” I don’t blame him. It was silly. But it was he who, on our first night in Malawi, ordered a “Megaburger with chips” for dinner (we were staying in an English-owned guest house near the district’s Ministry of Health until our house was ready near the village). Food is so important—it’s all about home and belonging and ritual and security. So far, I’ve made it. But wait till Thanksgiving, and I will be positively pining for turkey. More on that later.
I remember the first time I went to the UK for an extended period of time; I was going to study for the summer at Oxford. Beyond the ubiquitous (and, as you said, quite unfounded) jokes about bad pub food, it didn’t occur to me that there were going to be any major food differences. And there weren’t really. That may or may not have been because I subsisted mainly on pre-packaged rice pudding, chocolate ice cream, and French fries—but that’s neither here nor there.
But I’ll confess to you that three weeks into the program I was compelled to go in search of Dr. Pepper and pretzels—two things I didn’t consider staples in my diet, and that were definitely not on my top 10 (or even 20) list of things I thought I’d be jonesin’ for. It’s funny how that works.
I didn’t find Dr. Pepper, and the “pretzels” I bought would probably incite some serious wrath from the Pennsylvania Dutch (not sure that’s even possible—rage in Lancanster county.) They were pretzel shaped, but that’s about as far as the similarities went. These little twisty bits of disaster were pale, vaguely stale, and covered in some kind of onion-powder-based dust that tasted like they were going for (and fell horribly short of) sour cream and onion. Who’s ever heard of sour cream and onion pretzels? Come on, Britain!
At any rate, I think I’ve had maybe 10 Dr. Peppers and a few pretzels since then, and that was…7 years ago. So, keep us abreast of your odd cravings while you’re there, Mags. I’ll gladly send you chocolate covered gummy bears and Fresca, or whatever else your little heart desires. Though, if we’re being honest, we should probably have mom ship it. Lowest priority mailing of a package like that, and you’ll be home before it gets to Africa.
Stuffing your bag with food makes me think you’re a little of your mother’s daughter. As I write, David and I are on en route to San Diego for a day before heading to Rancho La Puerta where I’ll be teaching for my supper next week.
With all I had to do getting ready for a week away, I ran to the store for premium roasted mixed nuts which I packed in a travel bag and package of ciabatta rolls, which I smeared with peanut butter and jelly for our airport breakfast and filled with deli ham for our lunch on the plane. Call me cheap, but last weekend I spent $14.00 at La Guardia on a mediocre curried chicken wrap and small water for David and me to split.
Packing food for a trip, however, is less about money and more about having control over what I eat. Although there are healthy choices out there, it’s not always easy to make them. It’s a little like having to decide between People Magazine and the Economist.
As we entered the airport food court for coffees this morning, we were both ready to cheat on our ciabattas. David was eyeing the chocolate glazed donuts, while I was checking out a sausage/waffle/home fry bowl. If we had come to the airport ciabatta-less, I don’t think we would have opted for yogurt and fresh fruit. As my optometrist said yesterday, “Bad food tastes really good!”
But I digress. I know exactly what you were doing when you put those grits in your backpack. It’s like me packing up the polenta and Parmigiano for our summer vacations in Maine. There was a good chance I couldn’t get those things and although there’s something to be said for going local (we certainly lined up for our share of the Boothbay Harbor pit-baked beans on Saturday night) there’s also something comforting about bringing a piece of home with you.
this looks really delicious, maggy! my sister-in-law lived outside of nairobi, kenya for a year, and i mostly was kind of scared of the food she talked about eating. but i think i might put this together for her next time she comes to visit! 🙂
Joanna Wood says
I can well understand the food situation. I am writing this note from Angola Africa, currently the most expensive city in the world. I hate to tell you how much I spend on groceries for my husband and I !
Needless to say it is a challenge, I am always having someone bring me brown sugar and icing sugar .
I would love to hear any ideas you may have to share ! Cooking and living wise this has been my hardest posting so far!
Mags, having been your sympathetic pumpkin mule, you know where you’re coming from about the importance of food. The first time I came down with a cold in England, I would have given my right arm for a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle and a packet of Saltines.
I never expected to miss Saltines as much as I did, but they were the bain of my food cravings while in England. Sort of like Shaz’s Dr. Pepper and Pretzels.