Posts Tagged ‘meals’

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Eben: Meals Without Wheels

October 14, 2009

A few weeks ago, during the presession, we took a field trip to the island of Ngor, off the northwest tip of Dakar, to conduct interviews with strangers on the beach on the subject of polygamy.  We were informed that Waly and co. had bought food for our lunch there.  Naturally, given my concept of what a portable lunch should be, I was excited for the possibility of sandwiches and maybe, if we were lucky, some fruit.  My cold-cut dreams were shattered when I was asked to carry a large vat of oil to the bus, which we subsequently carried with us on the small, wet pirogue that took us to the island.  Accompanying that vat were multiple pounds of chicken and uncooked French fries, along with a gas cooker.  We were going to have a normal lunch, field trip be damned.  And we did; Waly’s assistant, Adji, tended the cooker for a couple hours until our communal platters were ready.

And this is the way Senegalese food works.  There are restaurants, sure, and even a few fast-food places, but a real meal is hand-cooked.  And in this process, there are no compromises, no shortcuts, and certainly no need for lessons from Michael Pollan.  A meal is a meal, and it must be cooked in a certain way no matter the location or circumstances.  All of which is somewhat surprising given the way food is actually eaten.  Despite the elaborate tradition that surrounds meals here, people eat quickly and usually without stopping to talk or take a drink.  When you’re done eating, you get up even if others are still working.  After hours of cooking — at my house, a 2:30 pm lunch often gets started around 9 am — the meal is usually done within a 10 or 15 minutes.  Then onto the next meal.

At my house, lunch (which I only eat there on weekends) is the biggest deal of a meal.  The family eats with spoons around a large bowl, as depicted in the picture above of students eating in Sokone.  In many families, the bowl is present but the spoons are not, and people sit on mats around the bowl, rolling balls of rice (or millet) and sauce with their fingers.  (All of this is done with only the right hand, for cultural and hygienic reasons.)  Everyone eats the rice and sauce in the area in front of them, while people break off small pieces of the meat/fish and root vegetables in the middle of the bowl to eat with their rice.  This role is often also played by the woman who did the cooking, in which case she’ll distribute the pieces she breaks off to everyone around the bowl.

On the other end of the spectrum, dinners at my house are casual, less stereotypically traditional affairs, eaten on individual plates at each person’s leisure.  Usually, the kids and I eat around 8:30 with Ester, the youngest daughter of Mère Vitou (she’s probably about 30), and the maids.  Mère Vitou gets a plate in the living room while watching tv, and the rest of the house eats later if at all.  Moving back in the day, breakfast, the least important meal, is a very European affair that is done, as far as I can tell, exactly the same at every house throughout the country.  You get a piece of baguette and some chocolate spread or jam, accompanied by a hot drink (despite the heat) made of whatever powders — coffee, milk, hot chocolate mix, sugar — you want.  The French really sold Dakar citizens short in terms of whatever baguette recipe they taught them, and so I’m generally hungry by the end of my walk to school.  Eating air would at least require less chewing.  Outside of Dakar, though, the bread is great — much heavier, but still soft enough to eat comfortably.

In terms of the food itself (beyond breakfast), I’d love to be able to come back to the States and, like many who have traveled abroad, say that the food here was inconceivably wonderful.  But that would be dishonest.  I generally like the vast majority of what I’ve eaten, but I’ll return home and be perfectly happy to go back to eating the food I have for most of my life.  Most meals consist of a starch, meat or fish, and a dark, heavy sauce.  The starch, as I started to explain above, is either rice or very fine-grained millet during one of the traditional “bowl” meals, and then often it’ll be French fries or pasta for our more casual dinners.  The fish is always served whole and I’m pretty sure is usually herring.  It’s nice, flaky white meat once you get past the fact that the thing you’re eating still has its head on.  The meat is either chicken or beef, although Catholic families do eat pork from time to time.  Regardless of the meat, it’s served on the bone with plenty of fat still on.  In my house, beef is much preferred to chicken, much to my disappointment.  I grew up not really eating red meat, and so I do my best to pick around it here, but I’m essentially required to eat at least a little bit given the rules of hospitality.  The meat is always flavored very heavily with spices ground together with the equivalent of a mortar and pestle, and like most everything else, cooked very slowly over a gas cooker.  Finally, the sauce usually falls into one of two categories: onion-based or not.  The onion-based sauce is very thick, and brown, and delicious.  Reminds me of caramelized onions.  The other types of sauces are a mixture of oil with either tomato, peanut butter, or spinach.  This thick spinach sauce (as shown in the picture above) is about the most you’ll get in the way of green vegetables, as the only other “vegetables” you might get are carrots, potatoes, or white roots whose name I have no idea. Read the rest of this entry ?

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