Food movies make me want to move to France. By and large these movies include French words, French cuisine, and an overall love for everything French. Since our daughter’s name is French, this would be a natural move – supposing we could find a small town such as the one in A hundred foot journey that conveniently spoke English and also had fantastic Indian cuisine. Because I’m not sure that I would make it without “ethnic” food, whatever that title means. Food other than the one I grew up with, I suppose?
But one of the most tantalizing things about food movies are the market scenes. And I don’t have to go very far to find one of those.
When we first moved to Malawi, I was afraid to go to the market. Nairobi Markets with its aggressive vendors and stealthy thugs were fresh memories. Belly swollen with child, I felt like a 3-D target moving slowly through a field of arrows aimed at overall embarrassment in a country where everything seemed so… different.
One year later, I love the market. Especially the one in the town I live in. Green Pepper and courgettes stacked attractively next to each other, lettuce leaves framing clusters of carrots while cucumber and green beans parade in front. Then there are the people. The ones who either grew the food or bought it from someone who grew it. I love knowing to ask about a daughter who was sick, or a son who is in school.
When I only need to buy a few things, I carry my daughter in her seemingly permanent fixture on my left hip. “Jumbo” in hand (slang for plastic bag), I am prepared so that the vendors don’t have to give me one of their own. At other times I put her in a carrier or tie her on my back, African style. Something secure, so my arms are free, and so other arms don’t carry her away (not forever, mind you, just to hold the small white baby for a few moments.) I pull small bills out of the purse wrapped securely around my body. And when all of the small bills are inevitably gone, I look around to see what else I can buy from the seller so that I won’t need the precious change that never seems to cool down, it is passed so frequently from body to body.
Tomatoes are normally in full supply, but for two weeks there were heavy rains, and inflation was at its finest. A quarters equivalent for one tomato.
We are also normally guaranteed to find Cabbage, Potato, Cucumber, Green Pepper, Eggplant, green beans, carrots, banana, avocado, and greens of all kinds.
Then there are the more seasonal items – peas, passion fruit, strawberries, mangoes, papaya, pineapple, gooseberries, and the few sellers with quickly browning cauliflower or broccoli, zucchini or cilantro.
And I haven’t even mentioned the grains and legumes.
The words roll off of my tongue nearly tasting the sweetness. Strawberry – just saying the world out loud and my mouth forms the perfect shape in which this delicacy could be placed…
I select my veggies with care, examining for worms, soft spots, brown spots, red spots, white spots, and marvel at the fact that our food is so… alive.
I thought about it a lot around Thanksgiving time – that something must die so that we can have life. We selected a Turkey from our neighbors yard. Watched it walking around, white feathers covering what we would soon consume. Several months later, I still remember the animal that gave its life. Prebrined Butterballs just don’t have the same effect.
Strange as it sounds, this life to death movement also strikes me in fruits and vegetables. Just a few days after purchase and the decaying process begins. If not used for food, they return to the dust (a.k.a. compost pile.)
The things that die so that we can live. It echoes from the farm, the garden, the dried fish covering the seller’s tables, the tomatoes nearly beyond their desired ripeness…
Echoes of our desperate need to survive. Our need for sustenance. And, as we go to satisfy our cravings for food to survive, our tables echo our greater need for connection. To creation, to each other, to God, to ourselves.
Unlike my cherished food movies, I don’t often attempt Michelin star meals – I search to combine flavors that are affordable to make meals with what we can find. “Exotic” foods come at a price (Anything imported from outside of Malawi.) And thanks to the wisdom from strangers living in foreign lands before me, I have roadmaps through which to navigate this territory.
Ratatouille is a staple in our diet due to its short cooking time and plethora of vegetables. I lob the heads off of the eggplant, and peel their waxy purple skin. I core and dice tomato flesh, snapping green beans in place of zucchini that couldn’t be found in town. Once cooked, the dish loses the beauty that its ingredients once carried. I smile; I know its secrets.
There are few things as satisfying as creating a tasty meal here. When most of our work cannot be measured in quickly achieved results, cooking is one way of creating beauty and having a sense of completion. Taking things that have been pulled from their source of life, and combining them to give life and joy to those that consume them.
(All photo credit thanks to Shawn Tyler)