Peace Corps Volunteers love to talk about food. When we have internet, we share pictures on each other’s walls of decadent brownie sundaes and deep dish pizzas. When we get word someone is going back to the homeland we tell them to eat an extra Chipotle burrito for us. When we get together we swap recipes and brag about our latest culinary triumphs. Yes, we talk about food a lot, not because we’re starving (most volunteers in Mozambique actually gain weight due to the carb-rich diet), but because we miss the plethora of food options available in the states.
Let’s do a quick comparison exercise:
You want to eat cinnamon rolls. In the states you go to a Cinnabon, or buy a can of Pillsbury rolls and pop ’em in the oven for 20 minutes. In Mozambique, you travel to a provincial capital or tourist hot-spot (anywhere from 45 minutes to 7 hours away) to buy your ingredients, travel back home (or stay overnight if it’s too far), prepare your dough from scratch and let it rise, light up your coal or gas stove and set up your dutch oven (a very large pot with tin cans or sand inside to prop up your baking dish, covered with a lid and a towel or two for insulation), then bake your rolls, checking every 7 minutes because there’s no way to set the temperature.
You want to eat real ice cream or frozen yogurt. In the states you go to Cold Stone, Marble Slab, Yogurt Mountain, a grocery store, a gas station, a pharmacy, literally almost anywhere and buy it. In Mozambique, you wait six months until Peace Corps flies you to the capital for a conference and gorge yourself. If you have electricity, you can attempt to make it, but most likely the electricity is too weak for your freezer to work.
You want to eat Mexican food. In the states you go to a Mexican restaurant. In Mozambique you ask yourself, “Is it avocado season?” If yes, proceed to pick all the rocks out of your beans, soak them all day, cook ’em for a couple hours, go to your local market for fresh ingredients, make tortilla dough, roll ’em out with a wine bottle, fry those up, chop your tomatoes and onions and garlic for salsa, mash the avocado with some salt, put everything together and enjoy your (cheese-less) burrito. If no, wait until avocado season.
The point of this exercise was not to make you feel bad about how much work we have to go through for food here, but rather to highlight the incredible convenience of food availability in the U.S. You can get anything anywhere, at anytime. It’s astounding, and it’s hard for me to wrap my head around. The food industry in the states is a huge, complex beast that reaps the whole world of products, processes them, packages them, and neatly organizes them on the shelf of every corner convenience store, every day. It’s a travesty when something goes out of stock, and it will likely be replaced the next day. If not, you can just go to a competing grocery store. Something being “in season” refers more to the advertising industry pushing certain products in relation to a holiday or the weather than to the actual availability of the product. There is no level of familiarity or connection to what you buy. You don’t know who grew your produce, let alone when it was picked, how many thousands of miles it traveled to get to you, or what country it was grown in. You don’t know 75% of the ingredients in the processed snacks you munch on at the movies. You have no idea what factory force-fed your chicken, injected it with hormones, slaughtered it, de-feathered it, and put it in that perfect little plastic wrapping. Isn’t that kind of crazy?
In Mozambique for the most part, I have no option but to eat seasonally and locally. The idea of eating a fruit or vegetable that’s not in season is now really odd to me. It’s kind of nice, I build up this anticipation in the weeks before, and when I finally get that first juicy mango, it is somehow even sweeter than I imagined. If I want to cook meat, I either have to buy the animal and kill it myself, or pay someone to do it. I know that the peanuts I snack on were de-shelled by my market lady and grown on her family’s farm down the road. The product I consume with the most mileage would probably be cheese (a huge splurge) from the South African grocery store in a nearby tourist town. Part of me loves eating this way: knowing where all of my food comes from, eating only what the earth makes available… but then you get to dry season and the market has nothing but tomatoes and onions. Toto’s “Africa” (God bless the rains down in Africa) never rang so true. Not only does the heat become unbearable, the plants drop like flies and you find yourself subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches. It’s times like this that I find myself daydreaming of the beautiful aisles in Whole Foods and the excitement of a food court full of options.
In conclusion, I hope this doesn’t come off as condescending. I’m not trying to condemn either lifestyle, just observing the differences. Am I excited to go to Trader Joe’s when I come home? Hell yes! Is it going to be weird and overwhelming? Definitely. Am I going to feel guilty? I don’t know. While I don’t think it’s healthy or sustainable for a society to be so disconnected from their food production, I really appreciate culinary diversity, and I miss frozen blueberries. Here’s to the U.S.A., the country I love, and love to hate. See you in 16 days!