Dispatch: United S of A. Week 1.
I am in enforced exile in a place where the state food is grits. Yes, grits. Rhymes with, well, it rhymes with a lot of things, but tastes of very little, and it is actually pretty weird when you think about it. In fact a lot of things here are weird—and by here I mean America.
I’ve been sentenced to three weeks, the hapless victim of semi-annual trans-Atlantic umbilical whiplash syndrome. This time I am doing hard labor in upstate South Carolina. It is never a happy affair.
No foul, no tameya, no kofta, no kebab. Unless you happen to live in Jersey City, no Egyptian food whatsoever. All the worse because we are in the middle of Ramadan. What am I suppose to eat for Iftar? Buffalo wings?
Her royal self has advised me to be patient and tolerant, claiming that this too shall pass. Easy for her to say. She’s sitting at the family dinner table enjoying fatteh and sharkaseya, while I’m doing everything in my power to avoid being taken out to Dirty Dick’s Crab House.
As opposed to Egypt, America does not really have an indigenous cuisine per se. Like jazz music, American food is an exotic hybrid, a mix of native and immigrant traditions that took on a life of its own in the New World.
Southern cooking is a case in point. Grits are made of corn, a native American food, but the cheese and butter people put on them are imports; there were no cows on this continent before the Europeans showed up in the sixteenth century. No cows, no horses, no pigs, chicken, goats, sheep or wheat. All were brought from Europe. The Indians provided corn, squash, chilies, tomatoes, beans, potatoes and cocoa; the African slaves, field peas, okra, eggplant, peanuts and yams.
Taken together, over the centuries, these various foodways combined to produce entirely new culinary creations such as Texas cheese fries, southwestern eggrolls, the fajita trio, and chocolate chip paradise pie.
And yet I’m homesick. America is nice and all in its own way—people drive between the lines and your waitress is always named Margaret or Betty Ann; but I miss the grittiness of Cairo street life and my favorite hang outs like La Bodega, L’Aubergine, and Le Koshary El Tahrir. It’s nice to travel and all, but when you can’t get your hands on a decent combination of four carbs and a sauce, what’s the point?
One thing America has going for it is supermarkets. For a Cairene, it’s like walking into a museum. The superabundance of everything you couldn’t possible need is unnerving. Six kinds of heirloom tomatoes, an entire aisle of potato chips and dips, forty seven brands of pickles, a cheese counter the size of your average Dokki flat: it is one of the most exotic travel experiences one can ever have. I’m thinking about starting a business that does guided tours. I’ll call it Dave’s Supermarket Safaris. We’ll set up base camp in the parking lot and mount nightly golf cart raids from the deli to freezer section. No sane person would want to venture that far on foot—and definitely not alone after dark.
The thing I dislike about food in America is that you have to go get it yourself. If you want a Big Mac or some chicken nuggets or something you have to physically get in your car and go to where they make it. What kind of nonsense is that? This is where Cairo shows its sophistication and cosmopolitan nature. At any time day or night I can order a four cheese pizza and get the delivery guy to pass by the kushk and pick up two cans of Red Bull and a packet of Haribos while he’s on his way.
Okay now I really am homesick.