I love food.
I grew up in what would have to be described as a little island of Britishness lost in the vastness of the North American continent. My mother was a good cook, so I’ve never understood those who decry British cooking as tasteless. Her roast beef and yorkshire pudding and gravy was wonderful, her apple-blackberry pie exquisite. Her vegetables were not overdone and her scones were light and her homemade spiced peach jam was like a touch of sunlight on toast, only stickier and more flavorful.
In spite of having lived all over the world, my family weren’t adventurous eaters. My mother abhors Mexican food, and only likes Asian if she can order the innocuous broccoli beef. So when Donn and I were first dating and he ordered the extra-spicy Kung Pao Chicken for us to share (we were poor students and this place was cheap and had generous portions) and I accidentally ate one of those whole, hot peppers, I wondered if the tears in my eyes were signifying the end of what had seemed to be a promising relationship.
Fast forward several years. I had ended up an adventurous eater. Donn and I, after dating for a long time and being married for even longer, were looking at moving overseas. Friends told us that we were perfect candidates to be global nomads—we love Indian, Thai, Korean, all kinds of ethnic food, the spicier the better. I like foods of all kinds—spicy, vegetarian, whatever. I would try just about anything.
Which is why I was unprepared for our first visit to a Mauritanian home.
We were invited for dinner with the family of a man that Donn met once, at the port. He works for a shipping company; we shipped something. In America, the two men would shake hands and that would be it. In Africa, you get invited to the man’s house for dinner, and it’s a big deal. You are an honored guest. Donn and Daay made this arrangement about 2 weeks beforehand, and he called 3 times to confirm, arrange, make doubly sure that we would grace them with our presence. Of course one of those times was because, although he told us Sunday night, what he meant was Saturday—people here still sometimes follow the Muslim practice of starting the day at sundown instead of midnight. But that’s another subject.
We arrived, met his wife. She was generously-built, a traditional Mauritanian woman in a sunset-coloured muluffa, who tucked my hand under her arm and led me off to their simple, one-room house. The evening started off nicely enough with fresh fruit, a variety of drinks (Coke, Fanta orange, melon milk, strawberry milk in little cans, mango juice, etc) on a tray. There were also dates, and crème fraiche to dip them in—my first time having this treat. After this was cleared away, we had the first cup of tea and lounged around on the matlas. Daay and Selma live in a part of town without electricity, but they had rigged up a fluorescent bulb to an old car battery, so the room was lit.
About an hour later, in came a large platter full of goat meat in onion sauce, with some fries floating in it and bread to eat it with. We gathered round. Selma sat next to me. In Mauritanian culture, you eat on the floor, with your right hand, from an enormous common plate. You mentally divide the plate into portions as if you were cutting a pizza, and you only eat from the “slice” in front of you. It’s rude to eat off other people’s “slices,” as you can imagine. However, the host and hostess will honour you as their guest by dropping the nicest bits from their sections into your section.
And therein lies the rub. Because what they consider the nicest bits are unfortunately the bits I am most anxious to avoid—the heart, the liver, the kidneys, the grey twisty rubbery intestines. When these are dropped in front of you, you have several options. You can swallow your heaving stomach along with the goat stomach (which has such a weird texture, in my opinion). You can try to push things along into someone else’s section, which is borderline behaviour but you are a foreigner, you’re allowed to be a little rude and uninformed. Or, you can tuck your special morsels away underneath the rim of the platter, to be embarrassingly revealed at the end of the meal when the plate is cleared away.
Selma, however, was a Hostess Extraordinaire. She took things a step further. She squashed up next to me, and made little balls and tucked them into my hand, watching me fondly. If I’d let her, she would have tucked them into my mouth as if I was a two-year-old! It felt very strange.
I bravely swallowed a mouthful of liver and nearly lost it, my stomach cramping horribly. It was awful—one of the more awkward moments of my life. After that, I didn’t dare. Selma gave me all the best parts, and I smiled my thanks and took them, only to drop them into Donn’s section as unobtrusively as possible or tuck them under the rim of the platter. I focused on mopping up onion sauce and fries with my bread.
Finally, we had eaten enough. I sat back with a sigh of relief and waited for my host to bring me the muksel, a sort of pot set in a bucket, over which you wash your hands while your host pours water from the pot. When there is no plumbing, they bring the plumbing to you.
We settled back against the matlas again. They played music and danced; women with women only. Lots of neighbours dropped in to see us, shake our hands. Time passed. We went for a walk to visit a nearby wedding (with no bride or groom in sight), me stumbling in the dark, Selma reaching to help, us ending up holding hands like teenagers.
Mauritanian tea is served in 3 rounds, and it’s rude to leave before that 3rd glass. But by 11 p.m. the kids had fallen asleep, mouths open, hair askew. We began to say our goodbyes. “No, no,” they protested. “You can’t leave—we haven’t had dinner.” Then…what was that meal we just ate? we asked. “That was a snack,” they explained. The muksel made the rounds again, and then, triumphantly, they brought in a platter of Mauritanian couscous with, the piece de resistance, a goat’s head in the middle, tongue artfully arranged to drape just so over the jaw.
Mauritanian couscous is made by hand and is coarser and darker than the more familiar Moroccan version. It is boiled in goat broth without salt or spices, and served with a rancid butter that adds a certain pungency. I’m fine with the butter, but was mentally unprepared for the goat’s head, yellow eye glaring balefully at me.
Selma again squashed in next to me and commenced feeding me once more. She was unimpressed with my ability to form a ball of couscous with my right hand, so she formed balls for me. They were huge; again I gagged, embarrassingly, from the sheer amount of food she had just popped in my mouth. After that she left me alone.
I was bad, I admit it. Every bit of goat cheek, goat tongue, goat anything that landed in my section made its way quickly to Donn’s. He commented later on how much meat he’d been given. I didn’t care. That eye continued to mesmerize me until finally, someone ate it. We thankfully washed hands again and drank the last round of sweet mint tea, woke up the kids, went home.
My friend Debbie was impressed. “You got goat head your first month here? Wow, what an honour,” she commented. And we were really honoured. (I was planning to honour them back by inviting them for an American meal and making them eat with forks! But the relationship never really developed and I lost touch with them.)
But we were here years before we were served boiled camel’s hump (it’s just exactly like what you would expect—pure lard), or luxoor, the specialty food of the north, which is when they make crepes, thin and crisp, pile them in a bowl, and pour camel gravy over them. You eat with your hand, digging down through the mushy layers, squishing them together to form a ball. Tasty but weird.
I still love food. But that doesn’t mean I love everything that is technically edible. I’ve discovered that my favorite ethnic foods tend to be those Westernized, cleaned-up versions. Who’s up for a nice curry made with boneless, skinless chicken breast?