For the Love of Food

This post goes out to my girlfriend Amybeth, who claims to be my most devoted blog reader and loves hearing about my experiences with food.

Mealtimes in Ethiopia can cause some confusion. Breakfast is prepared for all guests automatically, even though I skipped it most mornings. It is at that time guests are supposed to sign up for meals later in the day. That’s the tricky part. You’ve gotta know by 9 AM whether or not you’ll be dining in or out for lunch and dinner, which for me is determined by what’s on the menu. The cook needs to know how many chickens to buy down the street before she does the day’s meal prep.

The place to sign up for meals is on a white board next to the kitchen in your guest home. (Remember to think “bed and breakfast.”) Since our team was with the owner, we stayed in a home that was unoccupied and unstaffed for the week, except for a guard. With no cook, our options were to go out, not eat (i.e. eat a granola or protein bar), or mooch off another guest house.

I only signed up for a meal 2 times. Mostly I just forgot to sign up, and other times I was too scared to sign up. I didn’t want to sign up for the food, and then have to awkwardly nibble on and push around the items on my plate. If it occurred to me, I’d conveniently run an errand during meal time. But if I didn’t keep an eye on the clock, the cook would come out to set an extra place at the table, taking pity on me as if I were a stray dog. I hadn't signed up for the meal, but there I sat. An extra mouth to feed.

It was a day when I forgot to sign up for a meal that the cook whipped up this fine spread and beckoned me to the table. Now, I approached the table without alarm because the aroma wafting across the room was that of the fried variety. While typically I’ll eat anything battered and deep fried, I am drawing the line here. Take note. I do not eat fried goat, alone or as seen here as the meat in which a hard-boiled egg was first rolled and then fried. It is a lovely display though, isn’t it? Food Network, where were you on this one?

Don’t go thinking I turned my nose up at the kindness of the cook. I tried one of those small pieces of goat’s meat. I think I ended up swallowing it whole because even several minutes of chewing didn’t break down its consistency. After I related this incident to a friend, she used the word chewy to describe its texture.

However, it couldn’t be chewed like food or gum. It was the opposite of chewy. Unchewable. That is a better word for the piece of goat I carefully selected. A cross between a tiny water balloon and a chunk of red rubber that covered the track around my high school’s football field. Yum. The taste? Oh, I couldn’t get past the texture.

I did not, however, try what looked to be a 5th grade science experiment. Seeing the American man next to me eyeball my plate enough, I offered him its contents, which he gladly accepted and polished off. Even that cooked version of the layers of the Earth model.

It was by far the strangest thing I’ve been served at one of the guest homes during any of my 4 week-long stays. The cuisine has always been an Ethiopian take on American food. Some of it even better than the original.

I had some really great food, and not all of it came out of my suitcase. Rice, for instance. Here in the states, I won’t touch it. I serve it to my entire family, but there’s not anything that makes it appetizing enough for me to ingest. But, when your “boxed lunch” is a vat of rice with a cooked julienned veggie assortment, it is delish.

Pasta is another staple I serve my family but generally skip for myself, especially when accompanied by a red tomato-based sauce. Yuck. If I’m going to indulge in a pile of wasted calories like pasta, it needs to be smothered in some creamy cheesy goodness. The Ethiopians win again with their red sauce though. Even without meat, Keith prefers it to anything found stateside. And I am always glad to eat it, especially when topped with parmesan cheese packed conveniently in my purse.

This tortilla stuffed with the week's leftovers was amazing. Really. I did discard the rice and lettuce, but it was my favorite.

The most surprising meal served to me at the guest home was a platter of chocolate doughnuts, and I am hesitant to use those terms describing this breakfast despite its appearance. While here at home the minimum requirement for my doughnut is that it be fresh, hot and pulled straight from the Krispy Kreme icing belt, I lowered the bar on my most recent trip.

They were doughnut-shaped pieces of bread with an under-sweetened chocolaty coating. However, I managed to gobble up every morsel and heard they were even more edible 3 hours earlier at the breakfast I didn’t bother to attend.

Food at the guest home has always been above my expectations. So that my honesty doesn't seem so brutal, let me remind you of a few delectable items they serve on a regular basis: waffles, pancakes, *French toast, scrambled eggs, toast with an assortment of jams and peanut butter, *amazing fruit smoothies, *coffee and tea service every few hours, lasagna, *fried chicken, *spaghetti, *any veggie under the sun, *pizza, *popcorn. (The * denotes my preference for the Ethiopian version over the typical American ones.)


Did you know? A Few Fun and Not So Fun Facts About What Else but Ethiopia

Did you know that toilets in Ethiopia are only for pee and poo? Everything else goes in the trash can. The Kleenex you used to blow your nose? Trash. The wads of toilet paper it took to clean your booty? Trash. Ladies, it gets tricky. That's all I'm allowed to say. Still, everything. In trash not the toilet.

Did you know that Ethiopians are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet? Their explanation is cultural. Since they have very little of anything material, they value people and relationships more than time and things. For the most part. This, I’m sure, will prove to be a difficult adjustment for us typical Americans. My day begins and ends with a To Do list. Time equals money, right? Even my children have the audacity to tell ME when I’m wasting their time. How dare they! That first trip to Ethiopia is making more sense to me now. I had said that time was a futile thing to them. A better word may be unimportant. Our family has much to learn.

Did you know that it’s only the year 2005 in Ethiopia right now? That’s right. And, until September 11, New Year’s Day except in Leap Years, it was just ‘04. It goes back to a discrepancy regarding the exact year of the birth of Jesus, which is the basis of both the Ethiopian and Gregorian (our) calendars. Lucky for us we’ll get to turn back the clock a few years when we make the move. Something to look forward to!

Did you know that English is taught in every school in Ethiopia at every level of education? I'm feeling dumb already. Although Amharic is the country’s official language and each region has its own dialect, basically if you want to be employable you learn English. However, we will be spending the first few months in language school because the masses of people with whom we’ll be interacting do not speak English.

Did you know that there is a city fabulous enough in Ethiopia for the locals to refer to as “Little Paris”? It’s just outside the capital and just a few miles from where we will be living. Boo. I am secretly hoping the only available house to rent is in Lobola, the official name of Ethiopia’s Little Paris.

Did you know that one can make it through an entire trip from customs upon entrance into Ethiopia to submission of the exit form when leaving Ethiopia with an expired Visa? Okay, it wasn’t truly expired, but someone had written the wrong year on it. It does justify why there was an unexplainable hold up at every stop along the way. Each official seemed confused by my documentation and asked me a handful of arbitrary questions before consulting a nearby colleague, who was obviously just as perplexed…or angry, and then sent me on my way. Oh, I asked after the commotion every time, but they politely waved me through. I guess nobody wanted to resolve the issue of the outdated Visa.

Did you know that I turn into a professional handyman when handed a roll of duct tape in Ethiopia? Big hole in the bathroom door left by the removal of doorknob and lock combo…fixed it. Giant framed wall hangings that seem to be permanently crooked…fixed ‘em. Curtains sliding off the rail…fixed those too.

However, some things should just be put into the trash. This baby doll, found in a basket of toys in the guest house, for instance. I mean, duct tape was not intended to resurrect the dead. What kind of sicko would do this? There are countless children suffering from nightmares because they’ve been exposed to the horror that is this baby. His feet and hands hanging on by a thread of cotton and his head cocked so far to the side it could only indicate its former life as Chucky.

Ah, there are so many more issues I could delve into. There are no physical addresses in Ethiopia. None. Crazy. My brain hurts over the thought of the disorganization. Their days begin at 6 A.M. so what we know as 8:30 is really 2:30. Confusing? Only to us.

Are you eager to know more about Ethiopia? Ask away! Or better: come visit us!