What we consume consumes us.
Yes yes yes, that thought has indeed been expressed many times before, but weakly in my opinion, because it seems to me that the oft-repeated chestnut “You are what you eat” doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. “Eating” concerns not only the physical foodstuffs that are devoured, but also the manner and location and company in which the consumption occurs. That combination of subject, environment and process is what ultimately shapes who we are and what we do. And thus, the rationale for the following three short narratives, mileposts on my own quest of self-exploration.
* * *
On the drive down the coastal road from the tourist-bespangled airport of Cancun, Mexico, delving into the southern parts of the great state of Quintana Roo (the license plates here read “Q Roo”, which I think would be a great name for a children’s breakfast drink), we saw few other cars. Mostly the traffic was jam-packed local buses and rickety dump trucks hauling dirt and concrete blocks to the rapidly multiplying sites of new construction, gaudy vacation structures that would soon blight the entire coast. Real estate speculators were already remaking the pristine wilderness into the absolutely shameful Mayan Riviera that is today hawked mercilessly by cruise ships and the few travel agents that remain in business.
My brother, partner and I were driving a sputtering ‘70’s Mexican-built VW Beetle, that decade an era in which Volkswagen must have decided that shock absorbers were optional equipment. The rental was from a cheap and somewhat dubious agency whose desk staff didn’t seem to care if we ever brought the vehicle back once they got my credit card number.
We were on our way to a small stucco rental house near what was then the tiny seaside village of Akumal. The house, which we had found online in the US, was located just north of the main zocalo, the town center and marketplace, and was within walking distance of Yal-ku Laguna, a national underwater preserve. The salt concentration in this protected reef was reportedly so high that, during the pressure of high tide, the water rippled in front of your mask and looked like some sort of contrived special effect from a ancient sci-fi movie. We had seen pictures of the water. And “Space Family Robinson”. I was looking forward to diving in such an unexploited place, filled as it was said to be with tropical fish completely unique to the coast of the Yucatan peninsula.
So we traveled due south along the coast, with a few stops for adult beverages, as the day was incredibly hot and the car without air-conditioning. And it was vacation, a special holiday as we were celebrating my brother’s 40th birthday, and his first time out of the continental US.
It was about the end of the first six-pack that we passed a structure that caught our adventure-seeking eyes. We backed the car up with some difficulty – reverse may have also been an option for the gearbox -- and noted the place on our map. It was a restaurant. Though “restaurant” may have been too strong a designation. We took pictures of a hut made of branches, fronted by a menu hand-painted on a tall rusted plaque advertising Superior Cervesa es mas mejor. Superior, which is indeed better, is also my beer of choice in Mexico. Underneath the beer ad was written a message in whitewash: “Authentic Maya Foon”. That did it. We decided that we would have to return to this place for the “Foon”, but in our excitement forgot to note the mileage to/from Akumal.
And so it was that two nights later on my brother’s actual birth day, in the pitch black of a Mexican jungle, traveling on a road that had seemingly last been maintained shortly before the Spaniard Juan de Grijalva’s first steps on the Yucatan peninsula in 1518, we sought a meal. Our own automotive quest was punctuated every few minutes by the swarming of Lesser Doglike bats (Peropteryx macrotis, one of fifty-five species found on the Yucatan peninsula) through the dim headlights, which did not have a high beam. There was no sign of no electricity on either side of the road for what seemed like endless miles. But finally, there was the beer sign. We had almost passed it, but I cut a hard right turn and we slid sideways quite nicely into a hard dirt patch in front of the building. The flickering light of beeswax candles was visible through the exterior walls of the structure. This was not a log cabin but a twig cabin, woven branches barely supporting the palm frond roof. It was, in a word, perfect.
We were the only customers, and as the owner/chef/waiter emerged from the kitchen, he informed us were his first in patrons two days. Though he explained unapologetically that never felt any pressure to bring in lots of eaters and lose his restorative siesta time. He had everything he needed, he said, and the people who found him brought him joy and a few extra pesos. He was happy to see us, nonetheless. And to make his happiness evident, he had brought a bottle of white tequila and four glasses – one for him, of course – to celebrate the joy of our visit. We drank a toast to that joy, and another to my brother’s birthday, and then he announced that he had the makings of two dishes in the kitchen that would match the scale of the festivities.
He had started a native pollo pibil earlier in the day, which should now be ready. These were chickens from his yard next door, which he had killed and dressed at daybreak, coated with Mayan honey from his own hives and orange juice from his citrus trees, and wrapped in banana leaves cut from the plants in front of the restaurant. These pollos he had buried in coconut shell coals that morning and left cooking for the day, and should now have roasted and melded with all the flavors. He said they were large birds, each enough for two hungry people.
The owner’s brother, who he pointed out was at very this moment sitting on a bench in the kitchen and waving to us, also with a glass of tequila in his other hand, had that afternoon caught a two-pound huachinanga, a red snapper, and he could fry it whole for us in coconut oil, along with some papas fritas, French fries. And he would accompany that dish with a salad of cabbage and home-grown tomatoes dressed with mild chilies, lime juice and sea salt. And of course the customary half-kilo of yellow corn tortillas.
We said we would take both a chicken and the fish to feed the table. More tequila and wishes to my bro for the happy cumpleaños.
We finished the bottle, and the chicken and the fish and tortillas, and ended up shaking hands, laughing loudly, and slapping backs in the kitchen some three hours later, still the only guests of the evening. When I asked how much we owed him – we had never discussed price – he asked if ten dollars American was too much. For everything we had eaten and drunk. We gave him thirty, and drove off slowly from his repeated calls of “Vaya con Dios” into the bat-filled night, enriched by much more than the food and drink. The chef’s brother had taught us the bawdy lyrics to “El Marinero Boracho”, “The Drunken Sailor”, and we sang all the way home.
* * *
Khaya-Nyama means the “house of meat” in Zulu. Khaya-Nyama the restaurant sits on the eastern side of Long Street in Cape Town, South Africa. I stumbled into it, carrying a camera kit, on my third day of documenting the trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard’s appearance at the Cape Town Jazz Festival. The result of travel to Paris, Tokyo, Osaka and Hollywood, the footage would eventually become a Grammy®-nominated film called “Flow”. But that day, still working and with a midnight set still to shoot, I was incredibly hungry. I had somehow eaten no breakfast or lunch in the midst of my own overbooked shooting schedule, and then suddenly in front of me there was this blackboard outside a restaurant advertised a daily special of “warthog ribs and barbecue beans”. How could I pass that up? I walked in, put my gear under a table, and pulled up a chair.
Besides warthog and crocodile ribs, the restaurant featured eland steaks, gemsbok, springbok, ostrich served in a variety of styles (the favorite a thick completely fatless steak served with a blueberry sauce, much too sweet for my liking), Southwest African lamb, kudu fillets, and Mozambique shark. All these are prepared South African style, which blends traditional African cooking with Dutch, Huguenot and Malay spicing.
There was a sampler “kebob” listed atop the menu, with portions of eight different types of flesh, none of which I had ever even heard described. I told the waiter I need look no further, and immediately asked for that dish and a Castle Lager, which I had discovered on my arrival as the country’s most popular brew. Beer has been a staple in this part of the continent for centuries, and the Sotho, Zulu and Xhosa peoples had been brewing forms of sorghum and maize beers here long before any Europeans arrived. So the locals know what good beer should taste like. I can also recommend Carling Black Label, which I consumed in some quantity, as was my wont after twelve hours of humping weighty cameras and losing aesthetic distance.
So I sat back with my lager in a chilled pint glass (that thoughtful touch because they noted that I was an American), sighed in pleasure as the first long draught of the beverage did its trick, and happily settled in to await my food. It was only then that I noted my actual physical environs.
Khaya-Nyama is decorated as a rural cave, rough walls textured and mimicking the simple dugout dwellings that fill the countryside. The dim warm lights mimic the low flames that illuminate those remote family homes. But then, with further inspection into the shadows, I finally really noticed the walls. More specifically what hung on them. Dozens upon dozens of heads of all the animals offered on the menu. Each with a different expression, distinctive animal faces that run the gamut from the snarl of a toothy warthog and the gaping menace of an open crocodile mouth to the odd smiles of the various boks and zebras, to the puzzled gawk of the ostriches. They were all different, and they were all looking at me. I knew that to be the case, even before dinner came out on a strange vertical contraption, a skewer piercing eight large pieces of seared flesh, suspended on a metal frame hanging above a massive plate filled with absolutely unfamiliar vegetables.
By way of my earlier food choices I could have just pointed upwards and said: “I will have one of those. And one of those. And one of those.” And after de-skewering the meat, the waiter actually did just that: “This is springbok,” he says, pointing, “and this is eland, and this the warthog, and this…” and continued through the litany as I looked up at the heads and then back down at the large reddish-brown cubes.>Every bite was intensely delicious, in retrospect some of the best meat I have ever eaten in my life, but only about a quarter of the way through the meal I decided I could no longer take the glass-eyed glares with which I was surrounded. I asked for a take-away box and departed the premises, to finish the meal later in front of a TV screen pervaded with American crime scene detectives who did not stare camera-wards.
The contemporary food authors who lament that we are too detached from the creatures that are our actual food sources have more than likely not faced the sight of those sources during their actual consumption. After this experience I must admit that I had gained more respect for what I had eaten than ever before. That was true even as a carnivore I remain. But it was a spiritual revelation looking into those faces, each one endowed with a taxidermist-rendered personality, while I had knife in hand.
* * *
Two very different, but defining moments in my eating life occurred during a stay in South Korea. One was a very simple bit of eating with new friends that occurred just outside Dongducheon-si, and the other, which required a very a different sort of human interaction, unfolded in the much smaller village of Bongilcheon-ri .
Both places are in Gyeonggi-do in the northern portion of South Korea, well removed from the comparatively futuristic capital of Seoul.
An older American friend, an educator who had lived in the area for many years, suggested one weekend that he and I walk through the countryside south of Dongducheon-si, to visit a small but ornately painted Buddhist temple and its accompanying historic hillside graveyard. Traditionally-minded Koreans are buried sitting up inside a crescent mound of earth, lines of which climb in terraces across both sides of whole valleys. The temple and grounds we visited that day made a deep impression, left me walking with the feel that I was carrying away an emotional weight.
We had walked cross-country all through the chill winter afternoon, and finally as we approached the main north-south highway where we intended to catch a cab, we came upon an orderly and picturesque dairy farm. The rice paddies and pastures surrounding the barns and milking house were frozen over and white with ice fractured in patterns by rice and grass stalks, while the buildings themselves were painted in bright primary colors, mostly blue and green. The scene was a charming painting in reality.
Then a door to a cavernous outbuilding opened and out came a lively, white-haired older gentleman, dressed in a traditional robe embroidered with Korean yin-yang symbols entwined in floral patterns. He beckoned, inviting us to come closer, and my friend answered his invitation in polite Korean, bowing and wishing the gent well. He was quite happy to have visitors, he told us, as winter could get quite boring, his own time mostly spent indoors with his cows and helpers, and few diversions.
But calling to those workers, he ushered us into a second-floor large western-style dining room that could have served as a board room, its dozen chairs each covered with a spotless white sheet. He uncovered seating for the three of us, and then spoke gently with my friend who translated for me, inquiring about how we had come to his farm. We were discussing family and life occupations when one of his workers brought in a tray with three plates and three glasses. On each hand-crafted plate sat a perfect ice-cold green apple, cut and arranged with care in fourths. In each glass, warm milk steamed, the intensely earthy liquid literally just come from a cow.
He smiled broadly while offering us the treat. The graveyard weight was lifted, and small though it was I felt this as comforting a repast as I could ever imagine. The memory sustained me for days, a calm vision of civilization amidst so much turmoil and chaos and sadness.
Then there was the food at Bongilcheon-ri, a tiny village even now, all these years later.
The place was completely isolated, and actually only existed at that point in time to cash in on a tiny US Army base called Camp Howze, which was turned over to ROK (Republic of Korea) forces in 2005. For Westerners of limited travel experience, especially in those days out in the boonies where fresh ingredients were practically non-existent half the year, daily doses of rural Korean cuisine can wear on the taste-buds. During the prolonged winter, white rice and kimchi, fermented pickled cabbage with chilies, usually form ninety percent of all meals. During my very short time in the area, other than the army chow on the military base, there was only one outlet where you could get the gastronomic diversion of western food, and it was called Miss O’s Place.
Miss O’s even delivered. For a price, of course. People who had tried the rustic café told me that the pizzas were especially good, and usually touted as still being quite hot when the pies arrived. Another close friend had recommended his particular favorite, “The Miss O Special”, to me, and insisted I try it before leaving the country. As an aside, O is a common name in Korea, like Park and Kim, the Smith and Jones surnames of Korea. My friend was quite aggressive in promoting the 18” pizza loaded with everything in the house, even though I noticed that it was significantly more expensive than any of the other selections on the menu.
One Friday when I knew we were going to be moving from the region soon, I didn’t feel like going out for food, or even making my own, so I relented and phoned in an order. Less than half an hour later was the pie was delivered, by Miss O herself.
It was at this point that I discovered the cause of the added expense. Miss O, a mature but quite handsome and well-dressed woman, even with limited English made it quite apparent moments after her arrival that the Special included a fifteen-minute demonstration of her own not-insignificant personal talents to be deployed while the pizza was being devoured.
I do not exactly remember eating, but I do recall being transported.
And I suppose that is what the process is all about.