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After Work: Longing For A Taste Of Tanzania

...We were armed with cameras, going here and there looking at wildlife that looked back at us. The elephants chewed and flapped their ears. The lions squinted and yawned. The hippos twirled their ears and ducked under the water. The wildebeest wheeled and galumphed away, kicking up red clouds of dust. The giraffes were beguiling – long necks, long legs, long eyelashes and long attention spans, which is why most of our best shots are of giraffes. They pose so well....

Dona Gibbs recalls game watching in Tanzania, and dreams of eating African food in New York.

A new restaurant has recently opened in New York City.

“No news there,” you yawn. Two or three open almost every week while two or three close. New Yorkers are fickle, if not picky eaters, ever on the prowl for new tastes.

They’re likely to find some exotic dishes at Merkato, a Pan African restaurant. At least I hope so. It’s a new venture by Marcus Samuelsson, the acclaimed Ethiopian-born chef who was adopted by a Swedish couple. His first restaurant was Aquavit and featured Scandinavian cuisine. Merkato is to be an exploration of the tastes of Africa.

Maybe finally, I’ll get to sample Tanzanian food.

Years ago I was in Tanzania, or at least rattled over a few roads, tracks and dry river beds in three different parts of the country. Since Tanzania is roughly twice the size of California, I can’t claim any in-depth knowledge of anything I bumped up against.

We were three women accompanying a fourth, an old Africa hand. This was her seventh visit to African game parks and she planned the itinerary. So if anybody says knowingly, “Well you certainly must have spent some time at Treetops,” I shake my head. Or then they try, “What about Lake Victoria?” Again a headshake. Finally they venture, “The Ngorongoro Crater?” No, we were off the standard tourist path.

We were armed with cameras, going here and there looking at wildlife that looked back at us. The elephants chewed and flapped their ears. The lions squinted and yawned. The hippos twirled their ears and ducked under the water. The wildebeest wheeled and galumphed away, kicking up red clouds of dust. The giraffes were beguiling – long necks, long legs, long eyelashes and long attention spans, which is why most of our best shots are of giraffes. They pose so well.

Seems like all human beings love the experience of the new and novel. Yet the new isn’t new only for a day or two at most.

I settled into a routine. Up at dawn. Watch elephants cross the river. Drink a smoky cup of tea. Wait for armed guide to escort my tent mate and me two hundred yards to breakfast. Eat enormous breakfast while hearing everyone’s anti-malaria induced dream. Climb into Land Rover. Look for Simba (Lion, for those of you who’ve never watched the Discovery Channel.) See Simba. Take picture of Simba. Back for huge lunch. Nap. Climb into the in Land Rover once again. More animals. Return to camp. Bucket shower. Cocktails. Dinner. Back to tent. Listen to elephant scratching her back on the tent ropes. Fall asleep lulled by her tummy grumbles.

In a vast country filled with complexities, vagaries of climate, conflicts and the everyday struggle for survival, I was sheltered from all unpleasantness. We were cosseted by sumptuous meals, elaborate European cuisine prepared by unseen cooks. Someone spirited away our yesterday’s dusty clothes and laundered them with care. Our tents were tidied daily. The paths were cleaned of elephant droppings.

I was free of all the petty details of daily life. Free to enjoy the sky, the sculptural trees, the herds of animal, but it was Tanzania Lite. It was a vacation, not travel, and not one jot different from anybody else’s photo safari, I’ll wager. I’ve seen enough photo albums to think that’s a safe bet.

I should have left well enough alone, but there’s something in me that likes to stir the pot.
And I was looking to do just that. I wanted to assist with the evening meal preparation. How did they come up with such glorious meals that even included fresh baked desserts with only a wood fire?

“O.K.”, the genial African camp head agreed. I’d be allowed to “help.”

I should have taken note that he didn’t reply, “No problem”. That seems to be the universal phrase of agreement. O.K., might have a slight begrudging overtone.

I walked back to the kitchen tent. The fire was already going. One cook was expertly cutting beef into precise cubes. Another was dicing vegetables. I looked around for another knife to join in the prep work; there was none.

“Only two knives?” I was incredulous.

The men grinned and shrugged.

I carried some soiled utensils to a pail of soapy water and swished them around and then dunked them into another pail of hot water.

There was a shocked intake of breath. The water was to be poured over the washed utensils, not dunked. Oops.

“Please,” I asked. “Couldn’t we prepare one authentic Tanzanian dish?”

“Miss, you wouldn’t like it,” was the answer.

“What is it?”

“Corn meal mush,” I was informed.

I persisted, “Do you use white corn meal or yellow corn meal?”

Eye rolling ensued.

“We use white, miss. Yellow corn meal is for poor people.”

I was told that in times of drought subsidies often take the form of maize. Years ago the United States sent yellow corn meal so it’s associated with hard times. A small fact perhaps, but for me symbolic of how much I didn’t understand.

Later I was told that the men at the cook tent had been chagrined at my intrusion. What I hadn’t realized that in their tribes, cooking was women’s work. So was cleaning. So was laundry. And it was shameful for men to engage in these tasks. I had uncovered a secret. And they were deeply embarrassed.

So I never had Tanzania food. I hope I can soon. And, yes, it does include more than white corn meal. Coconut milk, fruits, sweet potatoes, rice, beans and spices all have a role, I read

I notice with that at Sammuelson’s new venture he’s appointed a woman executive chef. Probably just an interesting coincidence.


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