Eat more goat

eat more goat


I have eaten goat three times in my life (so far as I know).

The first time was in Morocco in 1984. I was visiting my friend Dave in Asilah, a lovely town on the northern Atlantic coast, and we decided impulsively to buy some goat meat and cook it.

We had no idea what we were up against. Goats (in Morocco at least) are tough. We cooked it for quite a while, but we still couldn’t eat it; the meat was wrapped around the bones like thick rubber bands. We gnawed on it for a while, but it was too tough for us. I think we threw it out and ate in a restaurant that evening.

The second time was here in Providence, maybe ten years ago. A work friend and I had heard about a good (and authentic) Mexican place on the West Side. Okay. Well, what do you order: something you could make at home, or something interesting?

They had goat on the menu. So I ordered the goat.

It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t wonderful, but it wasn’t bad.

The third time was just a few weeks ago. My student employee Joshua invited me to lunch at the Jamaican place across the street. They had “curry goat” on the menu. Well, once again: why not order something interesting?

“Curry goat” was delicious, and very tender. There were bits of gristle in it, and odd pieces of bone, but I think (when you’re eating goat) those are the rules of the game. Also, it came with fried plantains, and rice-and-beans, Caribbean style.

I’d order it again.

But oh my God: think of the poor little goat who died for this!


For Ramadan: Harira

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Ramadan began last week. I have some Muslim friends on Facebook, so I see lots of “Ramadan kareem!” messages going back and forth.

 

 

The Islamic months don’t correspond to the seasons as ours do; their year is roughly 354 days long, so Ramadan happens roughly twelve days earlier every year. In 1984, my first year in Morocco, the first day of Ramadan was roughly the first of June. (There was some trouble that year. It’s not officially a new month until the new moon is sighted in Mecca, and the weather was bad that year in Saudi Arabia. Finally, around the third or fourth of June 1984, Ramadan was declared to be officially begun, almost by default.)

 

 

Summer is a bad time for Ramadan, and June is the worst of all, because June days are the longest days of the year. Muslims are enjoined to fast from the time in the morning when it’s light enough “to distinguish a black thread from a white thread” to the prayer-call at sunset. “Fasting,” in this sense, means no eating, no drinking water (very devout Muslims won’t swallow when they’re brushing their teeth, and there’s a lot of spitting in the street going on, because swallowing your own spit might qualify as drinking), no sex, no smoking (tragic in a culture like North Africa where everyone smokes).

 

 

That first year, in 1984, I tried to fast. I couldn’t do it. I realized, after two or three days, that no one could see me eating during the day if I just closed the window blinds.

 

 

Later, in Tunisia, I was more casual. I knew I was a “kouffar” (unbeliever), and so did everyone else, so I closeted myself in my office and smoked and drank water and coffee to my heart’s content. One of my Tunisian coworkers, who’d studied extensively in Europe and who was very worldly, joined me.

 

 

Then, a day or two later, someone else joined us.

 

 

After about two weeks, the whole office was smoking with me, on and off. It was okay, because they were with an unbeliever, and I was exerting an undue irreligious influence on them.

 

 

Ah, kids, those were the days.

 

 

There was a restaurant in Tunis not far from our house, which was also not far from the az-Zeituna mosque, one of the most famous mosques in Tunisia. During Ramadan, about fifteen minutes before sunset, we’d go there. They’d seat us and serve us soup.

 

 

But no one ate.

 

 

We waited for the boy at the mosque to give us the signal that the evening call to prayer was complete.

 

 

Then, in unison, we all dipped our spoons into our delicious thick chicken / tomato / chickpea soup, and broke our fast.

 

 

Here’s a recipe for harira, the traditional Ramadan fast-breaking soup:

 

 

Harira

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Makes about 12 cups

  • 1 whole chicken breast, halved
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 4 cups water
  • a 28-to 32-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and puréed coarse
  • 1/4 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads
  • 2 medium onions, chopped fine
  • 19-ounce can of chick-peas, rinsed
  • 1/2 cup raw long-grain rice
  • 1/2 cup lentils
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped fresh coriander
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
  • dried chick-peas, picked over water

 

In a heavy kettle (at least 5 quarts) simmer chicken in broth and water 17 to 20 minutes, or until chicken is just cooked through, and transfer chicken with a slotted spoon to a cutting board. Add to kettle tomatoes, saffron, onions, chick-peas, rice, and lentils and simmer, covered, 30 minutes, or until lentils are tender. Shred chicken, discarding skin and bones, and stir into soup with salt and pepper to taste. Soup may be prepared 4 days ahead (cool uncovered before chilling covered).

 

 

 

I find this recipe incomplete. It needs ras al-hanout, the traditional North African seasoning (you can buy it online, or make it yourself from regular ol’ supermarket seasonings), and some eggs (Ramadan harira usually has pieces of hard-boiled egg in it).

 

 

Also: if you make this soup, serve it with lots of Italian or French bread, for scooping and dipping.

 

 

And if you don’t feel like cooking soup the long way, especially during this long dismally hot summer, I’ve discovered that Campbell’s makes some very nice soups in plastic bags, which are pretty authentic. Their “Moroccan Chicken with Chickpeas” is a very passable Moroccan shorba, verging on harira.

 

 

Pinch a penny and spend a couple of bucks and buy a packet of it, and enjoy it.

 

 

With some Italian bread, and a lemon wedge to squeeze into it.

 

 

Ramadan kareem.


 

Sardines for dinner!

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I believe that, if you crave something, you should eat it. Your body is wiser than you are, and if it’s asking for a particular kind of food, probably you should give it the food it’s asking for.

 

 

I crave sardines sometimes. I started eating them in Morocco in the 1980s, because they were cheap and didn’t need cooking and were good with fresh bread. Also, the Atlantic waters off the Moroccan coast are rich with sardines (or they were in those days).

 

 

I learned then that sardines are not always four inches long and are not born in little metal cans. The best sardines are seven or eight inches long, and are wonderful when you grill them. The Moroccan fishermen kept all the best and biggest sardines, and we ate them with pleasure in Moroccan bars and restaurants. The rest were shipped to canneries.

 

 

But even small canned sardines are tasty.

 

 

In Morocco, you could buy sardines canned with preserved carrots, and peppers, and tomatoes, and anything you might wish. They were all delicious. Here in the USA, you can buy them in oil, or with hot sauce, or with mustard.

 

 

They are pungent, of course. The house smells of sardines for a few hours after I eat them. And you really shouldn’t heat them up, because they stink like holy hell if you do that.

 

 

Sardines are full of healthy stuff: calcium (you’re eating their feathery bones as you eat their succulent flesh), iron, omega-3 fatty acids, phosphorus, protein. They contain next to no carbohydrates. They contain Coenzyme Q10, which is an antioxidant and does just about everything but cure cancer.

 

 

They have a bad reputation, I think, those dusty little cans sitting in the back of the cupboard.

 

 

Get those little cans out of the cupboard and open them and have a feast.

 

 

Live a little.


 

Good coloring

good coloring


Probably we all had at least one teacher whom we detested, and who detested us. Mine was Mrs. Velma Himmler, back in the second grade. (I’ve changed her name, fairly obviously.) She was short, and dyspeptic, and mostly angry all the time. I was very timid. We were like matter and antimatter.

Second grade was pretty awful for me. But this most of all stands out in my mind: Velma Himmler let me know in no uncertain terms that I didn’t color pictures correctly. I left white space between the horizon and the blue sky. Velma Himmler told me that this was incorrect and unnatural, and that my coloring was substandard.

I knew, even at the age of seven, that she was full of shit. For one thing, we were in the Pacific Northwest, where there was often a soft layer of white cloud between the horizon and the blue sky (when we were lucky enough to have a blue sky).

And also, more importantly: who the hell was Velma Himmler to tell me how to color my pictures?

Coloring, for children, is a perfectly uninhibited activity. You color what you want, the way you want. Zigzags? Perfect. Solid colors? Also perfect.

Then you get to school, and you discover that there’s a correct way to color your pictures.

I never thought of myself as an artist, so I didn’t take Mrs. Himmler’s criticism very seriously (though I’ve obviously remembered it after all these years).

But later I took up crossstitch. When I was in Morocco, I copied and improvised patterns that I saw in the local rugs – called “kilims” – and did them as crossstitch. I gave all my work away, so I can’t show you any samples, but I can tell you that they were lovely. They used every color. They were geometrical representations of fish, and people, and abstract shapes, just like the original kilims I was copying, and I was able to use all of the psychedelic colors of thread I’d bought over the years.

Good coloring? There’s no such thing. There are all the colors of the rainbow, and more. And shapes.

Kids: when you make art, use all the colors and shapes you know.

Use all of them.


Unhygienic travel stories

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It’s lucky that most of us do our heavy-duty adventure traveling while we’re young. We’re more resilient, and can take it in stride, more or less, when strange things happen. (And we know that it’ll make a kick-ass story when we get back home.)

For example: my student assistant Jennifer told me that, in China, you can use a dirty public toilet for free, but you have to pay to use a clean one.

But that’s nothing.

How about the time I chased a rat down the hallway in Morocco, until I saw it jump into the toilet and disappear?

How about the time I was having kamounia at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Tunis, and found weevils cooked in with the couscous? (I just picked them out and put them on the side of the plate. I didn’t complain. I’d just paid twenty-five cents for dinner; I certainly didn’t expect the Waldorf-Astoria.)

How about those kvass dispensers in the USSR back in 1978? (Kvass is a light beer, very refreshing, and I wish they sold it here. I think they make it by soaking bread in water and fermenting the result.)  It was sold in drink machines, just like soft drinks and coffee in the US, except that everybody used the same glass. (There was a little water-spout you were supposed to use to wash the glass out when you were done.)

But the best story of all belongs to my friend Mike, back in Morocco, as follows:

He moved into a simple house in El-Jadida, a beautiful beach town on the Atlantic coast. The house had no toilet; you had to use a privy out in the garden.

His first night there, he went out in the dark to use the privy. As he sat, he could hear an odd rustling around him. This gave him the creeps, so he finished his business, went in the house for a flashlight, and came back out to see what the noise was.

It was bugs. The walls and ceiling of the privy were alive with insects, mostly huge flying cockroaches, more than he’d ever seen.

He shrieked, ran back in the house, grabbed the insect spray (which, in Morocco in 1984, was probably straight DDT), and ran back to the privy to kill the bugs.

Do you see the flaw in his reasoning?

He went into the privy and started spraying, and they all started dying. And as they died, they fell, by the dozens and the hundreds, all over him.

I still twitch whenever I think of that story.

I dare you to top it.


Going to the beach

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When you grow up in the Northwest (as I did), going to the beach is a unique experience. The Northwest seashore is cold and foggy most of the time, even in the summertime, and not terribly welcoming.  Still, we went at least one day a year. It was a two-hour drive each way, to a little town called Long Beach, Washington, which was the usual beachfront honky-tonk town, with arcades and candy stores (I associate it with the smell of cotton candy, and I was there a few years ago, and am pleased to tell you that it still smells like cotton candy). 

 

 

Down the road from Long Beach is Ilwaco, a fishing port at the mouth of the Columbia.  (Ilwaco doesn’t smell like cotton candy; it smells like low tide and fish guts. But it has its charms too.) My father sometimes went salmon fishing on a charter boat out of Ilwaco; they’d go out very early, spend the day retching their guts out (the Pacific at the mouth of the Columbia is famous for being choppy), and come back empty-handed.  Then, on our way home, we’d stop in a little town called Chinook and buy a huge whole salmon for fifteen cents a pound, and pack it in ice in the trunk of the car. Dad would clean it when we got home, and we had a freezer full of salmon steaks to eat all winter long. 

 

 

In 1978 I relocated to Rhode Island, the Ocean State.  Here you’re never more than eight or nine yards away from a nice beach: Goosewing, Horseneck, Misquamacut, Narragansett, Moonstone.  (Moonstone was for a long time a nude beach.  Then the state decided to protect the piping plover, which (coincidentally) nested on the nude beach. And that was the end of that.)

 

 

In the Peace Corps, I was lucky enough to be posted to two places with beaches attached: Kenitra in Morocco, which has a lovely beachtown called Mahdia Plage nearby, and Tunis, with its long arc of beaches stretching out through Carthage to La Marsa. 

 

 

For one dangerous moment in Morocco I thought about becoming a professional expatriate, living in Tangiers with Paul Bowles and William Burroughs and the rest of the louche lowdown American crew I found there. 

 

 

Good sense talked me out of it.  But it would have been wonderful to wake up and look down at the Strait of Gibraltar every morning while having my morning coffee.


 

War in the Sahara

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Upon arriving in Morocco in 1984, I tried to educate myself in the history of the country. Being pretty simple-minded, I bought a French-language graphic novel (obviously intended for children) called “Once Upon A Time: King Hassan II.” It was the life-story of the then king of Morocco, Hassan II, beginning with a short history of modern Morocco and continuing with his saintly father Mohammed V, Hassan’s own accession to the throne, various assassination attempts (great for a children’s book, eh?), and something called “The Green March.”

Never heard of it?

Well, Spain used to own a big chunk of the Sahara south of Morocco. It pulled out in the 1970s, leaving pretty much nothing behind. The neighboring countries – Morocco, Algeria, Mauretania – all squabbled over it. The meager local population – Bedouins and Berbers – sort of wanted to be independent (which is to say they mostly wanted to be left alone).

Hassan II marched a bunch of Moroccans (not military, just ordinary folks) into the area, to establish that the former Spanish Sahara had always been and was now and forever part of Morocco.

As you can imagine, a war broke out. It was never a very hot war, but it flickered on and off for many years. (It still flickers.) Algeria and Mauretania were of course delighted to help the Sahroui rebels (who united under the name “Polisario”). Hassan had a nasty little war on his hands – and, if you accept that the Western Sahara was part of Morocco, it was a civil war.

Kenitra, where I lived in 1984 and 1985, is in northern Morocco, and is the home of a very large air-force base. One morning in summer 1984, I woke to feel the whole house trembling. I looked out the window to see whole squadrons of planes flying south.

Later that day, I went to Casablanca by train to visit some American friends. “We went to Fez the other day on the train,” they said, “but we were delayed for more than an hour, because a bunch of troop trains were in our way.”

A few days after that, I was reading the International Herald Tribune when I saw the following item: “Massive rebel offensive in the Western Sahara.”

Well, no kidding!

We heard later that the news of the rebel offensive arrived in Rabat while the king was playing golf. His servants were under orders not to disturb the king during a game, so the military attache was hopping up and down at the edge of the course while the king finished his eighteen holes.

One of my Peace Corps friends was at the time assigned to a town in the deep south, close to the Sahroui border, in a town called Tan Tan. According to him, it was dismal: dry, forlorn, desolate. (He described a man whipping a poor forlorn donkey to death in the street.) Finally my friend left town with a crazy American paramilitary, who, as his guardian angel, probably saved his life, because the Polisario pretty much flattened Tan Tan shortly afterward.

I got to know the paramilitary guy after that. He was pretty amazing. The front license plate on his car was completely illegible, because driving at 90mph through the Moroccan desert had erased it. He was also very nice.

And he saved my Peace Corps friend’s life, I think.

So, kids: did you know about this war?

And, if not, what does this tell you about the American educational system, and the American media?

I’m just sayin’.

Start watching BBC, if you know what’s good for you. There’s a whole big fractious world out there that you don’t know the half of.

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