Just a heads up, this post is a little longer than my last, and involves a lot of food talk. Seriously, you might get hungry… so maybe make yourself a bowl of popcorn, or whip up some guac and chips, and get cozy!
Those of you that know me well, or maybe even just a little bit, know that I am quite passionate about food. I love cooking it, eating it, smelling it, snaking my head over someone’s shoulder to watch it bubble on the stove, and sneaking bites of my favorite dishes, before and after meals. I have fond memories of my mother and I going out of our way to chase down perfectly batter-to-frosting ratio’d cupcakes or walking what felt like miles as an 11-year-old to an Indian fast food joint for fresh, spicy, steaming-hot samosas. I remember proudly ordering grilled artichokes for a dinner once as a child and thinking it was the most delicious, fantastic, earthy thing that I have eaten (really, who discovered how to eat those spiky flowers, anyway?!).
When we lived near family, food was like the glue to our gatherings. My grandmother was notorious for her tender, sweet, brisket; freshly-baked challah bread; and an array of kugels (a Jewish casserole that could have a base anywhere from pasta to potatoes) available to us almost every Sabbath meal. My Romanian grandmother was the queen of shnitzel and bourekas (savory puff pastries that we loved filled with mashed potatoes) and cake rolls filled with the lightest, fluffiest cream. I remember watching her in fascination as she floured and fried freshly pounded chicken breasts; amazed that such raw, bare ingredients could materialize into something so delicious. My mother, who I hardly ever remember using recipes, made delicious platters of rosemary-roasted veggies, or tender chicken in mystery sauces that we would sop off our plates with fingers when we thought no one was looking. Occasionally, I remember the two of us spending hours over the stove top gleefully making an elaborate chicken pot pie or a dozen-ingredient salsa, always from scratch, eagerly anticipating the moment we can declare the dish done and finally dive in.
Since leaving home my relationship with food, like travel, has expanded even further. I’ve had the pleasure of eating mouth-watering Thai curries, French croissants so buttery they make you want to cry out from joy, and perfect pizzas covered delicately in the freshest mozzarella ensuring, always, a stringy strand of ooey-gooey cheese straggling from your mouth to the plate. I’ve experienced the sweet and savory pleasure of Jamaican-style coconut rice and beans, the refreshing coolness of exotic soursop ice cream, and lightly fried off-the-dock fish so fresh it falls apart in your fingers before it makes it halfway to your eagerly awaiting lips. I could go on forever about the dishes that I love but I’m not sure I have enough hours or days to sit at a computer and write them all out, nor do I think anyone would have the patience to read them all… Besides, isn’t your stomach growling yet? Mine surely is.
Aside from my romantic-style relationship with eating food, I have discovered that I love, love, LOVE to cook it as well. I relish in the power of making what your heart desires, and the satisfaction of a delicious, healthy, home-cooked meal, whether it’s for the ooh’s and ah’s of company or just ‘for one’ curled up on the sofa reading a book. Like my mother and grandmothers before me, I have become fearless at not following recipes; taking out a little sugar here (there’s way too much in most baking recipes!), adding a little spice there, putting a little more cheese, well, everywhere. Actually, maybe a lot more cheese… for cheese IS phenomenal. I so enjoy indulging myself, whether it is truly something indulgent like a brownie-based turtle cheesecake, or (almost) equally delicious to me, a mango and spinach smoothie. What is not to like about food? It keeps us alive, and it gives us such pleasure!
For the past three years, I have been a “flexitarian”: mostly vegetarian, often vegan, occasionally pescetarian, and very, very rarely a carnivore. What started as a subconscious decision due to an animal/human relationship course I enrolled in as a college sophomore, become a lifestyle change that I am rather passionate about. I have adapted from someone who was a hardcore carnivore – regular burgers and steaks, chicken and beef in all my dinners, weekly wing nights at the local – to someone who makes conscious decisions about where my food is sourced, how it was caught (fish), and how it was raised (meat). By no means is it a perfect system–affordability is often a factor for me-but I enjoy the discussion that it brings to the table (pun intended) with coworkers and friends, and I feel ethically, morally, spiritually, (and healthily) better off because of these decisions. The reasons for my choices, are perhaps, a topic for another post 🙂
With all that being said, something is weighing on me a fair bit now, in regards to my right and ability to choose what I want to eat (I realize, this is a BIG privilege, BIG. We’re spoiled in this nation, and in many other developed countries, when it comes to food choice. I am not beyond the notion that vegan/vegetarianism is a 1st World concept, that those who are struggling to make ends meet, will eat meat, and by all means should). Like I said, I enjoy it, I am food-spoiled, a fact I acknowledge and appreciate… but it’s all about to change!
Part of the application process and interview with the Peace Corps is discussing any dietary restrictions and how flexible you are with them. Certain allergies are just a no-no, it might be too hard if you are allergic to, say, eggs for the PC to find a safe place to locate you. Some have restrictions based on location; a gluten intolerance is do-able but maybe not in countries where wheat is a staple in the diet. The PC cannot guarantee what your host family will feed you and you are with a host family (two actually) for six months at least! If you’re a hardcore vegan who would rather starve than eat around the chicken in a dish, you’re better off out than in. A big part of joining the PC is being flexible, adaptable, and able to blend into your community, and therefore participate in important every day activities… such as eating!
I had an idea of all this when I applied, so I researched other people’s experiences in the Philippines, as well as the typical cuisine of the country to try and get the best idea of what my food life will be like when I serve. Rice and rice noodles are a staple in the Filipino diet… this made me happy, I could eat rice for days; I got this! The main proteins in their diet are chicken, pork, and seafood. Ehhh, this is a little more tricky for me. I would eat the veggies and carbs around a chicken dish if needed, no problem. And fish, if sustainable (and ideally local) is extremely enjoyable to me! But pork is, and will always be, a no-no… the Jewess in me just won’t bend on that one. Veggies are used, but more sparingly, and tropical fruit is available, though not necessarily part of most meals. And then there are sweets and desserts and an assortment of fried snacks that sound appealing but hopefully won’t be the staple of my vegetarian diet! When you look on the wikipedia page of Filipino cuisine, most of the main dishes are pork and chicken based, and only THREE dishes are listed under “vegetables”. With slight concern, I decided a test run of this cuisine would be a good idea, so a few days ago I ventured out with a friend to a Filipino restaurant.
A few miles from my house is a place called Ice Cream Junction: 1/3 ice cream parlor, 1/3 Asian foods store, and 1/3 made to order Filipino cuisine. It sounded a little bizarre, but it also sounded authentic… it has a 4.5 stars rating on Trip Adviser, and they have nightly videoke (the Philippines’ version of karaoke)! My friend ordered a pork appetizer and a pork entree, his choices guided by the help of the kind Filipino lady who worked behind the counter. I inquired about a vegetarian dish: pad thai (that seemed like cheating) or pancit (Filipino rice noodles)? She recommended both… with chicken. I asked if it was possible with tofu (it was listed somewhere on the menu) but she said they were out. I settled on the pancit, which she confirmed back to me, with chicken. I asked again for it without. She contemplated for a moment, then said they could take it out of the dish. I was ecstatic… I made my point and was going to get my vegetarian dish after all! Sometime later, our food came out, both pork dishes and one plate piled high of noodles and covered with chicken. I laughed a little when I saw the plate, and tried some of the noodles and veggies before giving up… it was good, but I’m not in the PC yet, so didn’t feel the need to push my vegetarianism while I didn’t have to, and my friend happily took home my leftovers 🙂
Later that evening, I mulled over my Filipino lunch experience and actually felt twangs of disappointment, and a little bit of anxiety. Am I going to be living off of picked-around rice noodles (a breakfast, lunch, and dinner staple, I’ve now been told) for 27 MONTHS? I woke up the next day dreaming of the aromatic Indian food that was available across the street from the Filipino restaurant… and cheese. And for three days since ‘the lunch’, I have woken up dreaming… of cheese. Soft creamy brie, melt-in-your-mouth cheddar, herby gouda, and a rich, velvety Camembert are swimming through my dreams. I feel like the cheeses are trying to speak to me, I think they’re saying ‘EAT US’ but they’re a little hard to understand, their mouths being so full of delicious, ooey-gooey cheese. I thought of the advice the Facebook group of current PC Philippines volunteers has given me, “don’t worry about packing, spend time with your family, drink good beer and eat a lot of cheese”. So why am I not eating cheese?! Why is there not cheese in my house RIGHT NOW?! What is life without cheese?! Okay, I’m getting a little dramatic here… I am secretly kind of pleased that my biggest worry about this big adventure so far, is cheese. I know I’ve lived off of rice and beans for months before, so I’m sure I can live off of rice and… whatever else it is I find to eat there. It is just food, after all. In the mean time, I’ve got two months to indulge… I can worry about rice noodles when they’re staring me in the face. For now, I think I’m going to get my cheese and eat it, too!