January 11, 2009

Eat to live

Cooking is a whopper of a task for all moms (and dads, in some cases, though not in ours). First the cook must take inventory of her pantry, freezer, and fridge, in order to avoid collections of things like baked beans, marshmallows, etc. Next she must haul out her recipes, which are most likely not organized, and fumble through the same scraps of paper she has fumbled through hundreds and hundreds of times. The menu for the next two weeks must be hearty enough for her husband (which means meat at every meal) healthy enough for her two small boys (taking into consideration that Bright doesn't like peas and Zion doesn't like carrots or corn and she herself is very tired of green beans). It must not be too spicy (for the kids) but not too bland (for her husband) and cannot contain strong herbs (due to her own food aversions caused by pregnancy).

Meal planning alone can take an entire afternoon. Then there is the task of getting to the store to buy the ingredients. In America, that means piling your kids in the car, driving to the nearest Wal-Mart, piling your kids into a cart that is supposed to fit all of your groceries as well, and trying very hard to keep your kids quiet without bribing them while you push your way down every isle twice (because you will inevitably forget to grab the Jiffy when you are in the baking isle, and you'll completely forget you needed cottage cheese which is all the way back by the milk and then when you are at the checkout you'll realize you can't bring the casserole you signed up to bring to the potluck on Sunday unless you race back for the Durkee french-fried onions).

In our city here in Asia, grocery shopping is a whole other experience. There is a Wal-Mart, but what they sell is definitely not on your grocery list. We go there for baby wipes and cleaning supplies, but that is about it. I suppose if you'd like to buy a duck hanging by it's neck, or have your choice of hundreds of different kinds of fungi, then Wal-Mart would be your place. To find American ingredients, it is necessary to tour all over the city, in and out of cabs, to four or five different stores. To do it all in one day would take all day. We go to Metro for sliced bread, cereal, salsa, popcorn, frozen mixed vegetables, butter, cream, and pot-pie pastry. We go to The Wicker Basket for hot dogs and buns, frozen pizzas, cream cheese and other specialty cheeses (like mozzarella and swiss). We go to Carrefour for Land-O-Lakes extra sharp cheddar cheese. We go to Paul's Import Store for rootbeer and spaghetti sauce (in a pinch) and candy. There is a very small, very shady import store/booth on the other side of town that carries a variety of spices, cream of chicken soup, cream of mushroom soup, bar-b-que sauce, and vinegars. All vegetables are bought fresh the day of, at the market (which is too dirty for toddlers, so your husband will get to know the market very well on his way home each day).

After collecting all of that, it is time to cook. Preparing meals always requires TIME...time when the kids are sleeping or occupied (unless you enjoy toddlers hanging on your legs as your drag them around your kitchen). Here in Asia, however, cooking requires even MORE time. Sour cream, for example, is not available. To make sour cream from scratch, one must pour two or three capfuls of vinegar into a small bowl of cream and whip until stiff peaks form. Cheese is only sold in bricks, and must always be shredded at home. The meat here is very tough and must be tenderized before suitable to eat. That can take hours, and makes a big mess. Until you get used to baking at the altitude we live at (about 6,800 ft), your first year in town will be marked by one failed cake after another.

As one who used to enjoy meal-planning, grocery shopping, and cooking, I can tell you that after a few years of this, I'll be ready to burn my apron (or I'll be a master chef in any circumstance, whichever comes first). And as one who used to enjoy eating, I now wish we were more like automobiles and could just pull up to a fueling station and insert a hose.

Now, if Daniel and the kids and I were willing to eat Asian food at every meal, that would be a different story entirely...