Gourmet Expat Food: When Dinner is Popcorn and Bananas

(this post was originally published on the Multi-Cultural Kids blog)

My first day in Somalia my two-year old daughter fell off the roof and I had to make spaghetti from tomatoes (no jar of Ragu) and beef (ground by yours truly) and noodles boiled in water that my husband drew from a cistern out front.

Once we figured out how to keep kids from falling off roofs and I figured out how to make spaghetti, that was all I did. Keep the kids safe, and prepare and eat lunch. The same, gross food every single day, with the occasional, even worse, cabbage soup made by a neighbor for variety.

I was studying language, studying how to wear a headscarf, studying how to walk without rolling an ankle, and failing miserably at all of it. My husband taught at the University and came home hungry and was served: spaghetti. Sometimes with bone chips in the meat, often without spices, and always with too much oil and soggy noodles because I let them overcook while keeping the twins out of trouble.

We had no refrigeration and I was exhausted from morning market trips, language study and cultural shock, and from toddler twins, that by the time dinnertime rolled around, all I could do was slam bananas and a big bowl of oil-popped popcorn on the table and say, “Eat.”

Night after night, bananas and popcorn. Sometimes a stale baguette smeared with rancid butter and overly sweet jam for dessert.

This was what we now call our ‘popcorn and bananas season,’ It lasted long enough for both of us to lose quite a bit of weight and the spaghetti and soup were so bad that we still gag when we talk about it.

I wanted to do better. We wanted to eat healthy, we wanted to eat a balanced diet with a reasonable amount of variety. But there are times when the best that an expatriate can do is popcorn and bananas. Here is my criteria for when popcorn and bananas count as nutritional, lovingly-provided, and sufficient for dinner:

  1. When moving to a new country. Especially if your village in this country has no fast food, no delivery, no restaurants, no refrigeration, no canned or boxed meals, and no running water.
  2. When you have toddler twins. Or one toddler. Or an infant.
  3. When those toddler twins have miraculously survived falling from roofs and have grown into teenagers and have recently been dropped off at boarding school three countries away and all you can do is sit on the couch and cry.
  4. When you return home after driving around the country on roads that aren’t really roads and are detained by police for inadvertently taking photos of the President’s house and get two flat tires and have a broken jack.
  5. When jet lag sinks in and you can only stumble through the house, blindly swiping at food that looks vaguely familiar.
  6. When all the food in the store is labeled in a language you don’t know but bananas are shaped like bananas in every language.
  7. When there were only three eggs in the market and the other American in the village already bought them all.
  8. When the chickens who laid those eggs are only slaughtered on Fridays and are so small you need a whole one for each member of your family and so tough you can’t even chew the meat anyway. (But chicken is not spaghetti so your family will thank you.)
  9. When you don’t know how to cook from scratch yet.
  10. When you convince yourself that popcorn and bananas is actually healthier than Kraft Mac and Cheese, McDonalds, or peanut butter and jelly on white bread anyway and that is what you used to call a meal, back in that other country that is starting to fade from memory as you try to absorb this new one.

Expat, I know you have the best of intentions for yourself and your family. And I also know there are times you only have the strength to summon up popcorn and bananas. That is okay. Serve it with pride and enjoy the adventure.

Did any of your early cooking attempts turn into utter failures? What meal does your family still gag when thinking about?

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Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Check out her latest book, Stronger than Death: https://amzn.to/2P3BWiK Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter http://www.djiboutijones.com/contact/

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