This is a perfect example of a picture that I still legitimately think looks tasty. Feed me the bullshit, I still want it. (Image from funniest-commercials.net)
Ramadan started last week. As you probably already know, Ramadan is a time of fasting and contemplation, a time when denying yourself your physical needs brings you to a higher level of spirituality and compassion for those who do not have enough to eat. Indulgence of any type is discouraged, which is probably why my appetite for food porn has only increased. I’m supposed to fast by day yet watch cooking shows by night. Thus begins my awkward journey through the holy month of Ramadan.
This obsession I have with food porn is nothing new. Anyone who knows me well knows I subsist on it here in Senegal. Food porn is any media portraying delicious imagery of food. This includes food magazines, restaurant reviews, cooking shows, and things like McDonalds television commercials. All of it is intended for you to link the experience of viewing food with wanting to go out and eat it–or even better, to feel like you have actually tasted it. Like regular porn, food porn serves as a substitute for the “real” thing, and some people derive a great deal of pleasure from this simulated experience. I have been known to ask those I Skype with to carry their laptops to their kitchens in order to show me the inside of their mundane American refrigerators—I just love the sight and idea of food.
My host family is Muslim, and thus far, I’ve resisted mimicking them in any of their other religious practices like praying out in the open in our compound. However, I practiced Ramadan while in Morocco and enjoyed the experience. I figured I would give it a try here as well. Upon hearing that I would try to fast, most Senegalese people I spoke to said it was unnecessary, even crazy that I should do it since I’m not Muslim. Senegalese people tease you for fasting, then tease you for not being able to fast. Even among volunteers, the subject is hotly debated. Some argue there is no point in pretending you’re Muslim when you’re not. Others argue it is easier to go with the flow by not requiring extra meals and that fasting creates solidarity between the volunteer and her community. I’m still in the experimental phase, unsure of how much work and biking I can get done while starving, so I cheat by taking the occasional swig of water. Which I know is more like religion-inspired anorexia than it is Ramadan. But let’s get back to the story.
***Author’s note: Due to some confusion and the concern of family members, please know that in the end I decided not to fast, and instead realized it’s smarter to pig out on food and drink loads of water, like bottomless pit I am anyway. So put away those judgmental eyebrows and stop worrying!***
My first day of fasting here was relatively easy. I had been in a car most of the day so my physical activity was limited. On subsequent days, however, it became substantially harder. One day, I made the mistake of taking a 45-minute long walk in the hot sun since I’d left my bike on the other side of town. I figured that such an activity was exactly what a Senegalese person would do, so who was I to do anything differently? That day I held my composure despite the inability to drink water. I spent at least 10 minutes ducked inside an indoor ATM for the mild air conditioning. I later visited a local merchant and friend, Gari Diallo, at his store to sit and chat in the shade. One thing I like about Ramadan is the opportunity it gives you to hang out for a bit longer than you already would with locals, knowing that come late afternoon, they just want to relax, not do heavy labor. I sat in Gari’s shop for a while, amid flies and bags of rice, unable to fabricate enough saliva to feign the act of swallowing.
One day, I celebrated my famine by watching an episode of Top Chef on my computer before drifting off to starvation sleep. It was the afternoon and there were still several hours before it would be time to break fast. In a situation like that, with your mind on food and no energy to engage in any activity, the best way to pass time is to devour it through sleep. As a prelude to my nap, I figured the most fitting lullaby during my late afternoon delirium was a show about watermelon carpaccio, Moroccan-style lamb sausage, and bacon mousse. Sleep, and the dreaming that accompanies it, is my favorite way to cope.
Later, host mama Mari invited me to break fast with the rest of the family. We ate bread with homemade mayonnaise and drank kinkeliba tea. It was just a bite to take the edge off the preceding hours of food denial in order to segue into the evening prayer. Later, there would be a bigger dinner. I ate and talked with my host father Alpha, who seemed eerily upbeat after a hot day of stomach grumbling. We talked about how fasting is difficult and how you must have courage to endure the long day. I asked him why some people insisted on fasting even when they are sick or traveling (even though such practices are against Muslim teachings), and he said some people are just like that. He asked me why I’ve nested more than past volunteers (I’ve bought a chest of drawers, planted ornamentals in my yard, and generally made my room homey), and I told him I, too, am just like that.
The point of Ramadan isn’t to fast all day, then pig out all night, even though that is what you fantasize about doing. Rather, at the point when you break fast, you eat slowly and sip liquid just as you would at any other time, refraining from congratulating your mouth with water as if you’ve just finished a marathon. There is real grace to that. Until I had spent days not eating and drinking, I could not appreciate how difficult it is to function during the daytime without water, and how much poise it takes to sip liquid unhurriedly once you have it.
For me, Ramadan redefines the concept of need. In the States, we are indoctrinated with the ideas that we need vitamins, we need enough protein, we need 8 glasses of water a day, and further, that we have some sort of right to those things. If one learns to guide one’s mind steadily enough (something at which I don’t profess competence), one can delay those needs, thus realizing that they in fact aren’t mandatory, at least not right now. From this aspect (not to mention the increased emphasis on prayer and overall purity), I can start to understand what a spiritual experience Ramadan is, in that one is physically stretching the limits of what seems normal. As an outsider, much of my cultural integration is theoretical (accepting the fact that men can have four wives, knowing that lack of eye contact is polite) or verbal (learning to speak a new language, hearing “toubako” called at me all the time). Practicing Ramadan is one of the most acute experiences of cultural adjustment because it exists not only on a theoretical but on a physical level. The cultural friction, literally, is in my gut.
For all of Ramadan’s philosophical and spiritual lessons, however, I’m probably reacting to it in a completely ill-advised way. Ramadan finds me deep into Season 7 of Top Chef, set in Washington, D.C. I’m building upon my food porn tradition, which over the past year includes reading Anthony Bourdain’s food memoir, Kitchen Confidential, watching most of Top Chef Season 6, salivating over pictures of food in magazines and online, and reading countless food articles, recipes, and restaurant reviews. I’ve come close to clipping pictures out of People Magazine for its advertisements on microwave dinners and time-saving lunch meats. When I speak to people back home, I love hearing about what they ate that day, or seeing the mug of coffee they’re drinking while they talk to me on Skype.
Most volunteer friends cannot understand why I intentionally torture myself with images of food that I cannot have. Why make myself homesick, and possibly depressed, by seeing things beyond my reach? They slam magazines shut in exasperation when they see a picture of luscious cuisine, frustrated by the momentary desire the image created for them. I can’t really explain myself. Maybe I’m just different. I enjoy the agony as well as the entertainment. Rather than making me long for home, food porn actually mitigates my homesickness.
When people are homesick, they often miss the sensation of their house, their parents, their dog, their friends, and their way of life in their home country. For some reason, I don’t sit around missing specific people or places so badly that I would ever consider quitting my job here. I have not even gotten as far as planning a visit home. Yet, I do have intense feelings of homesickness and displacement. And for reasons I cannot fully understand, these feelings manifest themselves almost exclusively through food cravings.
I have had phone conversations with my mom where, only once the subject of food comes up, do I start to get emotional. Certain foods have a way of accessing my nostalgia like no other. When I Google a picture of the food I want, the longing intensifies, then is sated. Somehow seeing pictures of food is a relief, a way for me to focus my hunger before it overcomes me. If I were only able to imagine food, my mind might spin out of control. By seeing a picture of it, I can visualize it for what it really looks like and feel like I at least got a taste.
And despite my fixation on cooking shows with flashy cuisine, it is simple food that causes me to daydream about a plane ticket home. It’s what you grow up with—the local pizza place, the after-school Mexican food—that inspires memory and craving. I don’t care if New York has the best restaurant scene, what I truly want is what I grew up with in San Diego. Then sure, time and money permitting, I’d love to pick up where I left off in Brooklyn, trying out new restaurants and drinking good beer and wine.
I dream of going back home with full access to a kitchen, a barbecue, and a supermarket. I want to devote some time to learning how to really cook: de-boning chickens, making stocks, and buying whatever is fresh in the market and improvising a recipe off of that, rather than the other way around.
Yet a big part of me feels I am missing the point. Ramadan makes it blatantly obvious that food isn’t in abundance, that those with privilege need to temper their culinary whimsy. The global food economy is such that poor countries have no selection and scarce food, whereas supermarkets in the States would seem lacking if they didn’t have 30 types of cheese to choose from. Why am I so ready to bask in the unfairness of it all, as if it’s “normal” to have that much selection at my fingertips? It’s not normal, it comes at a cost to someone.
I am without answers. I am fine with my outdoor latrine, the leaks in my ceiling, and even the recurrent invasions of mold and ants in my hut. But I can’t seem to shake the adjustment of not having food that I love. As I write this the sun is still out and I am eating vanilla yogurt, drinking cold water. Whoops, that’s not in line with Ramadan. Maybe food is tied too closely to my heart.
***I know you may think this is crazy, but please comment with a note about your latest most memorable meal. I’d love to hear about it. Seriously.***