Acquired Tastes

My African friends said the meal was good. Just good. Frankly, it was gourmet, and I challenge anyone else to do better in a place with no water, no electricity, no paved roads. I’d made lamb skewers with onions and tomatoes and mango. Good? It was utterly delicious. I’d been eating rice for a month.

Aiesha finally asked me what the flavor on the meat was and I pointed to the bottles on her dirt floor. I’d scoured the town for condiments and managed to assemble a vinegar-chili-sugar marinade. She seemed incredulous. “There’s a whole bottle of vinegar in this meal!” she confided to a friend. Expensive, at least for Ghourma-Rharous, a town of mud houses for 3000 people on the edge of the Sahara desert.

The only other white person in town was my friend Rebecca, who was devouring the gourmet meal with an exquisite expression. Such subtlety of flavor, she seemed to be saying to me as she tore into her brochette. Such delicious fresh food – I’d hand carried the mangoes from 200km away, and we’d had to ask around to buy the tomatoes, like contraband goods. Such a feat of culinary invention in the most trying of circumstances. Such artful cooking. Such– refinement!

And the Africans were having none of it, munching on this ingenious masterpiece like it was nothing special.

Flash forward to the dark wood table of a modern penthouse. I could never afford to live here, but my friend can. The floor is marble. The wine is unpronounceable. It’s good. I like the taste. He’s spent years studying wine. This is a bottle of something expensive.

I am quite sure it’s lost on me.

I stare at the half bottle and wonder at the pleasures of his life, if I could only learn to appreciate them. Once I thought wine snobbery pretentious. Maybe it still is, but now I understand that the things you love are learned.

And yet I still have the urge to cook sophisticated trifles for my friend Baba in his mud-walled home. But be clear: this is not about guilt. This is not about affluence. This is not about pity on those who can’t afford the good things in life. That’s completely ridiculous. Drink your wine. Enjoy your food. I’ve seen Tamils dig into beautiful soft paratha, Songhai men wolf down steaming plates of liver and onions, Russians gobble up caviar. It’s hard for me not to like my pleasures complex, but every art has its own perfection.

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