One of the high points of summer was a meal in Morocco, where four of us went through a kilo of meat (cut off a haunch by the butcher, ground, and handed over to a grill-man who turned it into kebabs), two loaves of fresh bread, a pot of mint tea, and a large salad. The bill came to fourteen dollars for the best food I’d tasted in three weeks on the road, and the salad was among the best I’ve ever eaten. The clamor and smoke of buses pulling into and out of the crossroads where this nameless restaurant was situated, the stench of the toilet, the battered enamel-ware on the battered card tables, the cats doing tenacious figure-eights round our ankles, the horror of watching one’s food prepared by a man who had forgotten to put on a hairnet or latex gloves, and who may even have neglected to read his Health and Safety bible, and the presence of a fly (accompanied by several cousins) might have distracted some from the excellence of the fare.
But I have not exaggerated that excellence. Our tomato and onion salad, dressed with salt, pepper, cumin, vinegar, and oil had the kind of flavor that in this day and age one tends to forget ever existed. The food columnist Waverly Root observed many years ago that the taste of a true tomato was becoming as unfamiliar to most of us in the last quarter of the 20th century as the taste of ambrosia. The Moroccan salad proved his point. The taste was fresh, full, startling enough to fill an old cynic with something like optimism. "So that’s a tomato!" I thought. I’d nearly forgotten that tomatoes are meant to be intensely flavorful — not mere vehicles for a color approximating red.
Compare this to the salad I ran across a few weeks later at a bus stop in northern England. It was a smallish salad in a faux-basketry plastic bowl bound with cling film, resting on ice. The time was 2:00 a.m., the "Comfort Centre" was nearly deserted, and it seems safe to say that the salad in question had spent several hours if not most of a day resting. It featured iceberg lettuce, that blandest of greens. There were several pale orange wedges of tomato, and droppings of the shredded yellow plastic hilariously nicknamed "mozzarella" by wags in the food industry. By way of exotica there were a few rusty-looking sprouts, a little cress, and something purplish and frilly. There was half a boiled egg that may or may not have been the salmonella homeland it appeared to be. Delirious with boredom and hunger, I actually considered eating the thing until I saw its eight-pound price tag. Delirious or not, it seemed out of the question to pay sixteen dollars for one of the potentially worst salads in the world when two weeks earlier three people and I had eaten one of the best, along with an excellent meal, for fourteen. Though a food-service professional must have made it in accordance with Health and Safety gospel, and added a pinch of cesium or whatever they use to keep iceberg lettuce "fresh," I resisted the salad’s allures and got back on the bus.
I am not trying to suggest that Moroccan food is uniformly superior to British food, or that the homeliness of a relatively poor country outperforms the sophistication of a relatively rich one. There are any number of performances one would rather experience in Britain than in Morocco; it would take many paragraphs to describe the badness of Moroccan beer beside the goodness of British beer, for instance. It simply seems odd to me that it is just about next to impossible to get a decent salad in the "developed world" when a hole-in-the-wall in the "un- or underdeveloped world" can produce not merely a decent salad, but an extraordinary one. Britons to whom I told this tale of two salads were unanimously unsurprised, and declared that even if you spent 150 pounds ($300) in London, you’d be unlikely to get a meal as good as that Moroccan one.
I kvetched about this state of affairs into August, then let it drop until a friend loaned me a book by J. Maarten Troost called The Sex Lives of Cannibals. The book is better than the title, a wonderfully written, funny account of the two years Troost spent with his wife in the South Sea atolls of Kiribati. On the way there the couple had a layover on Majuro, one of the Marshall Islands, a place that has been blessed with a windfall (or perhaps it should be called a fallout) of U.S. "aid" — our government’s way of saying thanks for years of nuclear weapons tests and the Kwajalein military base. Troost notes that aid money has introduced "new afflictions" to the Marshallese — namely hypertension, diabetes, and high blood pressure. He describes the atoll’s road as "one long traffic jam and alongside it were the fattest people I had ever seen, wan and listless, munching through family-sized packets of Cheetos…" Majuro was "built with the ambition of a strip mall, a place for America to traffic trifles to a people who in a generation exchanged three thousand years of history and culture for spangled rubbish and lite beer." "There was money on Majuro," Troost concedes, "but the overwhelming sense was one of poverty."
That got me pondering those salads again. Then I read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, a book that spotlights the wretched irony of how the self-trumpeting greatest/richest/bestest country in the world has managed to dump a tsunami of misery on a country that already had its share, and refer to the process as liberation. The good folks at Halliburton run the cafeteria in Baghdad’s Green Zone — a cafeteria described as "all about meeting American needs for high-calorie, high-fat comfort food." Halliburton ships everything in, from Cheetos to bottled water, and one can imagine how cost-efficiently they manage it. No Iraqis work in the kitchen. No Americans work there either, at least not in the "menial" posts. Those are staffed by Indians and Pakistanis trained in the culinary mysteries of deep fat and freedom fries. They have learned to make Halliburton salads too, which doubtlessly cost even more and taste even blander than their Comfort Centre counterparts. As Chandrasekaran notes: "None of the succulent tomatoes or the crisp cucumbers grown in Iraq made it to the salad bar." Halliburton’s renowned instinct for "profits" could not allow such a sensible thing to happen.
There’s something wrong when a rich country can’t figure out how to make or appreciate a decent salad — more so when choice ingredients are close at hand. What’s wrong in my opinion is the persisting assumption that such a country is rich. On the contrary, such a country seems frankly impoverished. For all the money spent there, Chandrasekaran’s description of life in America’s bubble fortress, the Green Zone, leaves one with that same "overwhelming sense of poverty" Troost felt in the Americanized Marshall Islands. Impoverished leadership, impoverished values, impoverished judgment, impoverished intellect, impoverished attitudes, impoverished motivations, impoverished notions of patriotism…. Halliburton grub seems about right for a clientele whose impoverished grip on reality still tends to allow that the invasion of Iraq was a grand idea.
William Blake began his poem Holy Thursday with a series of questions:
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery?…
And so many children poor?
He ended it with a ringing answer that must have confused some of his compatriots, certain as they were that they were living in the greatest, richest, bestest nation on the planet. "It is a land of poverty!" Blake wrote. One wonders what his verdict would be on 21st century America. As what’s left of the Bush government contemplates the bombing of Iran, we may yet witness just how bankrupt our rich and fruitful land has become. For all the talk of democracy and freedom, it is not clear whether we remember any more about the way they are supposed to taste than we do of the tomato.
John Liechty [send him mail] currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.