Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fear of Frying

I went to Africa for a summer to teach English and when I came home I hated eggs.

Everything about them repulsed me—the jiggling soft piles of scrambled yellow curds, the taut cracked shell lying in the garbage can, the slimy glug of a raw yolk separating from its white. Just the plop and sizzle of an egg frying in a pan sent shivers of disgust through my body.

This passionate dislike came upon me suddenly, vehemently, and lasted in some form or another for four years. Many thought it was odd; I had no bad egg experiences, no food poisoning or salmonella. I liked eggs just fine when I left for Namibia, but not when I came home.

During my time in Africa I lived with a family in a small, poverty-stricken Namibian community. I spent my days teaching English and AIDS awareness to 6th graders and my evenings attempting to connect with my ‘host-mother’ Mbula, a woman of only twenty-three.

The village was tucked away at the end of the Caprivi Strip, a thin piece of land jutting off the larger mass of Namibia straight into the heart of Africa and 8 hours away from the closest city. In a swirling mass of dust and heat, it was an unlikely society sprung of the Kalahari Desert. Dull brown sand covered every inch of the ground; gnarled shrubs emerged impossibly from the earth; small block houses interspersed with reed huts clustered along grainy roads and charred communal fire-pits. My skin sucked up the monotone color palette; even the sky felt brown.

The gaps in Mbula and my value systems were profound and similarities few and far between. We did bond, however, over the domestic. Mbula, who had luminous black skin and was often decked in a bright green wrap-around skirt, was terrified I would never find a husband unless I could cook, clean, and sew like a true Namibian woman. She taught me to sew (I can still reattach buttons very well) and wash my clothes in their laundry bucket (launching into fits of giggles when the bar of soap continuously slipped from my hand and disappeared behind the submerged washboard). She showed me how to make shima, the potato-shaped patties of boiled maize meal, which we ate for every lunch and dinner along with gnarly sautéed greens and the occasional gristle of unidentified meat. And every morning at 5am, as the sun crept up in the lambent desert sky, Mbula and I stood together in the kitchen and fried eggs for breakfast before going to school.

Each morning as I stood over the sizzling eggs, I tried to control my lurking but severe feelings of anxiety—an anxiety that I somehow managed to supplant into all eggs everywhere. Teaching was an exercise in control—control of the 40-odd children who piled in each of my classes and of the panic I felt knowing the little time and resources I had in my school. Between the ages of 7 and 15, my students were loveable and enthusiastic, scruffy and haphazardly dressed. They looked at me with wide, often confused eyes. My American accent made English, the country’s official language, sound as foreign as their local tribal dialects did to me.

In addition, a silent haze of disease hovered over the village. Over half of the population was infected with HIV or AIDS, higher than any other Namibian town at the time. Wandering through the village on a Sunday morning, I watched men crawl out of the bars onto the sides of the streets before passing out, intoxicated by 10am; I passed lithe young women carrying sacks of grains, wrinkled grandfathers butchering raw meat in the market, and children kicking a soccer ball in the nearby sand-field. Statistically, every other person I encountered was infected. It was hardly ever spoken of; the stigma of AIDS was a constant challenge to broach. I felt always helpless, always overwhelmed. It was difficult to grow so close to my students and my host family and watch them stew in this culture of desperation; their lives so contained in a stagnant town. It was so easy to feel numb.

And when I came home, ready for my junior year of college, I didn’t talk about it. I very soon moved to Italy to study art in Florence for a semester. I thought about Michelangelo and Fra Angelico, Provelone and Prosciutto, Chianti and Umbria. But I would not let myself think about my students—certainly not Mpunga, who always sat in the front row and wanted to be an astronaut; or Rose, a sweet seventeen-year-old girl who couldn’t stop giggling when we practiced how to use a condom on a banana in my Health Education club. I did not think about the other teachers there who were sick, possibly dying; or the way Mbula sometimes sat on the couch for hours at night, staring into space with no lights on.

Instead, I developed a hatred for eggs.

But over time, I’ve been able to talk about my experience in Namibia. I’ve gained some perspective and some understanding. And I'm happy to say that, in the last year, eggs have slowly come back into my life.

First they were scrambled, with some toast. Then poached, on asparagus. Their texture ceased to disturb me and I could separate the whites from the yolk between my fingers without cringing. I may even, on occasion, have found the vivid yellow of a yolk to be quite pretty, really.

And this weekend I made the ultimate break through. I fried an egg. (Two, in fact.) Then I ate them. And they weren’t half bad.

Adrienne came over to my apartment on Friday after a long week of work, bearing the promise of weekend cheer and a bottle of wine. It was on the late end of things and I was tired; I didn’t want to cook something complicated or long winded. And so I was very happy to whip up two easy recipes from this past week’s New York Times: Garlicky Swiss Chard and Buttery Polenta with Parmesan and Olive Oil Fried Eggs. It shocked me that I had such a burning desire for a fried egg, the last vestige of my African egg-phobia, but I hadn’t been able to get the recipe out of my head since I had read it on Wednesday.

It wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever made. I couldn’t find regular polenta in the grocery story near my apartment and so gambled with the (slightly grainy, mealy) instant variety. The swiss chard could have used a bit more time in the pan and the eggs, perhaps a little less.

But that is beside the point. It is a comfy, warming meal, especially when eaten with a good friend on a chilly winter night. And I was happy, because as much fun as repressed emotions are when taken straight up, they are far more delicious fried in olive oil.


Anonymous said...

Just came across this looking for egg recipes... what a lovely surprise. This really captures how study & teach abroad changes us... the things we cling to, the habits we pick up, the food we discard.

very nice. glad you're eating eggs again!

Michelle said...

This was a beautifully written memory - short but really poignant. Thanks for sharing :)

Unknown said...

Molly, you have had so many interesting experiences and you write about them so well.

Thank you for sharing yourself with us. You are a woman of layers.

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Anonymous said...

Molly, this wonderful story shows how food is more than mere sustenance. There is a definite emotional connection too. I think that is what drives us to cook--and the bloggers among us to write about food and cooking.

BipolarLawyerCook said...

Molly, this is my first time leaving a comment but I've been a long time reader. Thanks for such a True post about the intersection of our senses and our memories and our hang-ups.