(What I Got) Out of Africa

A Brief Peace Corps Experience Told in Short Breaths and Countless Letters

Monday, November 17, 2003

Canned Meat

Last night, I dreamed about canned chicken. It didn’t just make a guest appearance—it was the star, the main act, center stage.

Is this what my life has come to? Dreaming about packaged meat products? Who knew I’d wake up feeling excited and slightly aroused from the thought of juicy, flakey, sweet…I’d getting a bit carried away now, aren’t I?

Right now, I’m living every health-nut’s fantasy. People pay thousands of dollars to eat my diet. Fresh. Raw. Unprocessed. Not refined. No added preservatives. And all I want is processed cheese.

I received a package in my Posta box yesterday. The volunteer previously living in my house sent the package, so she obviously knew what a PCV really wanted. The padded envelope was filled with all sorts of modern conveniences—scented candles, lip-gloss, fizzing laundry detergent, a trashy magazine filled with bits of celebrity gossip and articles on “How to Bond with your Man and Make him Yours!” However, the crowning glory, the prize…a small zip-locked baggie containing smooth, round elbows of macaroni and a packet of dry, processed cheese. Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese.

I cried.

I kid you not. I actually shed tears at the sight of bright orange, crumbly, delicious processed and dehydrated cheese. Really. This girl, this former PCV, became a goddess in my eyes. I think I’m in love. Anyways, after drying my eyes and apologizing to the Posta ladies (I think they were concerned I’d had news of a death in the family), I jumped into the nearest matatu and held my breath in anticipation as my mouth watered at the thought of Kraft’s Cheesiest. I ran up the hill to my pink house and put some water on to boil. A watched pot on an open flame never boils and I’ve never felt the truth more keenly. It was the longest 11 minutes of my life.

I drained the macaroni, dumped in three tablespoons of milk (straight from the cow) and margarine and slowly—so as not to waste a single particle—opened the packet containing the crumbly, orange cheese. I poured the cheese into the suferia and stirred, mixing out the gooey clumps of cheese. Almost reverently, I tore open the now-empty white foil envelope and licked (practically sensuously) the lining, making sure I consumed every speck of cheese. I wouldn’t have traded that moment of tangy cheese melting on my tongue for anything. The experience (honestly) far surpassed some foreplay I’ve had.

After I mixed the mac and cheese, I lifted the spoon straight out of the pot—in lust, who has time for extra bowls?—and oh my god, I swear I almost had an orgasm right there in my tiny, turquoise out-kitchen. Seriously.

So yes. This is what my life has become—faux sex in my kitchen with packaged macaroni and cheese. But let me tell you, food here may be au natural but it tastes bland. Shit, really. I never thought of salt as a “seasoning” but god, it really makes a difference. I mean, really adds flavor. Who knew?
The ingredients available in Kenya are diverse; you can get mangos and coconuts, fish and lamb, bananas and curries. Unfortunately, my area of the country (Southwest Rift Valley region) has a very limited supply of..well, anything. There’s plenty of food available, in terms of calories, but little diversity. My four food groups are tomatoes, onions, rice and beans. Try being creative with that. I’m eating so many onions, I’m beginning to sweat onions. It’s kind of like the morning after a drinking binge when you can smell alcohol radiating off your body in waves. But onion. Somehow, even less pleasant than day-old vodka. Coming up with new and interesting combinations of food is tough. I only have 256 permutations to work with. It may sound like a lot, but let me remind you—it’s still rice, onions, beans and tomatoes.

This is where erotic dreams of canned meat enter. I didn’t realize how important pre-packed, flavored foods were to the survival of volunteers until I visited my nearest PCV neighbor, Erick. He lives two and a half hours by bike on a rough dirt road (god, I never want to do that again). But when I finally arrived, sweaty, sore and dusty from the long, aching ride, he had pasta with white sauce waiting for me. I cleaned up as best I could with the dirty water and sat down to eat. He smiled, “I have a surprise—I got a package this morning” and whipped out a can of chicken. I winced. Prior to living in the bush, the thought of eating canned meat had always made me grimace. He laughed, “Trust me. It’s good.” He popped open the can, drained it and scooped out a forkful for my pasta. I toyed with my fork, shredding the chicken. I tentatively took my first bite. I realize pasta with canned chicken doesn’t sound like 5-star cuisine, but damn, it was good.

I don’t know if canned chicken’s deliciousness stems from my certain protein deficiency or if it’s really just THAT good. I have nothing to compare it to since canned meat wasn’t in my diet plan prior to Kenya. But I’d eat it at every meal if given the chance. I’m beginning to wonder how I’ll adjust to life back in the States. Will I remember how to drive on the right side of road? Will I ever be able to wear skirts above my shin without feeling trampy? Will I insist on using a “Pee Bucket” at night, even when the flushing toilet is a few mere indoor steps away? But my biggest concern is that packaged food will continue to play a major role in my eating habits. I may never cut vegetables again (already pre-chopped, frozen) or bake my own cake (boxed mixes) or mash my own potatoes (powdered). After a year of slaving to produce marginally appetizing and flavorful food, I may never venture beyond the packaging again. Time will tell whether my cholesterol levels have something to be permanently concerned about.

Meanwhile, I’m going to nap and conjure up visions of canned chicken in all its flaky glory. This, my friends, is what dreams are made of.


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