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Daily Gullet Staff

Comfort Me With Om Ali

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1155608114/gallery_29805_1195_10886.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">by Chris Amirault

I gazed over the steamer trays at the back of the British Airways lounge, which held the middlebrow, quasi-Continental fodder with which every frequent traveler is familiar: salmon steaks under depressed fronds of dill, converted rice “pilaf,” well-stewed beef with too many button mushrooms. Turning to the beverages, I noticed with relief that BA had broken out some top-shelf liquor, which allowed me to savor, in lieu of a meal, two fat Johnny Walker Blacks on ice.

When I went back for number three, boarding was announced for my flight, and the pangs that had been flitting around my stomach all day finally landed hard at its base. I hustled out the door into the corridor and bumbled my carryon down the slim, lifeless corridor toward the gate. It was mid-September 2001, and I was in Logan Airport for a flight to London, one of the first international flights out of Boston since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon several days before. After that, I'd catch a connection to my destination, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Logan Airport was edgy in the week following 9/11, and I knew my presence at the entrance to the international gates threatened to make things edgier. I had been to Riyadh several times in the two years before 9/11, and I suspected that my fat, Arabic-stamp-filled passport would be a provocative document indeed. Sure enough, when I reached the head of the line, I was ushered aside by wary security guards and ordered to remove my shoes, belt, watch, jacket and headphones and to open my laptop and CD player for inspection. While my stuff got the once-, twice- and thrice-over, I was surrounded a growing number of well-armed representatives from a mishmash of security, police and military organizations: the Mass Bay Transit Authority, the U.S. Army, the Boston Police, the Marines, the Federal Aviation Authority, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Massachusetts State Police. I smiled at them; my stomach growled at no one in particular.

Anxious hunger pangs have a lot of obvious downsides, but they have benefits as well, such as providing the useful, contradictory distraction of purposeful attention in tense situations. As the workers worked, I felt less and less anxious and more and more annoyed. It pissed me off that I risked a bullet in the back if I tried to beat that security phalanx and snatch the king-sized Twix that I so desperately needed from the concession stand. When they started asking questions about the thick soles of my shoes, I decided it was best to wait it out. A few minutes later, re-dressed and -accessorized, I boarded the plane. My chocolate craving had been sated, and a few extra 3.35 ounce bars had been stowed away for midair emergencies.

<div align="center">* * * * *</div>

The British Air executive lounge at Heathrow’s international terminal has shower facilities, a solid bar, friendly staff, internet access, and the worst food imaginable between legs of a twenty-hour travel day. Not wanting mealy apples or a dry sandwich, and having rejected the booze-and-chocolate approach that kept me sleepless from Boston to London, I headed out to the terminal shops. Walking about also seemed a better idea than enjoying a Pimms Cup while staring out the lounge windows at jumbo jets on the tarmac, my approach to this layover during past trips. The view that had then held my interest prompted ugly thoughts about the tragedies of scale that unfold when such big planes hit things like buildings.

I walked out of the lounge to my favorite Heathrow haunt, a drab version of a London pub with a forgettable name and decent grub. I’d had meals there in the past and kept coming back because of the fine pints of bitter, whose perfect taste and temperature reminded me that I was in England, albeit in a very strange neighborhood. I ordered chicken tikka masala, the dish that trial and error proved was the best of the lot, and sat on a stool nursing my ale and munching papadums.

My stomach full with meal and pint, I wandered down the terminal into a few duty-free shops and, gazing with ardor at the scotch selection, contemplated the conundrum of trips to and from the dry Kingdom. I grabbed a bottle of Laphroaig, imaging how a wee dram would taste as the sun shined upon and the final call to prayer drifted over the burning Riyadh asphalt. I wrestled with the urge to buy a bottle, head off to the restroom and pour its contents into a well-rinsed Listerine container. As always, the thought of spending months in a Saudi jail for alcohol smuggling lead me to place the bottle back on the shelf.

I pondered the smoke rising off that Laphroaig as I ambled past familiar shops waiting for the Riyadh flight to board. Some stores felt exactly the same: drifting into and out of Pink, I decided again that their delectable shirts required a lifestyle and an income bracket that I sadly lacked. But other stores had been transformed by the events just a few days before. Shops selling Swiss Army and Zippo products had revamped their inventory, since several airlines had begun prohibiting knives, lighters, and nail files on their planes. Reading the signs about these newly weaponized items, I found myself playing a little diversionary game, wondering precisely how this and that had been changed by 9/11.

Suddenly my head was filled by an extraordinarily loud alarm, screaming on and off in half-second blasts. On my right, a massive security gate began to close off the entrance of the terminal; some shopkeepers hurried to draw down their own gates, while others just looked out, immobilized, from their registers. There were no announcements over the intercom, no security guards or airport officials appearing to usher us here or there. So most of us just stopped, looked around, and proceeded to do nothing whatsoever while dread and confusion crawled over our faces. In the intervals of the bleating alarm I could hear that the usually noisy terminal was otherwise utterly silent.

Then, just as suddenly, the alarm stopped, and it -- whatever it was -- ended. At first, no one moved, but as the gate at the entrance of the terminal rose, we all realized that we had planes to catch: purpose replaced panic. In the ruckus, I had dropped my carryon, so I bent down to pick it up, and I felt a strange pain in my hand. My fingernails had left deep, red impressions in my wet left palm. I decided that I needed another pint.

<div align="center">* * * * *</div>

King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh, filled with expansive, cool horizontal space and the quiet splash of extensive indoor fountains, looked as beautiful as it had on every other trip. If anything, folks were even more gracious than before, appreciative, perhaps, that an American had come to the Kingdom at such a precarious time. However, as the friendly cabbie drove up the entrance of my hotel, a group of Saudi National Guard troops scowled at me, one from beside a large machine gun mounted on a small jeep. Things seemed different inside too: the lobby of the hotel, usually filled with throngs of western- and Arab-dressed folks hanging around as the hour approached midnight, was empty save for dapper hotel staff, dark-suited security officers talking into radios and Army soldiers who had yet to start shaving peering awkwardly from their loose-fitting uniforms.

On each of my trips to the Kingdom, the front table in my hotel room had displayed a generous array of gifts representing Arab hospitality at its finest, usually a vibrant bouquet of flowers, a handwritten note welcoming me, a large fruit basket and most wonderful of all, a box of Bateel dates. My room-arrival ritual had always involved dropping into a chair, flicking off my shoes, and savoring four or five Saudi dates in a row, whose perfection made me forget my sore joints and fuzzy brain.

On this trip, the flowers were nice enough, as was the fruit basket, though perhaps less abundant. The note had been replaced by a form letter. Most troublingly, those dates were nowhere to be found. After my shower, when the room service food came, I poked the olives and pickles around the mezzeh platter for a while, then I realized that I wasn't particularly hungry after all.

<div align="center">* * * * *</div>

Thwarted by that initial disappointment, the search for good, sustaining food in Riyadh became my obsession. The next chance I got, I headed to the mall across town to load up on dates at my favorite store, and I grabbed a couple of pounds of spectacular nuts for good measure. Having those snacks in the room didn't do much, though, so I turned my attention to meals. I always had a bowl of bran flakes with yogurt and a big pot of coffee each morning, but that morning's preference dictated whether I took a full Western breakfast in my room (a poached egg with some facon -- the expat's wise-ass nickname for beef bacon -- and toast) or supplemented my usual with an Arab breakfast in the hotel cafe (foul madamas, olives, and some bread). Crucial meals they were, and often quite swell; however, they preceded, but did not follow, the sorts of stressful daytime events that required sustenance later in the evening.

Nor did lunch provide comfort. I typically shared my midday meal with teachers and staff at the school where our progressive educational project was located. Suffice it to say that, whatever broad cultural differences exist between U.S. and Saudi life, the mediocrity of institutional fare is a universal truth. As we slogged anxiously through the details of our suddenly and infinitely more complicated collaboration, I considered the fact that gloppy Swedish meatballs, queerly soft peas, breaded fish fried to remove all moisture, carrots cut in soggy dice and white bread sandwiches enclosing "mystery meat" laid a culinary common ground that schools must share across the globe.

I did, on occasion, have the ability to eat meals out during the day, but they presented their own challenges. It is possible, while in Riyadh, for those with heartfelt commitments to U.S. fast food to live utterly upon it: one can enjoy a Dunkin Donuts glazed stick and hot coffee (though not iced coffee, oddly) for breakfast, a KFC bucket with all the fixins for lunch, and a McDonalds “beefburger” (Saudi Arabia being halal, no ham, thanks) and fries for dinner. The boycotts against US interests hadn’t yet hit the Kingdom, so it was common to see Saudis lined up in two queues, one for veiled women and one for non-veiled men, at the mall Baskin Robbins, choosing from significantly fewer than 31 flavors.

While there are also indigenous fast food chains, led by the ubiquitous Herfys featuring an array of Saudified fast food options, there’s not too much street food in many parts of Riyadh, largely because the daytime outdoor temperatures make pedestrian traffic rare. Some non-Saudi food shops throughout the central city serve pan-Arab fare, cafeteria-style, but I'd only had a few meals in such places, driving with a friend to grab some middling schwarma and a too-sweet sweet after the more formal places closed at midnight. On a whim one Thursday, I tried to drive to the working-class Pakistani neighborhood where many folks in the service industry live, but I couldn't communicate effectively enough to the cab driver using his bad British English and my appalling Egyptian Arabic to get there. When I asked a colleague how to get there, he laughed, told me I must be a "foolish liberal," and insisted on sushi.

Not surprisingly, the sushi didn't cut it, and many similar higher-end places were also disappointing, serving overpriced kung pao chicken, curry, or kebabs. Indeed, like another desert megalopolis built in the second half of the 20th century, Riyadh shares Vegas's penchant for possessing every kind of food imaginable; unlike Vegas, whose restaurant quality has lately taken a turn for the better, Riyadh still struggles to provide the sort of dining that travelers to most large cities expect. The only place that I knew that served solid, outstanding food was a remarkable Moroccan restaurant at which I always managed to wrangle a meal from my hosts. I would sit down, loosen my belt, and eat three months' worth of delectable olives, tagine and couscous at a sitting. But that fine meal was work, as I'd have to hide my glee from my host, the school's director, while I talked shop, a delicate performance of rank and relations played out by 20 folks over three hours at the bedraggled ends of a fourteen-hour day.

Flummoxed by the lack of good choices, on the first few evenings I was in Riyadh I chose to amble out to the garden restaurant at the hotel next door to have some tried-and-true Middle Eastern classics: spit-roasted lamb, hommus, tabbouleh and a few platefuls of mezzeh, finished off with a heaping, luscious bowl of the puff pastry, cream, coconut and almond pudding known as om ali. It was perfectly prepared, delicious food, especially the om ali, which was utterly satisfying in every way. But it didn't take. Eating that food, like getting a massage, or smoking a Cohiba, or walking through the souk, did nothing to allay my growing sense of anxiety.

One late night, lying up in bed, I figured it out. I didn't need to eat. I needed to cook.

<div align="center"> -- This is part one of two. Part two is here. --</div>

Chris Amirault (aka, well, chrisamirault) is Assistant Director of eG Forums, the self-styled Czar of the eGullet Recipe Cook-Offs, and the proud owner of an apron displaying Yoko Ono's ass. He also runs a preschool and teaches in Providence, RI.

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I love the ending to this essay.

I know that compulsion to cook, even when you're too rattled/anxious/overwhelmed with life to focus on eating. As soon as I read that last paragraph, I had to go back and reread the rest of the essay again.

Looking forward to reading part 2.

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It was fascinating to note how you tried so many "comfort foods" before you realized that comfort was not going to come from eating but from cooking. Did you cook when you were in Riyadh on previous trips, or was this a new feeling? (I'm guessing the latter.)

I also wonder if you'd have felt the same had you gotten the expected dates in your welcome basket. Perhaps it sounds strange, but I've found that missing out on something like that -- something you love and look forward to, something that has become part of your ritual -- can cause disquiet on a level that's not apparent right away.

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Fascinating story, Chris. Just out of curiosity is this a true story or fiction? Either way it remains fascinating. Either way you give a very clear sense of the situation and the location.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

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I love the ending to this essay.

I know that compulsion to cook, even when you're too rattled/anxious/overwhelmed with life to focus on eating. As soon as I read that last paragraph, I had to go back and reread the rest of the essay again.

Looking forward to reading part 2.

Thanks so much for the kind words. I'm glad that the ending prompted a reread and anticipation for part two; I was hoping it would have that effect!

It was fascinating to note how you tried so many "comfort foods" before you realized that comfort was not going to come from eating but from cooking.

As the title suggests, I'll be picking up the comfort theme next installment. I wish that I could say I've learned my lesson about using eating for comfort in stressful situations, but it ain't so.

Did you cook when you were in Riyadh on previous trips, or was this a new feeling? (I'm guessing the latter.)

You guessed right. I had participated in the preparation of one meal made by a group of male teachers, but I mainly handled rinky-dink presentation matters involving the proper sprinkling of zatar over chicken.

I also wonder if you'd have felt the same had you gotten the expected dates in your welcome basket. Perhaps it sounds strange, but I've found that missing out on something like that -- something you love and look forward to, something that has become part of your ritual -- can cause disquiet on a level that's not apparent right away.

I think that's an excellent point, and describes precisely how that lack of dates discomfited me. Eating a good date has a somewhat ritualistic quality to it, especially in Saudi Arabia. There are such complexities of texture and flavor in superb dates, the sort of which I have never eaten in the U.S. And then, of course, there's the spitting out of the pits, which are often turned into various forms of inexpensive jewelry (prayer beads, mostly), and so have their own sort of intrigue.

Fascinating story, Chris. Just out of curiosity is this a true story or fiction? Either way it remains fascinating. Either way you give a very clear sense of the situation and the location.

Thanks -- and it's all true as true can be.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Great story Chris, particularly the ending. I identify well with the compulsion to cook; I have been known to come home from an 8 to 10 hour shift in the kitchen and cook for three hours (although this is sometimes fueled by the need to use food before it goes bad). Sometimes I wonder if I'm crazy given all the time and resources I pour into food and cooking, I know that I love it but I'm not always entirely sure why. I too am eager to see how the story develops, I have cooked in a number of kitchens other than my own and know that it often makes for an interesting experience.

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Enjoyed the article greatly. I also loved the last line, especially

as I am currently pondering in my life the realization that

what I produce (cooking or otherwise) is more satisfying than

what I consume (eating or otherwise)....

Looking fwd to more..

Milagai

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More.    Soon.

What racheld said!


Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

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Great writing! I had the same response to the first Gulf War: The constant, lingering unease was dissapated only by spending hours cooking curries.


I'm a canning clean freak because there's no sorry large enough to cover the, "Oops! I gave you botulism" regrets.

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You're in stellar company, chris. Although I haven't viewed the show, I see that you and Bourdain, (and countless others, of course) truly do look to cooking as a path to straightening out a world gone awry.

No Reservations

(I can't do it. When the world's too much with me I stop cooking -- it's so huge a part of my best world -- and spend Q time with Wavy Lays, California dip, my bed, and Janet Evanovich.)

I'm panting for Part Deux -- learning to cook in an unfamiliar culture in a faraway land.


Margaret McArthur

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1912-2008

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Thanks for the comments, folks.

I identify well with the compulsion to cook; I have been known to come home from an 8 to 10 hour shift in the kitchen and cook for three hours (although this is sometimes fueled by the need to use food before it goes bad).

I do this regularly, as the house cook with a more-than-full-time job. Last night was a bit much, though: after three nights with little sleep, I spent six hours making a slew of Thai salads for guests arriving from the west coast!

Sometimes I wonder if I'm crazy given all the time and resources I pour into food and cooking, I know that I love it but I'm not always entirely sure why. I too am eager to see how the story develops, I have cooked in a number of kitchens other than my own and know that it often makes for an interesting experience.

I'm not entirely sure why, either, but I have a few thoughts that I'll share next time. And cooking in a new kitchen (foreshadowing alert) particularly when you're cooking live for an audience of twenty is certainly interesting!

Enjoyed the article greatly.  I also loved the last line, especially

as I am currently pondering in my life the realization that

what I produce (cooking or otherwise) is more satisfying than

what I consume (eating or otherwise)....

Excellent comment, Milagai. I couldn't agree more.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Chris,

Nicely written, with a good feel of Lost In Translation, something that you have to spend a lot of time in airports to appreciate.

I had to fly to Saudi about that same time, just after 9/11 (from Houston, for my part), and you've caught the tone quite well.

It's curious, there's something about life in Saudi that draws a lot of the expats to cooking. Perhaps it's that there's no better way to make friends quickly than to feed them?

I'm looking forward to part 2.

Cheers,

Peter

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