Elizabeth’s Note: After a brief pause, we’ve got a new guest post to share, this time from one of my close friends, Maxime Billick, a native of Montreal. I first met Maxime many years ago on a volunteer trip to Dominica (pronounced Domih-NEEKah and not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) in the Caribbean. I’ve observed her passion for travel, as I read emails from her time living in Vietnam and Zambia, as well as her growing passion for food, culminating in the creation of her own food blog, Salt and Balsamic, where she shares recipes and muses about travel and life.
I love traveling. Most people do, and I’m not claiming to relish it more than the next person, but it’s one of the things that I live for. You know how some people live meal-to-meal, or awesome-clothing-purchase-to-awesome-clothing-purchase, or ski-season-to-ski-season? I live travel-experience-to-travel-experience. Week-long vacations are nice and I will never say “no” if one is being handed to me on a silver platter, but I thrive on the exploration that comes with spending more time in a given location; discovering the nooks and crannies, or stumbling upon forgotten alleyways. Overlooked oddities are the elements that hint – with honesty – to real people living in real places: clotheslines laden with mismatched socks, colorful marketplaces with tough sun-wrinkled older ladies, over-used stereotypical images embodied without regard for outside perception (think: conical hats in Vietnam and Zambian children swaddled to their mothers’ backs in brightly-patterned fabrics). The vibrancy is palpable even in daily tasks, and there is pleasure in taking the time to appreciate these details.
For me, food is a medium through which to get to know a given culture. Clichéd? Of course. But – in my opinion – the degree to which you value that experience, respond to it, and make it your own can never be clichéd. Let me elaborate…
Many people think I am a vegetarian and while I certainly love veggies and could go the veggie-only route for a chunk of time, I also love a big, thick, rare steak. With that said though, I am a big fan of sustainable farming, or at least recognizing the circle of life that feeds us. Can’t stand seeing chicken on the bone? Then you probably shouldn’t be eating it. This couldn’t have been more obvious to me than during the ten months I lived in Zambia. My time with Grassroot Soccer in Zambia was spent doing many things, but for my first four months I was a Program Advisor for one of our projects out in a refugee settlement called Mayukwayukwa. Established in 1967 in response to the war in Angola, Mayukwayukwa is one of the oldest refugee settlements in all of Zambia. Throngs of people who I met there were third generation refugees, yet there were others fresh from conflicts in Burundi and in the Congo. Many expressed sentiments of frustration and abandonment; the countries of their youth or their parents’ youth were no longer home, but Zambia refuses to fully recognize their rights, and denies them the title of “citizen.”
To say that it was a learning experience is an understatement, yet there was a bizarre sense of knowing that I was living a reality that would take weeks or months or years to recognize the long-term impact it had on me. Many of the friends I made there merely wanted to tell their story to someone, anyone, who didn’t know it; to someone who had contact to the outside world; to someone who might be able to help them. Francis was one such guy. He was a talker, let me tell you, and there were instances when I had to politely cut him off or extricate myself from the conversation. However, most of the time his stories were thoughtful and honest, and I could tell he valued our chats.
My last trip to the settlement (our grant was ending and there were no more funds for projects), Francis invited me into his hut and introduced me to his two young children and to his wife, belly plump with another child on the way. He had little to his name and little to give, but he bestowed upon me (and I genuinely feel as though it was “bestowed”) something prized and honored – a chicken. A LIVE chicken. It had been months since a cow had been slaughtered for the village, and meat was a coveted commodity. The magnitude of such a gift was not lost on me, and although a large part felt wrong by taking the chicken, I knew that denying it – even for as noble a cause as feeding Francis’ family – would be a grave insult. Many of the refugees had endured unimaginable hardships; I heard multiple tales of frustration and hope, of fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters decimated before their eyes, and of seemingly insurmountable boundaries, yet they clung onto their pride like a well-worn blanky. And I wasn’t about to deny Francis liberty and entitlement to his pride.
I brought the chicken – in a twine-wrapped makeshift cardboard box – on the cramped, eight-hour-long bus ride home. I had actually killed my first chicken several days earlier, but Francis didn’t know that. It was this exercise of owning the process, of recognizing what we put into our mouths and bellies was once a living, breathing creature, that brought me full-circle and solidified my belief that eating meat is right, if the process is done in a fair, humane and respectful fashion.
So here’s a chicken-killing story, and I’m going to give you a vegetarian dish that has nothing to do with Zambia. What’s the link? Just as we can learn culture and values from interactions surrounding food in foreign countries, I believe that we can bring those qualities with us to places and times that seem overwhelmingly different from a dish’s origins. Lasagna Mush – which is neither lasagna nor mush, but merely a term I coined when I was about four – is a dish that connects me to my youth. It was one of my favorite comfort foods growing up, and continues to remind me of home. My mother used to plop me on the kitchen countertop and let me help her sprinkle breadcrumbs and cheese, layer eggplant and zucchini, and spoon tomato sauce with tenderness and care – the very same sentiments I saw in Francis’ eyes when he insisted I take the chicken. My housemates and I found the ingredients in Zambia, and one night assembled our very own lasagna mush, halfway across the world from my mother. The beauty of this dish is that it can be made virtually anywhere, it’s humble and heartwarming, unfussy and finger-licking-good. It’s not sexy, and I’m not sure I would serve it at a dinner party where guests are expecting carefully sculpted, meticulous plates, but I would serve it with unpretentious friends, around a warm and open table, paired with a nice red wine and heaps of laughter. Sharing this dish exposes a bit of my vulnerability and reveals parts of my past, of my own culture. It’s not quite a live chicken, but I hope it will do.
(which is neither lasagna, nor mush, but more like a cheese and veggie terrine. Isn’t the kid-named version more fun though?)
1 eggplant (sliced and microwaved until cooked with a bit of olive oil
1 zucchini sliced about 5 mm thick
1 potato (one large or several smaller ones) boiled and sliced about 5 mm thick
1 can of stewed tomato or whole tomatoes (squished! Through your fingers!)
1 round of mozzarella, freshly grated
1 cup plus a smidgen of grated parmesan
3 eggs beaten, salt and pepper added to mixture
1 cup breadcrumbs with either lots of chopped fresh basil or dill stirred in
olive oil for sprinkling
1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Lay eggplant out evenly in a 13 x 9 inch glass rectangular pan.
2. Sprinkle about ¼ of the total mozzarella, ¼ of parmesan, a tiny bit of oil (about 1-2 tablespoons), ¼ of the breadcrumbs and ¼ of egg mixture (in that order).
3. Spread all of zucchini over the whole dish as the next later. Repeat mozzarella, parmesan, oil, breadcrumb and egg sequence, again using about a ¼ of the total of each.
4. Spread sliced potato as the third veggie layer. Repeat addition of mozzarella, parmesan, oil, breadcrumb and egg.
5. Finally, add stewed tomato, squishing the big chunks through your fingers. Finish by adding remaining mozzarella, parmesan, oil, breadcrumb and egg. If you have additional cheese, feel free to add as much as you would like!
6. Cover with tin foil and cook at 375 F for about 45 minutes. Remove foil and let cheese brown for about 5-7 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool slightly, and serve.