It was 10:30 PM, and I was sick and starving in Morocco. I hadn’t had lunch that day, and as much as I loved them, our polychronistic Moroccan friends had led us on a leisurely stroll around Fez for hours that night in search of dinner. It was late, my throat hurt, I was so hungry I couldn’t think, and my cross-cultural adventure face was starting to be strained.
We finally found a place, and my friends ordered for us in Moroccan Arabic. We waited for forty-five minutes, during which I tried to loudly start a conversation every time my stomach was about to issue forth another desperate rumble. Finally, the food came.
What was placed in front of me was literally chunks of fat in a bowl.
You know how when you make bacon, some people pour the grease into one big jar, and then use that as lard or throw it away after? It was like someone cut some cubes off that, and put them in a bowl with some broth.
My first instinct was to get up and run from the table, like I did once when I was about seven and my mom made a quiche that terrified me. But as I fought to keep my everything’s-fine face on, Mohammed began very passionately describing the painstaking process by which this very traditional Moroccan dish is slow-cooked at very low heat to make it as tender as possible.
There was nothing to do but chew the fat.
My friend Kristen looked a little green as she surveyed her bowl of fat. There was no way she was going first. So, with as much gusto as I could muster, I stabbed a chunk of fat with my fork and shoved it in my mouth. As soon as my teeth slid slowly and sickeningly through it, my gag reflex put its foot down; I firmly told it off while nodding, smiling, and saying, “Ah, oui, c’est bon, ca!” Kristen and I exchanged terrified glances, and she very timidly took a bite. I tried hard not to laugh as she clearly had the same physical reaction I had.
There were eight chunks in the bowl. And there were two lovely Moroccan people staring at me as I ate, with expectant, excited grins on their faces. So one by one, I ate those chunks of fat. With each one I popped into my mouth, my mind instinctively recalled a different past experience that had involved me throwing up, like how one’s mind will recall scenes from horror movies while one is lying in bed trying to sleep. I kept eating. Six chunks to freedom. Five chunks to freedom. Don’tthrowup. Don’tthrowup. Four chunks to freedom. Maybe if I have some tea right before I take a bite, I won’t be able to taste it. Three chunks to freedom. Oh god, abort tea tactic, ABORT TEA TACTIC! Two chunks or bust. Turn that gag into a smile! One chunk. Just one chunk. It’s little. It’s cute. Just eat it.
As I popped the last chunk into my mouth, Mohammed gave me a happy clap on the back, and it was almost enough to undo all my anti-puke self-coaching. But I swallowed hard, and I don’t think anyone heard the odd half-burp, half-gag that escaped my lips. Finally, I had a threefold reward after chewing the fat: the happiness of my Moroccan friends, the absence of more chunks of fat in my bowl, and the fact that Kristen was only on chunk number two, so I had dinner and a show.