A Minute With Mike

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 11/26/96.

August 22, 1996

I went a little overboard Saturday. After six weeks of early Saturday morning market trips, I finally found someone with tomatoes. They were small and green, but I didn't care. I was thrilled.

I'm hoarding a couple cans of tomatoes while I wait for my garden to grow, so I quickly became her biggest customer. I bought 45 tomatoes for a little more than a dollar.

Visions of chili, salsa, and spaghetti sauce raced through my head as I stuffed all my tomatoes into my bilum. I had planned to make hamburger stroganoff in the afternoon, even though I was missing the two main ingredients, hamburger and mushrooms. Instead I made chili over the fire circle I built under my house.

To fully appreciate my chili, though, you must submit yourself first to a strict seven-week diet of boiled sweet potatoes and taros, sometimes even for breakfast. Yesterday, I made pasta marinara, and it was good, even without the bland comparison diet.

My eating habits here, compared with mine in America, shed considerable light on some cultural differences. Perhaps nothing is more indicative of our instant gratification mentality in America than our regard to food: fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, frozen foods, instant mixes, and TV dinners. The sit-down family dinner is an endangered species in America. During my home stay in training we ate together every night, and the talk came after the meal. We ate quietly in a circle.

By contrast, some days in Paynesville, I spend a mere half hour on all my food consumption for the day. I would scramble to make a quick breakfast as I ran out of the house and would eat driving to work. I would wolf down a prepared meal for lunch, and I'd eat on the run again in the evening. I would snack a lot, when my stomach reminded me to eat. My brain, too often, was too preoccupied to think about food.

"Practically speaking, if timesaving devices really saved time, there would be more time available to us now than ever before in history. But, strangely enough, we seem to have less time than even a few years ago. It's really great fun to go some place where there are no timesaving devices because, when you do, you find you have lots of time," writes Benjamin Hoff in The Tao of Pooh.

Here, patience is a virtue. I spend around three hours per day preparing my meals. The actual cooking is just the last step. First, I need to procure my food. There isn't one-stop shopping like at Jerry's or Wally's. American convenience stores have as much selection as the biggest PNG grocery stores, none of which are near my site. The trade stores around Lumi have a limited inventory: just the basics of oil, rice, flour, sugar, tinned meat and fish, margarine, and powdered milk. I did bring a small supply of pasta, spices, jelly, and peanut butter with me to ration out over three months.

Luckily, produce grows well here. It'll be a couple months before the corn, carrots, and tomatoes in my garden are ready, and until then I'll rely solely on markets. A smaller one forms at the school a couple mornings each week, and I normally walk to a larger one by the airstrip every Saturday. It's an hour each way.

I'm learning how to cook from scratch and to bake. Quickly. I'm already practiced at the art of making rice. Each Friday afternoon, because school ends early, I bake bagels and something sweet, either cookies or banana bread, in the school's fire-heated drum oven. After tending the fire and smelling the sweet aroma for a couple hours, my taste buds are thoroughly tantalized.

I appreciate eating here more, though you wouldn't think it by looking at me. Had I found the same small, green tomatoes in Paynesville, I would have turned and headed for the Ragu. In all honesty, I probably would have headed for the jars of spaghetti sauce without looking in the produce aisle.

I'm discovering the joy that comes with creating dishes from basic ingredients.

One of my favorite breakfasts, in fact my only breakfast other than a banana and a bagel, is pancakes. I make golden brown flapjacks, sans eggs and milk, with flour, oil, powdered milk, sugar, and baking powder. Every time I make whole wheat pancakes, I remember a morning years ago when my benevolent grandmother made me whole wheat pancakes, probably from scratch. My response then was to complain and whine and carry on so much that I drove her to tears before I would touch them. How drastically my attitude towards them has changed! And how I wish now that she could see me devouring my pancakes here instead!

P.S. Aug. 31: I just returned from another market trip, and I overheard a new reference to me. Instead of white man, someone said I was "man bilong laikim tomatoes."

(Michael Jacobson was a reporter for the Paynesville Press before joining the Peace Corps.)

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