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1/1/09 Mealtime misery

I have a problem.

It's my problem, and creates further problems that are entirely my fault.

But I can't figure out how to change my behavior.

Here's the thing: I'm nice.

Too nice.

When I'm playing around with friends, I can be, y'know, normal, but under anything resembling formal circumstances, I default to being...nice.

And one of the effects of this is that I'm incapable of delivering a harsh truth. If I'm really backed up against a wall, I'll tapdance around the issue and hint at the truth...but my Tamazight is barely up to conversational, let alone the Fred Astaire-like moves I'd need to softshoe tonight's debacle.

Let me set the scene.

Yesterday, I went over to Ama's house for lunch. The food was wonderful, and I got to see Xalti, who now lives an hour down the road, and play with Mumu (my four-month old cousin). It was a great visit. As I was leaving, Ama said, "Why don't you come for lunch tomorrow? We'll be having corn couscous." My smile faded a bit. She continued, "You remember, we had it the day I went ifsi-gathering." I did indeed remember. It was the one and only time I've eaten a meal of Ama's that I genuinely disliked. Really disliked. Hated wouldn't be too strong a word. "So come over for lunch, or maybe dinner, whatever," she concluded.

"OK, I'll see you tomorrow," I hedged. As I left, I couldn't help remembering the corn couscous. Unlike regular couscous, which is good, or Ama's couscous, which is creamy and delicious, "corn couscous" - ksuksu win dr3a - has a mealy, gritty texture and rancid taste. I was able to force down a few bites, but focused on the potatoes and carrots Ama had put on top of the couscous. Those, like everything else Ama makes, were delicious.

I genuinely believe that my host mom is the best Moroccan cook I've met. Her food is fabulous. She has a deft hand with spices, and manages to make even ordinary meals, like tagine and taharirt, delectable. Whenever I introduce people to Ama, I tell them that she's the "Numero wahed mukuzina g l-Maghreb." The best cook in Morocco.

But I can't stand her corn couscous. Just can't stand it. So I figured I'd go over for dinner, not lunch, and hopefully get something besides the corn couscous.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, I'd misunderstood her. I truly believed that she'd said "lunch or dinner", but apparently she just said "lunch". Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part.

At lunchtime today, I thought about going over, but my stomach whimpered at the thought of the corn couscous, so I didn't. I felt bad, but salved my conscience with the promise of heading over at 6 for dinner.

Then, at 5, I heard knocking on my door. I ran down and discovered Xalti. I invited her up, though my house was in no fit state for company (contents of recently-received packages had, um, kind of exploded all over my living room). I reflexively offered her tea and bread; as I heard the words coming out of my mouth, I cringed, because I had neither available. I could have made tea, but it would have taken at least 10 minutes. Bread would have been harder to fake. Fortunately, she refused them. She immediately launched into her reason for coming over. "Where were you at lunchtime? Twelve o'clock came and went, and no Kawtar!"

I was honestly confused. I hadn't thought the lunch invitation was that firm. "I thought Ama said lunch or dinner. I was going to go over at 6." I checked my watch. "In an hour," I added lamely.

"Dinner? Why would you come for dinner? You were invited for lunch! We even saved lunch for you." I apologized, feeling like a jerk. "Do you want to come over now?" I hastily agreed. I threw on a jacket, double-checked that I had my keys, and we walked up the hill.

As I came in, I repeated my excuse, which sounded lame even to me. "I thought you said dinner; I'm so sorry."

Gracious as ever, Ama said, "It's no problem at all." Then she added, "At twelve o'clock we looked for you, but you didn't come. One o'clock, still no Kawtar. At 1:30, we went ahead and ate, since you clearly weren't coming." I felt like an inconsiderate buffoon. I apologized again. "No, it's fine," she insisted, "we just saved food for you and your friend." (She knew that fellow PCV Jamila comes to town on Thursdays.)

As she was speaking, Xalti brought out the table, instantly converting the living room into the dining room. In the middle of the table was the giant platter which doubles as a bread-kneading pan. It was more than half full of corn couscous. "Here's what we saved for you and Jamila," she said.

Eyeing the mountain of food, I felt a little ill.

And this is where the problem with being too nice comes in. If I'd been honest the first time I'd eaten corn couscous, and said, "Ama, I think you're the best cook in Morocco, but I don't like this," she'd never have served it to me again. But I didn't want to hurt her feelings, so I'd said nothing.

And now I was facing enough couscous to serve four people, with no way out.

I starting taking tiny bites. Every time I took a spoonful, I pushed outwards on the couscous, trying to widen the hole I was making. My goal was to make it look like I'd eaten a broad chunk of it, while actually choking down only a few bites. And I'm not hyperbolizing when I say choking down. Every mouthful, my throat closed up, trying to fight off the food.

Then Ama said, "Would you like to take some back with you, for Jamila?" I jumped on this, thinking that if I packaged up 90% of it, saying that I'd eat it with my friend later, I'd only have to eat 10% now. So Xalti brought out a dish and started scooping food into it. She portioned out half of Mount Couscous, explaining, "This is for Jamila." The other half, which was literally the size of a football, "is for you," she explained. "And you'd better eat it all," she said, as she took Jamila's back into the kitchen to wrap up.

Ama softened that, saying, "No, you just eat what you want. Don't force yourself." One unexpected benefit of having been sick most of the summer is that Ama is convinced that I have the most delicate digestion on the planet. Tonight, that worked for me.

I was continuing to pick at it while feigning enthusiasm. Ama accepted this, but Xalti makes for a tougher crowd; she leaned towards Ama, saying, "She doesn't like it." Even to be nice, I wouldn't have lied, but I could pretend not to understand. I still miss a lot of what's said, so it's an easy pretence to maintain. Ama retorted something about me never eating much. In a slightly apologetic tone, Xalti said to me, "If you're done - if you're stuffed - that's OK."

Ama echoed this, and I accepted the way out. After another bite, I lay down my spoon. I'd pushed the food around enough that it looked like I'd eaten about four times as much as I really had; I doubt they were fooled, as conscious as they are of portion size, but it let us all save a little face. "I'm stuffed," I said. "Djiwngh. Thank you so much for everything," I continued, using the ritual phrases, "but I've been blessed enough. May God replenish your generosity."

I accepted the post-meal tea, grateful for the opportunity to rinse the taste out of my mouth, but refused the offer of bread, reiterating how stuffed I was. Maybe that added to its plausibility.

I played with the baby a little longer, chatted a bit about my work, and then made my exit.

I still feel like a heel for missing lunch, and feel worse that they went to the effort to save me a portion of what, to their mind, is a delicacy. (At least it's not sheep eyeball.) I wish I had the courage to say, gently and graciously, "I love your cooking, but would prefer not to eat this particular dish in the future." But I can't. It's not even a cross-cultural problem, though that exacerbates it. My American mom is a similarly great cook, but also makes one dish that I just can't stand...but I'll never tell her. (If you're reading this, Mom, sorry! You really are an awesome mukuzina.)

As the icing on the inedible cake, I also made a couple of language fumbles in the course of the conversation. Ama asked me when I'd gone to bed last night. I thought she'd asked if I'd be spending another night in Berberville before leaving town, and answered that question. Whoops. She asked again, "Did you go to sleep at 12? 1?" I realized she was asking if I'd stayed up to ring in the New Year, and that time answered correctly. A little later, Xalti asked me for the pictures of when Mumu was a newborn. The word "picture" (tsawal) sounds almost exactly like the word "speak" (tsawl), so I thought she was asking me to talk to the baby. Which I did...and which made Ama shake her head in resignation, then rephrase the question, this time working in the word "foto" (photo). I promised to bring printed pictures asap.

In all, not my best Moroccan mealtime. Probably in the bottom five, actually. But bless Ama for her unfailing generosity of spirit, as well as her more literal generosity. This may not have been the best note to start the year on...but it means that I'm guaranteed to end the year on a better one, right? Sigh. Onward and upward. :)

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