We recently went without electricity for 28 hours straight, followed by an hour on and 6 hours off for another two days. May not sound like much, but it was 110 degrees Fahrenheit, dusty, dusty, dusty, and miserable outside. Opening windows was not a reprieve from the heat, and made my littlest guy cough for hours. Summer in Cairo is not for the weak of heart.
We lost the contents of both our freezers, and refrigerators. The only milk for the boys was UHT – ghastly stuff, but necessary. I started cooking every piece of meat I could on our gas stovetop once everything defrosted.
Before refrigeration, meat was preserved by salting or drying, and the very lovely (and now traditional) result where I grew up was biltong. Since we had meat, and plenty of motive for wanting to save what we could, we made a bit. Here’s our process.
Cut meat with the grain into appropriate strips (we do about half an inch) and place in a flat dish. Cover with about a cup and a half of vinegar, mixed with a quarter cup of worcestershire sauce. Leave overnight. (In the fridge when its working.)
The next day, dry the biltong as much as possible (I squeeze it gently between two clean dish towels), roll in the spice mix, and hang. We use a biltong box.
Note: spice mixes are all over the internet. Ours is a hit and miss mix of a bit of this and that, but always includes abundant salt and coriander.
The haul today. A kilo of in-season apricots. Lovely eggplant for chinese food. Fresh corn. Tomatoes the kids will eat like candy. Figs. Local bananas (“the yummy baby bananas please Mama.”) Sugary sweet cantaloup. $12.
When people ask us about Egypt, my husband always answers the same thing “Come to Egypt, it’s a riot!”
$12 for all that fruit. And about $1.50 for “tastes like Paris” baguette, $1 for almond croissants that may be better than Paris. Not so bad. Unfortunately fish and salads are out in summer. Just don’t do it.
At swim lessons, the coach asked my son what his favorite fruit is, and Jack Jr. promptly answered “muffins.” Parenting fail. When asked later, he responded blueberries. Maybe blueberries and muffins go together in his mind?
It is fig season. I have not lived anywhere where fresh figs grow everywhere since I was little kid. Some childhood memories are accurate. Figs are that awesome.
Of course, I’ll be lucky if the haul lasts me two days. I’m feeding two growing boys. The kilo of apricots will be gone today. And the figs? Well, those may be gone before I get the kids from school.
By local standards I may well have gotten fleeced, but this haul was a little over $10. By northern Virginia standards practically free.
I got 6 plums, 4 mandarins, 10 local fresh eggs, a large chunk of ginger, a bunch of very fresh looking asparagus, and a massive head of cauliflower. Cooked this way, I can eat the whole thing in one sitting.
I may not be able to find children’s shoes or decent fish, but we’re eating pretty well.
“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
So many people have questioned our decision to be in Cairo these days. It is hard to explain to the people who love us, and want us to be safe.
We joined the foreign service as a family. Yes, it is my husband’s dream career, but this is not the sort of decision one makes lightly. We believe so strongly in peace, in engagement, and cliché as it may sound, in making the world better – safer. This is what we are doing here. We are meeting people, and we represent our country as best as we can. My husband works to foster relationships and trade, to make friends. If we all rely on each other through trade, economic ties, and other common goals, we cannot afford to fight.
If people meet our family, see us treat each other with love and respect, and see that all of us, all over the world have so much in common, they have faces and relationships to go with what is otherwise just known as “the Americans.”
The last few weeks have been hard. I won’t lie. We live in a safe place, but it always seems so fragile. We have friends at the embassy in Ankara. (They are all okay, thank heavens.) This life is not abstract. What happens in other countries is not far removed and sterilized by the distance of a television screen.
I recently read the following paragraphs in Katrina Kenison’s book Mitten Strings for God, and while she is referring to their lives post 9/11, it applies very much to our lives here in Cairo right now:
While confusion and sadness and anger swirl around us, and while many hard questions continue to go unanswered, we’ve discovered that one thing remains clear and simple: in our house, within these walls, and in our dealings with others, we can strive to live in peace. As we carry on the mundane work of family life… we have a newfound sense of some larger purpose, a shared vision that defines us, holds us together, makes each moment seem more precious.
(Note: Buy that book. Read it. Underline every second sentence. )
I miss my northern Virgina home, our postage stamp sized garden, the long chats with my husband on the commute in, the early sunrise gleaming off the Jefferson memorial as we cross the 14th Street bridge. Some days I want nothing more than a trip to Target – a little mindless retail therapy, a cup of coffee in my Mom and Dad’s kitchen, sushi at the all you can eat place with my brother.
We have been here for six months, and I have been challenged to grow more in these six months than in many years I spent in other places. I am challenged to become the mother I want to be to my sons despite the world around us. I’m challenged to become the woman I want to be without making the always obvious excuses. This is our life for the next three years. I must, and can, make it work.
We need ordinary days so badly. We don’t have television service here (by choice) and I’m grateful for that choice. I wish I could put some sort of parent block on my internet connection too, so that I can stop checking news sites obsessively. We are all safe. I decided against traveling this week – and I still believe that was that right call, although the conference organizers were understandably peeved.
I’m working as hard as I can to stay busy. Reviewing documents and termsheets, writing business development reports, cooking, crafting, organizing, reading. I’m staying in the moment with my boys – building lego, stacking blocks, planning birthday parties. Life goes on. But part of me will hold my breath today until my husband gets home. And tomorrow, we will rinse and repeat. The anxiety is raw, and constant.
This coming bit will probably make every Home Ec teacher and my Mom (who should have been a Home Ec teacher) cringe. I found some lovely Cape Gooseberries at my local fruit guy. They reminded me of my grandmother’s yard, where gooseberries grew along the fence line. My brother and I split the papery husks and ate the fruit right off the plant, leaving the empty husks fluttering along the fence like abandoned laundry.
I ate my fair share after bring them home, but the kids didn’t like the slightly tart fruit. So I made jam. I got the Kook en Geniet (the Afrikaans equivalent of Joy of Cooking), and sorta followed the instructions. Instruction one: clean the fruit and prick each with a hatpin. Each, really? And with a hatpin? I’ll skip that part. Next, add sugar and water and cook for thirty minutes until fruit is clear. Okay, except that I can’t tell whether the fruit is clear since I can’t see the fruit between the steam, the foam, and the seeds that are now everywhere from the burst berries. Now, thirty minutes is probably only necessary if you make this in a respectable quantity. Like several kilos. Not the measly 600 grams I had. Probably just as well because it turns out I have used all my canning jars for things such as cranberry chutney and homemade mustard. Oops.
At this point, I’m thinking that I’m a wimp. I envision women all over South Africa picking over baskets and baskets of fruit, pricking them each painstakingly with a needle (or a hatpin), and lining up rows and rows of mason jars full of golden jam in their pantries.
I envisioned golden fruit, suspended like jewels in clear syrup. Yeah. One small seedy jar for the fridge, and one for the freezer. But it tastes amazing, and won’t last long.
Carry on friends. Keep calm, eat jam, and carry on.
We were finding sanctuary at home this past weekend. Slowed down, enjoyed time with our boys, and took lots of deep, calming breaths. Meals are becoming a ritual, and I love it.
Set the kitchen table with the clean placemats, candles, the nice pewter water jug. Roasted a chicken and vegetables with the last rosemary and lavender I cut from my yard in Virginia as the movers packed up this very same kitchen table. (Maybe the first little yellow crocus will be up soon in that yard, I wonder.) I tried a new recipe for cauliflower – it is amazing. All the while helped by the sweetest little kitchen companion.