Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Ants and I

Did you ever play SimAnt? The youths will not remember this, but back in the early '90s it came bundled with the original SimCity and SimLife. You play an ant, or rather a whole colony of ants that you can control one ant at a time in your quest to collect food, dig your nests, reproduce, defend the colony from predators, and defeat your ultimate enemies: the evil red ants, and those pesky humans. (You can find versions online that work with modern hardware and software if you want to (re)live the experience.) I never really warmed up to the game that much but I did learn some things about how ants work - communicating with chemical trails and the like. Enough to know that if the ants in my yard were pursuing the victory condition I would long ago have been forced to flee.

I have a large and lush yard, which I love, and which I share with a humongous supercolony of ants. Or rather, they share it with me. Not fire ants or anything, just little black ones, not terribly threatening, but they are EVERYWHERE. A vast empire of ants constantly scurrying from one nest to another along an expansive network of chemically-signposted superhighways across the entire property. Sometimes you can see them carrying pupae or bits of food or construction materials back and forth along with them but mostly they just seem to be going, to where and for what purpose I cannot say.

Mostly we ignore each other, the ants and I. Sometimes I like to sit and watch them, indulging my inner nature documentarian, or make up silly anthropomorphic stories about their journeys on the insect Silk Road, trading seeds for tiny bits of overripe fruit from the exotic East. Sometimes we work together: all the butterscotch candy dust and tiny broken shards of Jolly Rancher from my Texas Independence Day piñata were completely cleaned up within a week. Well done ants! And you're welcome. It's only when they start to move into the house with me that I begin to get annoyed.

In their quest for lebensraum the ants now seem to be trying to colonize my kitchen plumbing, despite the significant inconvenience of several daily floodings. At any rate there now seems to be a trail on the network, if only a meandering farm road, leading to my kitchen sink overflow drain. And every time I turn the faucet on a couple of ants come pouring out too. It's kind of gross. There also seems to be a nest at ceiling level in the master bedroom that sends out occasional scouts to wake me up in the morning by crawling over my arm. I set up traps, but whatever American ants like to eat has no attraction whatsoever to the local variety. I've been patient, but I think it's time to get out the big guns. Get ready ants - cohabitation only goes so far, and the sprayers are coming for you!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ethiopian Food 101

Dig in!
It occurs to me, more than six months after arriving at post, that I haven't really talked about the food here. This is perhaps because I had eaten it a few times before coming here so it wasn't particularly new to me. However, I have now recalled that, back in the mists of time when I went to an Ethiopian restaurant for the first time, I was astonished to hear that there even WAS such a thing as an Ethiopian restaurant, having only heard about food in Ethiopia in the context of the lack thereof during the 1980's famine. But in fact Ethiopia has unique, rich, and varied food traditions, so here's a quick primer.

The most essential part of any Ethiopian meal is injera, a large spongy pancake made from fermented teff, a local grain. It's lining the platter and rolled up on the sides there in the picture above. Injera is the main carbohydrate, the plate, and the utensils all at once: you eat all the other things on the platter by tearing off a little piece of injera (with your right hand) and using it to scoop up a mouthful of whatever you want. Usually your entire party eats off one platter, and if you're still hungry when all the little dishes are gone you can tear up the injera on the bottom and eat that too. If you don't like injera - and some people don't, it can be kind of tangy - you don't like Ethiopian food.

And what are all those things on the plate? A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Here are a few key terms to know on a menu:

Tibs: little pieces of fried meat, usually cooked with onions and/or peppers. May be served with or without sauce.
Wot: a spicy meat stew (not mouth-on-fire, but definitely flavorful) made with berbere, a local spice mix.
Kitfo: Kind of a steak tartare of finely minced raw beef in spices and warm butter.
Gored Gored: cubes of raw beef (a delicacy)
Beyaynetu: a combination plate of vegetarian dishes. There are an endless number of these, including collard greens, beets, green beans, cabbage, and a variety of stews and pastes made from beans, lentils, and chickpeas.

Come to think of it, one thing that did surprise me on arrival was the variety and availability of vegetarian options, since the Ethiopian restaurants I had eaten in elsewhere had mostly focused on the meat. It makes a lot of sense though, for two reasons. First, meat is expensive here, and not something most families can afford to eat every day. Second, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church sets an extraordinary number of fasting days, which entail eating just once a day and abstaining from all animal products. This includes 55 days for Lent, 45 days before Christmas, every single Wednesday and Friday, and some others that escape me. That's a lot of meatlessness, so of course the veggie options would be varied and tasty. I have a vegan friend here who loves eating out in Addis; at any restaurant she can just say one magic word - "fasting" - and there will be something meat, egg, and dairy-free for her enjoyment.

So know you know something new (hopefully) about Ethiopian food and are ready to taste it for yourself, It can be a little tricky to find, but if you live in Washington DC you have absolutely no excuse not to give it a try.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

That's Right, You're Not From Texas, But Texas Wants You Anyway

Today, March 2, is Texas Independence Day, the anniversary of the signing of the declaration announcing Texas' independence from Mexico in 1836 and establishing a new country, the Republic of Texas. There was a quick war about it, culminating in the defeat of the Mexican forces at the Battle of San Jacinto the following April. Texas was only a country for ten years before being (voluntarily) annexed by the United States, but by god we'll never forget it.

Everyone loves piñatas
I have taken to throwing a Texas Independence Day party at least in my first year at post - after that the procurement of necessary supplies gets a little more complicated. I had this year's party on Sunday, and I think it's safe to say it was a huge success.

There was music - a custom playlist made exclusively of songs about Texas and/or by artists from Texas. There was beer - cases of Lone Star, Shiner, and St. Arnold's. The Shiner Prickly Pear was especially popular. There was a piñata, brought all the way from Texas in a giant mass of bubble wrap, stuffed not only with the traditional candy but with Texas pins and little airline bottles of tequila. (Those were popular too.) And of course there was food. I made beef fajitas and carnitas with all the trimmings. I made chili and cornbread and jambalaya and veggie enchiladas and guacamole. I made pecan pie and tres leches cake. Other people provided 7-layer dip and blueberry cobbler. I had hoped to smoke a brisket but the logistics on that turned out to be tricky. Maybe next time.

This is a logistically-challenging event to pull off. I started planning last July to get all the beer and the piñata + stuffing and the Texas napkins and such shipped with my consumables. I brought home the fajita meat frozen in my suitcase when I was back in the States for Christmas. The pork shoulder for the carnitas was shipped in from Kenya. And I cooked for weeks to have all the food ready - even the tortillas I made by hand. But everyone had a great time and said nice things about my cooking, so it all paid off. And hopefully they learned a little bit about Texas.