Peanuts, and other things I learned I like
When you tell people you are going to the Peace Corps, they joke about all the things you like but won't be able to eat: “Better get your McDonald's, haha.”
And that's true. That last week before you leave for staging is a collection of people offering to buy you all the foods you like. But I realized, looking through menu after menu, I didn't really know what I liked.
Being on a different continent, in a different climate, with a different culture, really expands your palate.
People show up at your door and offer you strange foods. You look at the thing they just handed you and hesitate, thinking, “What is this?” before the voice that got you to sign up for the Peace Corps says, "Hey, where's your sense of adventure? Live a little!' and you pop whatever it is that was offered into your mouth and suck, chomp or nibble to imitate the actions the giver does as he consumes it.
I have eaten many new things this way: baobab, papaya, ebony fruit, cashew apples and various as-of-yet-un-taxonomied bush fruits, so obscure they will never make their way onto trendy health food shelves in my lifetime.
You will not, however, like everything you try.
Take, for instance, the vegetable my Mandinka family calls a jato (English: bitter tomato), which tastes exactly like a tomato shouldn't. If (normal, red) tomatoes are Little Red Riding Hood, the bitter tomato is the grizzled, old Big Bad Wolf dressed as Grandma; essentially, it looks like an angry, unripened tomato. Similar to how the unpopped kernel at the bottom of the popcorn bowl does nothing for your mouth but chip your teeth, this 'tomato' goops past your lips and floods your mouth with the taste of regret.
But then there are kola nuts. Kola nuts are roughly golf ball-sized, red or white and eaten for the caffeine they contain. A friend described them as bitter and said they taste like dirty radishes.
I think that's accurate – and yet, for as much as I hate radishes, I enjoy nibbling on kola nuts. There's a weird reaction, or maybe some physiological response, that happens after chewing on a kola nut so that the first sip of water you take tastes like it's been sweetened. Maybe it's your mouth expressing its gratitude at something other than kola nut; I don't know, but I've grown to fondly enjoy that bitter to sweet contrast. But if someone had offered it to me and said it tastes like a radish, I would have said, “No thanks. I know what I like, and I don't like radishes.”
Needless to say, that despite the innumerable new fruits, vegetables and dishes Volunteers are able to try, our minds invariably wander back to the familiar. My friend tells me that he has come up with an idea about peanuts and longed-for foods. It goes something like this:
H's Theorem 1.0: If you eat enough raw peanuts, they stop tasting like peanuts and acquire the flavor of whatever food you are craving.
You've probably never had raw peanuts. You may think you have, but you probably haven't. The raw peanuts you have had come from a nice bin with a pull-lever that dispenses them; the raw peanuts we have here come pulled directly from the earth, still covered in dirt.
Here's a primer on raw peanuts: peanuts straight from the ground are nearly translucent and white. Raw, they taste more like peas than nuts but overall, before roasting, salting, grinding or honey glazing, peanuts are fairly bland.
Hence – I suppose – my friend's theorem.
The first time he told me, I dismissed it. Sure, I've had some weird-tasting peanuts, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that my subconscious will conjure up the taste of macaroni noodles and cheddar cheese once my tongue becomes peanut-wearied, or else I'd be eating a whole lot more peanuts.
Like any good scientist, he took his theorem back to the drawing board:
H's Theorem 1.1: If you eat enough raw peanuts, the peanuts stop tasting like peanuts and start tasting... like other things.
But, after shelling and eating peanuts in my hut over two hours in the light of a flickering candle, I ate the following ‘flavors’:
· Herbalist tincture
· Spicy dirt
· Rusty bookshelf
· Tootsie Roll
· Pine Sol
· Blue Raspberry Kool-Aid
· Tomatillo salsa
All of those flavors came to me unbidden, but each odd flavor gave a new facet to the peanuts that bookended it. The more peanuts I had, the more I learned what it is about peanuts that I like.
I relayed the experienced flavors to my friend. He replied he had also had rusty bookshelf.
I'm glad that, despite the gustatory misadventures, I now know the bitterness of the jato is something I don't like but the bitterness of a kola nut is; I know that the first mango of the season has hints of raspberries; I know that ebony seeds are tasty but not worth the time it takes to eat them; I know exactly what texture, taste and size of peanut is best; and I know now, after having tasted new things, having swallowed some and spit others out, that I have a better idea of what it is exactly I like.