Monday, May 26, 2014

Buying Food

Thanks to those of you who sent blog entry topics!  (Other suggestions taken at any time.) Here’s a response to one of those ideas.

Where do you go to buy food?  Most likely, if you live in the US, you most often go to a grocery store, but maybe you also shop at farmers’ markets, convenience stores, or fast food and slow food restaurants.  There’s a huge difference between shopping in the US and in Cameroon or the Central African Republic. 

Let me first say that there are restaurants in towns in Cameroon/CAR.  People also buy fast food!  There is no chicken or burger joint, but as dusk approaches women come to the edges of the roads to make beignets (doughnuts without holes), grilled meat and fish, grilled corn on the cob (in season – and not sweet corn that we usually eat).  Food can be delicious, but buyers must beware because sanitation standards are not always what we would like. 

Most people in Cameroon/CAR buy most of the food in the local market.  Well, that is, most food that they don’t grow themselves (most often manioc-cassava, but also corn,
sweet potatoes, and/or some vegetables).  It is like our farmers’ market, but not as formal. In smaller towns, the main market is once a week.  In the market, women sit on the ground and display their wares in front of them.  Around the edges of that market are “boutiques,” small shops where (mostly) men sell soap, sugar, canned goods, some vegetables, etc.  On nearby tables butchers sell beef.  Chicken and goats are sold live to be killed and prepared at home.  Fish from rivers and those sold frozen must be scaled and cleaned at home.

In the US everything is package to keep it sterile – well, and to make it less messy.  That doesn't happen in Cameroon/CAR.  Venders now have plastic bags to package what is bought although they are thin and break easily.  In that way, the two countries are the same.  In both places, you can bring your own bags, but most people don’t. 
Junk food is sold in both areas, but the US has a much larger selection.  The US also has MANY more prepared foods – chips, pretzels, dips, but also frozen foods, prepared dinners, chopped up lettuce, vegetables, cheese, etc.  Going to a supermarket can be overwhelming.  How many kinds of dip or salad dressing do we need?  (Although I have to admit that sometimes I can’t find one I like or the one I want…)  There are many more obese people in the US than Cameroon/CAR – surely related to junk food, but also to the quantities that are available. 

In a book I read an African commented that grocery stores in the US don’t smell.  You can’t smell food of any kind.  Maybe you can smell products used to keep the store clean, but store owners seem to sanitize everything so you can’t smell fruit or meat – not the tantalizing good smells nor the not-so-pleasant ones of food that is turning bad or been in the sun too long.  (Of course, since supermarket food is not ever in the sun or exposed to natural temperatures, that could be another factor…) 

In Cameroon and CAR the market is full of smells:  ripe fruit, manioc flour (surrounded by bees), meat (that smell is overpowering, in my opinion), the people selling and buying, and much more. 

Food choices in Cameroon/CAR are more limited than in the US that now get lots of fruit and vegetables from Chile, Mexico, and many other places so shoppers pay much less attention to what is “in season” (unless they try to buy locally).  Central Africans can also get some foods that are shipped in – pineapples from about 6 hours to the south, apples from South Africa, etc., but these items are more expensive and less available, so less accessible to most people. 

Foods I have bought in Garoua Boulai, 
Cameroon: (Celery and basil are often sold together – second picture; there are more and better varieties of bananas there!)

I have been encouraged to see that the markets now have a widening variety of vegetables. (More so in Garoua Boulai, Cameroon than Baboua, CAR.)  Central Africans are beginning to eat more of them, but are often limited by cost, availability (and lack of habit of eating them).

Most women are the ones who shop for the family.  They go to the market almost every day.  Since they usually cook over wood fires outside (or in a small kitchen building similar to colonial summer kitchens – but smaller) and have no refrigeration, it is necessary to buy smaller quantities more often. 

Most people live with extended families and have limited funds – so limited quantities of food.  Many times they don’t have left-overs; it all gets eaten.  They don’t have freezers either to prepare larger quantities and freeze some for later (as I often did in the US and do in Cameroon/CAR).  Their lives are as busy as those who live in the US, but with different activities.  They farm, sell crops, buy and prepare food…  People in the US work at jobs, work out in gyms, commute, etc. – spending much less time buying and preparing food.  No wonder those in the US go for prepared meals and shop in larger quantities.  No wonder they buy a huge refrigerator and an extra freezer. 

On both continents there are hunters who bring home meat.  In Cameroon/CAR that meat is more likely to be smoked or part of it sold quickly so it doesn’t spoil.  People in the US tend to freeze it nowadays, especially since they have to hunt during limited seasons. 

Everyone must eat.  But living in different places means figuring out the best ways to shop and prepare the food.  Maybe, on this Memorial Day, you can stop and reflect on what you eat, where it comes from, and how it is prepared.  Let us live (and eat) simply, so that others may simply live.  

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