absence makes the stomach grow fonder: food variety deprivation, fantasy and phenomena in the humanitarian aid worker life

by caitlin meredith

meal of desperation: canned fruit cocktail with a side of canned tuna

Food cravings are a motherfucker. After a few weeks of being in the field with the same slop every day, my gastronomic fantasy life takes on a bigger and bigger portion of my conscious and unconscious mind with debilitating consequences. I’ve been through this cycle enough times now to recognize the signs and symptoms, which I will presently share with you.

(In a future post I’ll talk about REAL food problems in refugee camps that will put my indulgent indignation in proper perspective, but for now I just need to whine.)

But before I get into the Meredith/Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Varied Food Deprivation, however, let me give you a small snapshot of what kind of culinary context I’m referring to. Let’s take my recent time in South Sudan as an example.

nurse alison and I shared oatmeal breakfast. every morning. for six weeks.

For breakfast you could fry eggs or make oatmeal. Fine. Lunch and dinner had the same dishes every time: white rice, lentils and goat stew. For a non-goat lover like me, that means that every day, twice a day, I ate rice and lentils. For six weeks. Oh, but wait, I don’t want to forget the fruit selection! Fruit was flown in each week. Every staff member was allocated exactly one green apple per week. We had to sign for them. Same for yogurt. One pot per person per week. Am I forgetting something? No. That is what there was to eat. The end.

it’s lunch! it’s dinner! it’s every freaking day!

This menu didn’t kill me, of course, but it didn’t necessarily make me feel like life was extraordinarily worth living either. Let me take you on a tour of what happens to you as you progress through weeks of these static suppers.

In the first phase of deprivation, you don’t realize it’s happening. The repetitiveness of your daily meals hasn’t yet started to grind your appetite down to a barely tolerable spoonful of goat stew. But slowly you start to notice small cues that your usually over-indulged palate is suffering from detox. Little things like spending pre-meal time considering the three available condiments, wondering how the two you usually apply separately would taste when combined. Another cue is when you search your travel outfit to see if there are any leftover airplane nut packages with a smoky or honey flavor. Maybe you start rifling through a new arrival’s knapsack for forgotten Hershey’s Kisses (it’s happened!!)

an example of condiment application gone wrong: cinnamon and oats on a bed of strawberry yogurt

As you transition into the second stage you start talking about food more. This is dangerous because it’s contagious. You’re just sitting there musing about how great a cheese sandwich would be at that moment and the next thing you know your Landcruiser seatmate is recounting a detailed Vietnamese street cart meal, complete with the steamy mango sticky rice with ice cream on top as dessert. You’ve never even been to Vietnam but this sounds like the most amazing concoction ever invented and your food fantasies multiply exponentially from foods you know to foods you want to know. Goodbye, diverse, dynamic interior life. Hello, Food Channel brain.

By the third stage the daytime fantasies slowly start to slip into your dreams. One morning my alarm woke me from a particularly aspirational one (for a five year old.) I was at Baskin Robbins and could choose any flavor, toppings included. Another night I conjured an “everything” bagel. All those seasonings at once! The crunch of that first bite merging the crispy toasted bagel and its soft inner core with creamy cream cheese, then the salt note, then garlic….

When I catch myself getting in too deep, I force myself to think about baseball.

The fourth stage has a significant impact on your quality of field life. You stop being able to watch TV shows or movies because they might feature even slightly appetizing foods. No matter how inconsequential these morsels are to the plot of the presentation, you will be physically incapable of ignoring them. These exposures will intensify your suffering and need to be avoided.

One time I was on a sunken double bed in a sweaty hotel room in northwestern Nigeria with a colleague’s DVD set of Reno 911, Season Two. You know, the Cops satire in Las Vegas with Officer Dangle in shorty shorts? I think it’s safe to make the generalization that, normally, nothing about that show makes you lick your chops. Kind of the opposite.

But there I was three weeks into my field stay with an afternoon off and a powerful need for escape. The Keystone Kops’ antics did a good job of transporting me from one of the hottest places on earth with a lot of problems to another very hot place with problems (but ones I didn’t have to solve) – until ten minutes into the first randomly selected episode. The camera panned the station and I spotted a pizza in the background of the break room. I became so consumed with why no one was eating it that I could no longer focus on the “plot.” I had to turn the computer off midway because the auto-jet saliva sprinkler in my mouth was so disruptive.

The last time it happened I was in South Sudan. Some friends and I started watching the Danish TV series “The Killing” on the nights we didn’t work until midnight. During one episode halfway through the series, a politician and his staff are having a late night meeting over sushi when they’re interrupted by breaking news and have to abandon their dinner.

We all had the same thought: What the fuck could be so important that you would abandon a full table of sushi?? We pressed pause and stared longingly at the frozen frame of blurry rice balls, dipping soy sauce, glistening salmon rolls and the shiniest glasses we had ever seen. There was a collective gulp and sigh. The world in that moment seemed divided squarely between the have-sushis and the have–nots.

when these run out we won’t have any more until the plane comes on tuesday

The fifth stage is the only silver lining. The flip side of the deprivation is the disproportionate enjoyment you begin to get from the tiniest of treats. A sneaky nurse unearths a hidden bar of chocolate from the underbelly of the disgusting fridge and walks around the office handing each person a two centimeter by two centimeter square and it’s like Christmas and Easter and your birthday all came at once this year. The delight! The savoring! If someone gave you a Sharpie you could mark the pleasure center of the brain with surgeon-like precision. Your mood lightens and a giddiness pervades your spirit. A similar micro-dose in the free world would barely register.

creative! fried eggs with a tiny scoop of precious red curry to savor intermittently

The rare chocolate and cheese moments aside, a good third of my brain power is dedicated to food experience rehashing, fantasizing and future planning when I’m in the field. This planning part is key. It’s the only way to lessen the suffering in your food heart for being subjected to the same non-varied bland dishes day in and day out. Planning each of the meals for your first three weeks back home gives you something productive to do with your angst. Shrimp tacos on that first Wednesday, mascarpone-injected French toast on Thursday morning, corn dogs from that Chicago-style place for lunch…and so it goes.

The M/K-R Five Stages are all well-documented and well-understood while in the field. The actual re-entry, however, is when things start to get strange. As powerful and all-encompassing as the food cravings feel while in the deprivation zone, they dissipate into thin air the moment I hit terra foodie.

For some reason that I still can’t understand, full food access completely and unceremoniously undermines the carefully cultivated cravings I work so hard to hone and harness while in the field. At the first hint of developed world varied food availability, my inner glutton is pacified and all those weeks of sushi sublimation are shot down the fancy flush toilet. I get totally cheated out of the endless wave endorphin rush I’ve imagined countless times.

On my way out of South Sudan, for example, I was on a layover at the Nairobi airport with a colleague who was also going home. We went to the only food joint in the terminal, a popular Nairobi café called Java House. I sat across from this British logistician as he consumed: three scoops of ice cream with chocolate sauce on top, a double bacon cheeseburger, a piece of cheesecake and French fries. In that order. I sat there chastely sipping my vanilla milkshake, half disgusted, half full of admiration. I had looked at the menu with big eyes too, considering the spinach lasagna, the beef enchiladas, the grilled chicken Caesar salad. But none of the non-rice-and-lentils dishes appealed. So rich. So huge. So much at once. Blagh.

What the fuck?? If that menu had been presented to me a mere ten hours before I would have drowned in my own drool. What cruel twist of psycho-physiological fate robbed me blind of satisfying the cravings I’d been carrying around like sacks of coal for weeks? There’s the desire and there’s the object of the desire, but never the two shall meet? If you’re getting shades of Shakespearian-scale agony from all of this then good – you’re understanding the importance.

That over-the-moon ecstasy from the tiny piece of nurse’s chocolate on a week night in Austin? Forget it. Back in the free world we’re all like heroin addicts, having to up the fix to chase the food pleasure dragon. If you don’t have at least half a bar of Green and Black’s gourmet 95% cocoa bars, don’t even bother.

As far as I can see, there’s only one solution. I’m planning to start my own humanitarian aid organization. Forget medical supplies, water well drills and cornmeal flour. Think Meals on Wheels for the aid worker set. I want to get a fleet of helicopters to do fly-by drops of eggplant foccacia, bratwurst with sauerkraut, Pinkberry tart vanilla frozen yogurt, chilled heirloom tomato gazpacho, shrimp springrolls, Zabar’s pastrami, street cart vermicelli bowls and other Make a Wish foods into all aid worker encampments in war torn deserts, jungles, mountains and swamps. I want to meet those food cravings right at the source, chopsticks, lime wedge and cilantro garnish in hand.

Some will say that these precious resources might be more ethically expended in other endeavors. To them I will say: Go eat a goat. For three months in a row. Only goat. Then we can talk.