“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” If I were still a child, upon hearing that quote from Jonathan Swift, I’m sure I would’ve responded with “no oysters for me either, thank you.”
You see, I’ve never been a person who has thrived on adventure, and especially not adventurous eating. If there is a road more travelled on, I will take it. If you give me a schedule, I will follow it. If there is a routine, I will master it. The unknown is not something I willingly seek. I am a creature of habit, and I make a habit out of being that creature.
But on a family trip to Morocco when I was fourteen, I had my work cut out for me in avoiding the unknown.
The lesson that I learned when my culinary comfort zone was tested: if you aren’t prepared to take a huge bite, at least take a nibble. While you may not love everything you try, you just might end up liking something new.
The “fear it” of adventure
My parents had a unique circle of friends when I was growing up. My dad was a dentist, and my mom was a teacher. Most of their friends were various professionals of similar ilk. One couple that they were friendly with, though, was a bit of an anomaly.
Uncle J (though not our real uncle), was a close family friend who also happened to be our optometrist. He married later in life to C, a dynamic and lively woman who was originally from Morocco. The thing I remember about C was how she spoke with a lilting accent and always seemed to laugh at everything. C was one of the most unusual people I had ever met in my young life. She was a free spirit whose easy breezy personality was a sharp contrast to my more refined mother (and, frankly, me).
One summer, C asked my parents and another family (the very same family with children, A and M, who went with us on our camping trip) if we wanted to join them on a trip to Morocco. C explained that one of her cousins lived in Morocco and had invited her to visit.
Sensing a unique opportunity, all the families agreed. After booking our trip with Julia Tours—in a time before Google and Yelp reviews existed (so who knows what we were getting into?)—we eagerly made our way across the globe.
I would say that on a scale of “globetrotters” to “never leave the house,” our family would be a solid “middle.” Up until our Morocco trip, we had journeyed up and down the Eastern Seaboard’s major cities, and travelled as far west as San Francisco and Yellowstone Park/Montana. A trip to Morocco was definitely not our typical vacation.
But, we were all excited about the promise of the trip. How cool was it that we were going to Morocco? This was 1988. The biggest trips that the people in my world took had the word “Disney” in its name.
After our plane landed in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, I recall having second thoughts about our trip. Morocco was like no other place I’d ever seen. Everything seemed scary and dangerous.
I was slightly worried that only C spoke the language. This was a time before Google Translate existed, and I had only memorized the Arabic words for “hello” and “thank you.” Before I could overthink the situation, we were quickly shuttered onto a huge tour bus. “Julia Tour” luggage tags were promptly slapped on our belongings. Thankfully, C made quick friends with the Julia Tour guide and driver, so I felt like our group of twelve had some level of protection. Still, I glued myself to my mother. I felt like she would shield me from all evil.
On our way to the hotel, it suddenly had occurred to me that I had no idea what type of food Morocco might have. Every country served spaghetti and meatballs, right? But what if Morocco didn’t? I feared I would be way out of my culinary comfort zone.
When we checked into our hotel, my attitude briefly improved. The hotel was, by far, the most luxurious place we’d ever stayed in. I have no idea whether the hotel was three, four, or even five stars. All I knew was that this clean and freshly scented haven was a sharp contrast to the gritty, odd-smelling urban life of Rabat.
Surely this place would have foods that I liked. If it catered to western tourists, I’m sure I wouldn’t have to step too far out of my culinary comfort zone. But what would happen once we left our hotel? Soon enough, I was about to find out…
Souk it to me
One of the most vivid memories of our first days in Morocco was our trip to the souks, the open-air markets. It was rumored that the souks were extremely dangerous to tourists. Someone said (probably one of the kids) that if any of us got lost, we’d never be found again. This was particularly unsettling for Uncle J and C’s young daughter, A, who had strikingly blonde hair. All the kids agreed A would be a valued commodity in the underworld of Morocco.
Despite the alleged danger, we ventured out to the souks with our local guide. The souks were a labyrinth of stores that sold just about anything and everything you could possibly want. Spices, clothes, carpets, leather. You name it. I wish I could say that I marveled at the wares that were sold in the souks. But I was so focused on the overpowering smell of spices and the barking shopkeepers that I couldn’t wait to leave. (Though I didn’t turn down a donut that someone had given for me. That was well within my culinary comfort zone.)
While I was overwhelmed by the shopping experience (me not liking shopping is a rarity, believe me), everyone else seemed to delight in this unique cultural exchange.
Name that Tooni
I spent much of this trip unhappy with a sour expression on my face. (I know this for a fact because my mother looked through the photo albums and reported that I did not smile in a single picture.) If only I had tried a little harder to embrace the spirit of adventure. I subsisted on finding the simplest, plainest foods, grumbling at the places we went to that were out of my culinary comfort zone. I felt like I would scream if saw the word “tagine” on any more menus.
On our last night in Morocco, C’s cousin invited us to her apartment. My mother told me to put on the nicest outfit that I had packed. I picked something that seemed generally clean.
Just about every other woman in our group wore one of the kaftans (flowing robes) that they had just bought in the souk. I had refused to get one.
I recall that C’s cousin’s name was Tooni. I have no idea if that was her real name, a nickname, or a pseudonym. I’m not even sure if that’s how she even spelled her name. But, for the sake of argument, let’s go with T-o-o-n-i.
Upon arriving at Tooni’s magnificent apartment—a full floor that was impeccably decorated—I decided that Tooni was the most exotic person in the world. Even better, she had a huge tray of recognizable foods placed out on one of her grand poufs. Tooni was not only gorgeous, but she had the good sense to serve us food that was in my culinary comfort zone. Tonight would surely be a feast for me! Or so I thought.
Early bird special
But then Tooni announced that the main course would be a local delicacy: pigeon pie. What!?!?!?! I thought I had heard wrong because Tooni had a thick Moroccan accent. I didn’t hear wrong.
In Morocco, pigeon pie is called bastila, and it’s made with a thin, phyllo-like pastry crust. And of course, pigeons. Perhaps the bird was actually squab, or maybe it was even chicken. But without further clarification I had no interest in eating anything with the name “pigeon pie.” I looked over at my mother who maintained a polite, neutral expression. I had no way to alert her that we were venturing way out of my culinary comfort zone, though I’m sure she already knew.
As the plates were served (not buffet style, grr), I refused to touch the pigeon pie. My sister gamely (pun intended) had a few “try-it bites.” She focused on eating the phyllo dough and everything else around it. The other kids in our group were more adventurous than me. They ate the pigeon pie and insisted that it wasn’t bad.
I spent the rest of the dinner with my sourpuss face, counting the minutes until we could go back to our hotel. While I was more daring in trying the desserts (I was starving after all), I missed out on what was probably once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to taste pigeon pie. If only I’d had a couple of bites, I would’ve taken a tiny step out of my culinary comfort zone. And who knows whether I might’ve even liked it?
Stuck between a Moroc-k and a hard place
Now, if I wanted to make this a transformational story, I would say that after our trip to Morocco, I became a less fussy eater. But, to this day, I still generally gravitate towards the simple, unfussy foods.
Looking back, I wish I had gone to Morocco with a more open mind. And a broader culinary comfort zone.
Had I come away from the experience differently, I would’ve had a broader perspective on a fascinating culture, explored sights and scenes unlike any other in the world, tasted amazing foods, and probably walked away with some really cool Moroccan souvenirs. (Instead of the boring soaps I took from the hotel when we checked out.)
I guess you could say that it really “souked” to be fourteen-year-old me for missing all that.
Have you ever wished you could’ve relived a childhood experience differently? Please share your stories with me in the comments section.