Travel and Food Silver Winner: Meat My Love

by Lola Akerstrom

A meat-addict finally confronts the loss of her love.

Ah, tofu….needless to say, our first encounter wasn’t pretty. Within seconds of biting into its white spongy mass eloquently disguised as chicken, I was expelling it back onto the side of my plate as my dining companion looked on, perplexed.

Certainly no disrespect was meant by the retching gesture. My stomach naturally revolted against this substance that seemed hell-bent on robbing me of dinner.

Growing up in Nigeria, a meal wasn’t really a meal without some form of fowl, red meat, exotic wildlife, or freshwater fish embedded in it.

Daily treks were made to the local open air market to pick through tied-up bunches of giant African snails, live chickens, dripping red cow flesh, dried fish called kpanla, wriggly giant catfish, and the occasional guinea fowl or bush meat.

If it once used to swim, crawl, jump, scurry, or fly, it was eligible for consumption.

Our meals centered around the soup of the day – usually thick, savory concoctions filled with leafy vegetables, blended tomatoes, a healthy dose of palm oil, and of course, a variety of assorted meals – shaki (beef tripe), kpomo (cow skin), cow legs, and chunks of beef.

As a child growing up in Lagos –the country’s pulsating capital at the time, I would stand on my tippy toes with my head barely reaching the kitchen counter top, watching in anticipation as my mom spooned red spicy tomato stew atop a mound of white rice. The climax was finally watching her add my piece of meat like a star on a Christmas tree on top the pile.

As I grew older, my taste for meat gravitated towards the exotic. Fried rice with chicken gizzards and hearts; tongue-scorching pepper soup filled with chopped and diced innards such as goat intestine, liver, and kidney; roasted goat as well as suya – a grilled delicacy with meat of questionable origin bought from a Hausa malam and eaten with toothpicks.  I also regularly picked up free range spicy chicken from our local fast food joint down the street. Chicken so spicy it dyed your fingers a fiery red, making anything you touched afterwards instantly combustible.

My palate for foreign meat wasn’t limited to West Africa. Once I moved to the United States during my teenager years, I tried fried alligator and grilled buffalo.  While traveling around Swedish Lapland, moose and reindeer regularly appeared on my plate, including the lone bite of bear meat I once was tried at the indigenous Sámi market in Jokkmokk. In Peru, I shared a plate of cuy al payo (roasted guinea pig) with one of our porters after a long arduous trek along the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu.

On a visit to Australia, I devoured kangaroo meat in Sydney. That action to this day draws gasps of unbelief from a few friends. Apparently, they’d likened my actions to running down the endangered species list like a restaurant menu.

Surely, I couldn’t have been the only one who felt such an intrinsic need for meat.  On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”, I watched an Inuit family tear hungrily into raw seal meat and accompanying blubber on their kitchen floor.  Food vendors line crowded streets all across Asia, grilling up savory smelling mystery meat. Whole pigs are slowly cooked in their own juices beneath the earth on many South Pacific islands.

Even on international flights, people seem to avoid the meatless dish. On many occasions, I’d fume silently as I was handed option two by default because they were out of the preferred trays.

“Chicken and Rice or Pasta and Cheese for you, madam?” the spiky haired, clean cut British Airways flight attendant recently offered en route to London.

My choice was obvious, but the Swedish guy next to me hadn’t heard our dinner options so I had to relay the message.

“Pasta and Cheese?” he asked, befuddled.

“Yes.”

“That’s it? No meat?”

At the very least, he’d been expecting some fish….

A friend once dragged me to a Portuguese Churrasco-style restaurant in Maryland where assorted, grilled meats hung on skewers waiting to be devoured sacrilegiously.

With the flip of a multi-colored wooden peg, a muscled waiter with a cowboy hat was instantly at my side, tenderly slicing succulent meat onto my plate, while keeping eye contact.

I wondered why she’d had to drag me in the first place.

Even though with age came mild hypochondriac tendencies that had me equating paper cuts to stab wounds, my turning point didn’t come from reading studies upon studies linking red meat to heart disease, obesity, and cancer. It didn’t come from reading how difficult it is for the body to process and digest red meat, or from the threat of sludge-like trans-fat lining arteries.

It began when my mom’s organic African cooking was no longer readily available to me in a place called “College”.

In my formative college years, meals primarily consisted of prepackaged Ramen noodles, and due to limited time and limited personal funds, hard boiled eggs soon compensated for slow-boiled beef or shaki (beef tripe).

Valiant attempts to satisfy my meat cravings with overly processed patties were met with heaving at its artificial taste. Mc-anything simply didn’t stand a chance with me. I’d been preened on ultra fresh meat displayed on open-air wooden tables from the eleron (market butcher) who coincidentally kept swatting away flies as he sold us meat.

With time, college weaned me off my need for meat like a baby off its mother’s breast milk. I simply ate what I had in front of me and what my measly student budget could afford. I was no longer the little girl waiting for her piece of meat atop her rice.

The rice and meatless tomato stew was gift enough.

The more I travelled and was invited into the homes of locals, the more I realized I had to eat that meatless plate of rice, corn, and beans with gratitude because they’d slaved over it. Moving to Sweden meant slowly developing a palate for all forms of fish – smoked, cured, fried, baked, and fermented. No longer perplexed by meatless dishes, I’d grown to like gazpacho even though I hadn’t fully crossed over to the dark (or green) side just yet.

I do occasionally indulge in a juicy steak grilled medium-well every now and then, but meat doesn’t have to be the focus of my meals anymore.

And as for tofu….I still don’t get it.


Award-winning writer and photographer Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström has written, photographed, and dispatched from six (6) continents for various major publications around the world. She is based in Stockholm, Sweden and her portfolio can be viewed at http://www.akinmade.com.

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