The End of the Affair
Once, I had a favourite restaurant. We would go there at least once a week and I could order (quite extensively) without looking at the menu. We knew all about our usual waiter’s wedding plans back home in Egypt and he knew all about our favourite Arabic dishes. It was by no means a swish or fancy place – in fact it was really rather humble and very cheap – but the food was DELICIOUS. I was actually addicted to their divine baba ganoush. Piles of hot, fresh Arabic bread would arrive at the table, all puffed up from the flames of the cooker; I would tear the bread in half – a soft sigh of steam escaping – and I would scoop up the baba ganoush – its sharp, tangy sweetness tempered by spoonfuls of cool, creamy labneh. Their fried chicken livers were sublime – served with caramelized onions and a sticky pomegranate sauce. It was a love affair that lasted for nearly two years. That restaurant introduced me to a whole new world of gastronomic bliss. I’m afraid to say, however, that I loved not wisely, but too well. It was a passion that burned too brightly. It could never last. All this time I was turning a blind eye to the sad truth: those intermittent bouts of gastroenteritis were not just coincidental.
While a friend was staying with us on a stop-over to Australia we all came down with a particularly nasty case of food poisoning which could only have come from my beloved restaurant (we suspect the chicken soup). Our two-bedroom apartment is, for some, inexplicable reason, equipped with four bathrooms. I won’t go into unnecessary detail; suffice to say we were all deeply grateful for this abundance of ablutionary facilities; never before had conveniences felt quite so convenient. After several days of ingesting nothing but dry toast, rehydration salts and orange jelly, I resolved never to return to my favourite restaurant and successfully shunned their heavenly cuisine for some weeks. But the temptation proved too great. A few months later, I had convinced myself that I was now immune to whatever bacterial strain had previously tormented me, and I could devour their exquisite dishes without ill-effect. The second horrible warning came about a year ago, when we had family members staying with us. A light supper of hummus, olives, rice, fatoush and grilled meats resulted in chronic stomach upsets for our visitors, who were then incapacitated for most of their stay. I escaped unscathed but was nonetheless haunted by the consequences of my dangerous obsession on those I loved.
The end of the affair came soon after this. It was a hot, humid night in May (actually, I can’t remember what the weather was like, but I do love a bit of pathetic fallacy to build tension and atmosphere, don’t you) and a terrible sandstorm was brewing. The dark air thickened with dust, suffocating the moon’s feeble light, and lightning flashed ominously above the jagged skyline… We were dining at home (my favourite restaurant was happy to deliver to such loyal customers), and I was tucking into the gorgeous baba ganoush with great gusto, when I found it. It wasn’t wriggling or anything – I think it had probably drowned in the sticky, garlic dressing – but it was, quite unmistakably, a maggot. The enormity of the moment slowly dawned upon me. This was, in the terms of American romantic comedies, “a deal-breaker”. There could be no way back after such a discovery. My mind (and stomach) reeled at the thought of other ghastly arthropod larvae I might have previously consumed, blissfully unaware – transported as I was by momentary pleasure, blinded by culinary love. My husband took the dish back to the restaurant and pointed out the unwanted delicacy. They casually dismissed his concern and offered to replace the dish with another. When I heard this, I knew that it was over.
We haven’t been back since. I’m not going to pretend it has been easy – and these things are always more complicated when you can’t make a clean break. The restaurant, you see, is located on the ground floor of our apartment block, so I walk past it every single day. For the first few weeks after the “magga ganoush” incident it was particularly awkward. As I passed the window I would smile politely and raise my hand to our favourite waiter, trying to avoid direct eye-contact with the burly Lebanese chef (who had always scared me a little, truth be told). But our waiter’s boyish, bright-eyed grin faded over the months. Did he know what had happened? Why we had abandoned them? Had he taken it personally? He barely acknowledges us now. The wiry little chain-smoking restaurant manager still nods at us, unshaven and unsmiling, as he leans against the sun-bleached wall, sucking at a thin cigarette.
Recently a new Arabic restaurant has opened up just around the corner. The labneh is cool and creamy, the fatoush is fresh, the fried chicken livers are good – but not sublime – and the baba ganoush is… fine. I suppose. Maggot-free – and that has to count for something, right? Well, it’s our new favourite restaurant now and it has its own unique charms, so I’ll make an effort not to compare… I’ll certainly try to love again, but when it comes to discovering a whole new cuisine, I think perhaps the first cut is the deepest.