Dates or a “Date”?

My daughter once told me about a friend of hers, “He’s not a very adventurous eater like we are, Mom.” To say I am an adventurous eater is an understatement. I will taste just about anything. I only have a few things on my “don’t eat” list: eggs (unless they are well-incorporated into a recipe, like, shall we say, a cake) and lychees. I’m not a big fan of Earl Grey tea because it tastes like perfume to me (I can smell lavender from a mile away). I don’t like raw oysters but I will eat them any other way you can dream up. I have a few other food quirks, like the fact that I love cherries but I hate anything that is cherry-flavored (think cough syrup here). Lemon grass and cilantro are things I’m not really fond of but I do enjoy dishes that contain a modest amount of those herbs.

In an never-ending quest to expand my food knowledge, I have been to many ethnic restaurants. I love Indian food, Thai food, Japanese food, Greek food, Italian food, Chinese food, and Mexican food and its cousin Tex-Mex food. Living in the DC metropolitan area, I am fortunate to have many choices of ethnic cuisine. For example, not only can I find several excellent Spanish food restaurants, but I can also find one that only serves tapas, as well as one that specializes in Andalusian cuisine. Cuban food? Why, yes, not even five miles from my house. Salvadoran food? Again, many choices within a short drive.

When my husband and I were first married, he was not a very adventurous eater. For starters, he didn’t eat anything white. Cauliflower, no way. Cream sauce or cream of anything soup, yuck. In fact, soup in general was restricted to Campbell’s. Vegetables were also a challenge. He ate lettuce (well, iceberg at least), corn (well, it is technically a vegetable, right?) and canned green beans. Being from the south, he ate red beans and rice, as well as black-eyed peas. But that was really the end of the list. Today, 25 years later, his “don’t eat” list is much smaller. He eats broccoli, asparagus, zucchini, butternut squash, fresh green beans, petit pois peas, and, for the big win, cauliflower! He’s still not a big fan of beets and eggplant, but considering the progress we’ve made, I’m okay with that. As for soups, it was slow and steady but we’ve made great headway there as well: homemade chicken noodle soup is his favorite, closely followed by turkey and sausage gumbo, beef vegetable, white chicken chili, and homemade French onion soup. Are you noticing the “white” elements here? Yes, big progress.

When we moved to Belgium in 2002, we immediately started trying out the local restaurants in our small town of Waterloo. Naturally, we started with the Belgian cuisine and French restaurants. He wasn’t really into mussels but once he tried mine several times, he started to enjoy them and the customary accoutrements, frites (French fries) and thin slices of baguette toasted and buttered. Eventually we branched out and tried the Japanese restaurant (which had a great bento box), the take-out Chinese place (famous for giving out a can of lychees in syrup after they recognized you as a “regular”), and what I think was called “Melissa’s snak pita”, which was sort of like a gyro but with French fries inside the pita along with the meat and dressings.

Our favorite of the ethnic choices quickly became La Baraka, a Moroccan restaurant. I had only had Moroccan food once before and it was not nearly as good as La Baraka. I loved the chicken tagine, served in its traditional clay pot, accompanied by stewed onions and raisins. After our second or third time of eating there, one of the waitresses, in traditional Moroccan garb, came to our table with a wooden crate. She lifted the top and there, on a bed of straw, were dates. We weren’t quite sure what to do because we had not ordered dates or at least we didn’t think we had. She spoke softly to us in French and gestured for us to select one so we did. It was plump and juicy and sweet, unlike any date I had tasted before. We didn’t see her offering the dates to anyone else that night. The next time we ate there, along with the proffering of the special dates nestled in their straw bed, we were served hot mint tea in exquisite glasses encased in what appeared to be pierced sterling silver cups. We searched the check each time but none of this was ever listed on our bill.

Over the course of the two years we lived in Waterloo we ate at La Baraka many times, sometimes alone on “date night” and other times with our two teen-aged daughters. If it was crowded and the foyer filled with people waiting for a table, we were whisked away and shown to a prominent table in the front window. Once, on Valentine’s Day, without a reservation and in the middle of the prime evening hours, we arrived and put our name in with the maître d’. In a short period of time, we were taken upstairs by the owner himself, in his traditional Moroccan costume and velvet “slippers”, to an unfurnished room with only one table, elaborately set with a crimson tablecloth. We began to joke about why we were such special customers, along with feeling uneasy about being moved to the front of the line on numerous occasions.

Moroccan necklaceEventually, towards the end of our stay in Waterloo, we had an experience that shed a bit of light on the situation. The four of us were dining at La Baraka, seated at the big round table in the front window as usual. I had my back to the window facing the hallway leading to the bar and the doors to the kitchen. I saw the owner come out and speak to the woman behind the bar, and then he disappeared back into the kitchen. She caught my eye and gestured for me to come to her. I pointed to myself and mouthed to her, “me?”, and she nodded yes. So, I walked over and she reached under the bar and took out a small tray. She placed it on the bar in front of me. On the tray were two necklaces, which appeared to be hand-beaded with assorted wood and glass beads and silver pieces. She gestured for me to select one. I laughed nervously and said no thank you, as I wasn’t sure if I was being offered to purchase one or what. She then said to me in part-English and part-French that the owner wished me to have one. So, after looking back at our table where my husband and two daughters were watching me, I pointed to the one with the large turquoise bead in the center. She then came around the bar with it in her hands and put it around my neck. She bowed and returned to the bar. I returned to our table.

My daughters were very excited by this, hoping they would be called up to receive a necklace as well. My husband remarked that perhaps it was some sort of marriage ceremony. Whatever it was, I finished my delicious meal wearing my new Moroccan necklace and very pink cheeks.

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