Breakfast spread across the table in typical morning disarray. A kilogram tub of yogurt. A variety of fruits. Scrambled eggs. Toast. Fruit jam and Irish butter. It was a fairly average breakfast that I was quick to compare to my average breakfast in the United States. As we sat around the table enjoying our morning meal, we didn’t compare flavors. We compared distance traveled and borders crossed. We compared translations on ingredient lists. This was breakfast on a transnational scale.
Eggs from the United Arab Emirates. Milk and yogurt from Saudi Arabia. Mangos courtesy of Kenya. Filipino bananas and Iranian apples. Locally baked rye bread with jam imported from France. Honey from Yemen. Butter from the green hills of Ireland.
It sounds exhausting – all those various border crossing, miles of desert roads and perhaps a flight or two. Refrigerator trailer trucks, driven by (mostly) men who spend months away from their families. I imagine Iranians harvesting their apples and Yemeni beekeepers painstakingly tending their hives. Filipino laborers sweat buckets to harvest and pack the bananas properly to prevent bruising. And I’m fairly certain migrant laborers from south Asia and Africa are responsible for the trays of eggs that I buy from the UAE, much like migrant laborers in the United States are responsible for getting eggs to American tables. (Have you ever driven by a chicken farm? You would know if you had. You can’t miss the smell.)
Observing our breakfast table, I realized it’s not much different than our morning table in the U.S. The distance from Manama, Bahrain to Iran’s northwestern fertile fruit-growing region is about 700 miles. If you live in Memphis, TN and have bought Michigan apples, it’s like that. The mangos had to take a plane ride of 3000kms (1800miles). But that’s nothing compared to the trip tons of Chilean produce takes to arrive in the U.S. in order for some Americans to eat fresh fruit all year. And the distance those mangos travel, even if by air, is shorter than the distance Florida oranges travel to arrive at markets on the American west coast.
Honey marketed as ‘local’ in San Diego might be from anywhere in the county. That counts as ‘local.’ That means my local honey in the U.S. might travel a greater distance than the honey that arrived at my grocery store after crossing several international borders. Beekeepers in this region care for their bees as lovingly as any Botswanan, Belgian, Bangladeshi or Bolivian beekeeper. Bees don’t observe international boundaries in the gathering of pollen and production of honey. In the case of ‘local’ honey in Bahrain, local is transnational.
Special brands of jam and butter I buy in the U.S. are equally special here, though I realize they are mass-produced for global export. Because transportation infrastructure and economic agreements exist, markets are global. When I see a product on the shelf here that seemed to be a boutique, niche product in the United States, I am reminded once again that it’s all about marketing and accessing a customer base. When it comes to French jam and Irish butter, the customer base is a global cohort of those who love bread with butter and jam. That includes us.
Our breakfast dairy is trucked from a manmade dairy oasis in the Arabian desert about 300 miles away. That’s a far shorter drive than a delivery truck that drives all night to deliver fresh products to some American front doors. Like in the United States, most dairy workers who work long hours for low wages in difficult conditions are not local residents. They are migrant workers whose families reside in their country of citizenship. Their families are dependent on the income, the remittance, the worker sends home from abroad. The story of an agricultural migrant worker in this region shares some striking similarities to the agricultural workers in the United States and other far reaches of the globe. This agricultural work, expertly performed by million of migrants around the world, is not for the faint of heart. These workers responsible for my breakfast are portion of the 164 million migrant workers laboring across the globe.
And that’s just breakfast. . .
One of our long-standing family traditions is homemade pizza on Friday nights. When we lived in Romania, this tradition was on hold because our local brick oven pizzeria made the most amazing Neapolitan style pizza – at $4 a pizza. We can’t wait to visit our favorite pizza place again. In the meantime, the most important choice I have to make regarding pizza is which flour to buy. Oh, the options! Do I buy the 10lb bag of non-GMO, organic fine grind whole wheat from a farm co-operative in India, or do I buy the 5lb bag of multigrain, gluten-free flour? Both are far cheaper than a comparable product in the U.S. These flours shares shelves with dozens of other varieties in the baking section, not some exclusive ‘healthy’ aisle where everything is three times as expensive. These flours are normal. These are the flours used to make paratha, chapatti, breakfast rolls, naan, manash, tortillas, pita, dosa, pizza crust, khubz, lavash and numerous other breads unique to the diverse customer base.
That’s just breakfast and that’s just the store
There’s so much, much more
Local, hole-in-the-wall restaurants abound
Any type of food can be found
If you’re worried about what we will eat
In this new country where many friends meet
The answer is
5 thoughts on “But what will we eat?”
Enjoyed reading this piece! One of my favorite places to shop when traveling is the grocery store! I often find wonderful things to bring back home to remember my trip. I was excited to go into a French market and find hanging on the wall the famous “Sophie” that make the perfect baby gift. There they were – hung on a wire rack – at a steal of a price! I brought back several! I know you are enjoying your time at your new assignment!
Yes! I love going into grocery stores to look for surprises. Our best child nail clippers were bought on a whim in a grocery store in Portugal. Irreplaceable!
You made my mouth water, Heidi! I’ll be coming for breakfast, or pizza, or naan, before you know it! 😉 I just made chutney and thought I was being soooo international! 😀
So happy to read your beautiful and inspiring words! We’ll be thinking of you during this upcoming holiday.
Happy Thanksgiving! Love,
Hey, chutney is pretty exotic! I’d love to try yours. Miss you guys!
I’m hungry now.