Why Does Counting Sheep Only Leave You… Hungry?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lamb is a staple in Azerbaijan

Lamb … a staple in Azerbaijan

This week as I have been sharing online with other expats at the #ExpatriateLife (http://expatriatelife.wordpress.com/) and the #worldcolors photo project, once again memories of foods and things I haven’t thought of for years have come back… ok, some like a bad meal, others like an old friend.

(http://box53b.naomihattaway.com/wp/2013/01/white-worldcolors/) #Naomi Hattaway had these lovely photos that made us smile. When #Judy Rickatson posted a note about a departing expat who gifted her a “cooler full of meat from her freezer (also in Baku). She used to bring it in twice a year from New Orleans, packed in dry ice. Given the limited range and poor quality of the meat in Baku at that time, it was treasure indeed” it all reminded me how central food was in our lives- what you found, didn’t have or wished you could get- were frequent topics of conversation. Food was also a social part of life for most, if not all, of us.

The story that made me smile was remembering what would become my epic quest for pot roast. In my head, I reasoned that I could find potatoes, I had carrots, and I certainly knew how to ask for onions in Russian by then. So why not? Of course, this is almost the equivalent of an inside joke for anyone who was in Baku at that time, or has been an expat in a similar place. Why not, indeed!

The adventure took place not long after I got settled in my first apartment- I had lived with a local family for a few months while I located my own apartment and office so this was several months into my first year there. And one day it hit me that I had been having either fish or lamb (not the fluffy white one in the photo, thankfully!) since I arrived. Once the realization hits you, it becomes all you can think about. It’s like cabin fever.

To illustrate the extent to which some food was a luxury, I once paid $7.45 (USD) for a 12 ounce bottle of Cran-Apple juice. A month’s salary for the Ph.D. whose family I lived with was $50 – when he actually got paid, that is. So I had blown roughly half a week’s salary for a bottle of juice.

One of our early restaurants, The Ragin’ Cajun, was owned and operated by Marie and Charlie, a colorful couple from New Orleans. I remember Marie calling the “phone tree” to say she had ketchup. The conversation went something like, “I’ve got ketchup; what’d you have?” Which turned out to mean that she had found real Heinz Ketchup somewhere- maybe the states or in Continental (this was way before Ramstore) and had secured the whole case. I told Marie I had Cran-Apple Juice. Now keep in mind, I didn’t actually want any ketchup. I actually liked the juice. But if you had ever gone to the Hyatt in the very early days and tried to get a hamburger, you would understand the instant attraction.

They really tried, they did… but, sometimes tomato sauce with horseradish mustard and cucumbers, on a water buffalo patty, surrounded by a crumbling kaiser roll, well, sometimes it will make you do strange things.

So after paying all that for a bottle of juice which I then traded away for a bottle of gen-u-ine Heinz ketchup, I felt emboldened- nay, compelled- to go look for a pot roast.

Of course, that I didn’t actually have a crock pot or a pan to cook it in was beside the point. But that did become the first consideration. So I looked everywhere for a couple weeks and, finally, I found a crockpot in, of all places, the TSUM (I can’t do Cyrillic characters for the “Centralny Univermakht). It only cost me $90.00 (USD). Yep, you read it right. (It was actually quite a nice one though and lasted me all the years I was there, until I gifted it to another expat when I left). But that’s not the half of it- getting the crockpot was just the start of this adventure.

Fortunately the crockpot had the right plug and didn’t need a converter like my hot rollers did (I know, who brings hot rollers?). So I got everything all set- I went to the Bazaar and got some veggies; went to Continental and got some bouillon cubes (thank heaven for Maggi products!). Next to the butcher for beef.

I could get cheese and shoes at one shop. Nylons in the butcher shop across from the Metro, so you would think I could get a small pot roast. But alas, it was not to be. Nyet, he told me. It is finished one hour before. So I went back to Continental and asked the young lady if they could get me a pot roast. Of course, I had to explain what a “pot roast” was, but once she understood the concept, sure, come back tomorrow. Which I did.

Next day, hurrying out a little early from my last class for the evening, I raced across the park that separated me from my pot roast store. (It’s good thing I didn’t run into to anyone I knew- most certainly I’d have passed them right by.) I arrived just moments before they closed for the night and they wrapped up what from all appearances, looked to be a fresh cut of meat about 2 inches thick, no bones and about 8 inches long. Cook it long enough and slow enough, and it should be melt in your mouth goodness! I could hardly wait. I hurried up to the cashier before she closed out and she rung up my purchase… “Zat will be AZM 334,720 (manats)” she told me, without batting an eyelash.

What?! Doing the exchange rate of the day calculation in my head, I came up with about $64 (USD). I don’t know what I expected, but clearly this was not it. But I was in way too far to turn back now. I swallowed hard, and kept the prize in sight. I rationalized it to myself, saying, if you think about it- really- a crockpot in the states might be about twice what a steak is. Using that logic, my $90 crockpot was clearly a bargain!

Well, anyone who has been around this kind of adventure story before knows it can’t end well, and the rest is anti-climactic. I’ll spare you the details and just wrap it up by saying: I cooked that sucker for 4 days and it never did get tender enough to eat. After the 4th day, I stuck a fork in it and flung it out the window in the dark of night into the courtyard for the neighborhood cats and dogs.

Then… I caught a taxi over to the Hyatt and ordered a “cheezeberger”.

P.S. I asked the chef at the Hyatt what went wrong with my pot roast, and he told me water buffalo never would get tender that way. …..Nush Olsan! (Bon Appetit)

4 thoughts on “Why Does Counting Sheep Only Leave You… Hungry?

    • How true Margo! Thanks for taking the time to comment, and to introduce me to your Curious Rambler blog- great stories there! I hope we’ll share more in the days to come.


  1. Reminds me of peering at a block of heavily frosted frozen meat in a freezer in a “western” supermarket on Azadlig Prospect and asking the sales assistant “chto eta?” (what is it?). Her response – “miasa” (meat). And when I asked “Kakoi miasa?” (what kind of meat?) the reply was a shrug. I’m glad I didn’t buy it! 🙂


  2. Pingback: Am I Shocking and Shameful For Speaking The Truth? #Sochi2014 | Life Lessons

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