When three of the most revered books on the planet proclaim what’s not for dinner, you should probably listen.
The consumption of pigs is prohibited in religion’s Big Three — Judaism, Islam, and certain Christians. While these dietary bans are inapplicable to the non-believer, what happens when they set foot in holy lands? For those who seek cultural immersion, do culinary commandments trump secularism? I found the answer in Morocco, hunched over a toilet bowl.
I had journeyed to Marrakech to volunteer. For three months, I worked with teenage girls in a Berber village, Tanasgarht, organizing art projects to preserve artisan tradition and plant the seeds of microfinance. Through Touche Pas Mon Enfant, a non-profit aimed at preventing pedophilia, I taught dance to Marrakesh girls who had suffered abuse. Living first with a family, then alone in the heart of the medina (old city), I was a local denizen, immersing rather than visiting.
While in the Pink City, I tasted my way through the culinary capital. In the brimming souks, I shopped for plump dates and fresh-baked khobz (bread). Amongst locals, I dined at steaming food stalls in the Place Djemma al Fna where I devoured dishes from the comforting (bisarsa–fava bean soup) to the daring (slippery snails). At carts along the winding, cobblestone pathways, I purchased fresh mint for traditional Moroccan tea. Around my generous family’s table, I shared cups of sour milk, bowls of seven-vegetable couscous, platters of oily crêpes. At this table, I learned the Moroccan custom of eating with our hands; together, we would sop up lemony tagine broth with chicken torn from the bone. Like lions devouring their prey, our feasting was primitive and communal.
Normally, I follow the Book Of Bourdain when traveling. Food is my tour guide, leading me to neighborhood joints that are more revelatory than any museum in town. “Local” matters more than a Michelin star. I sneer at fellow American tourists who order mac n’ cheese in Milan. Yet, after eight weeks of edible immersion, I was craving the forbidden fruit, pork. My daily meals included chicken, lamb, even pigeon, yet I couldn’t stop dreaming about the other white meat.
Porcine pleasures were prominent in my usual diet: crispy bacon, al pastor tacos, and juicy, pork chops. Like Homer Simpson, I marveled at how so much deliciousness could come from just one “wonderful, magical animal.” Conversely, the Bible, Torah, and Koran condemn pigs as unclean beasts. As a Jewish girl in a non-Kosher household, I was intimately aware of both beliefs, yet was not plagued by Jewish guilt, perhaps thanks to my shiksa mom. Homer pushed out Moses on my plate, except for meals with my Kosher Bubby.
Normally, I practice rules that a place preaches. But, I had reached my tipping point. I needed my pork fix.
There are essentially two-types of Marrakech restaurants: the meccas of traditional tagines and the splashy, cosmopolitan, Euro-centric spots. Expats and tourists dine out, while locals usually eat at home–where, I found, the tastiest Moroccan cuisine was made. For help on my hog quest, I called my friend, Josie, a spiritual beauty, whom I had met my first night in Marrakech.
Since Josie bounced between Morocco, India, and New York as a yogi and designer, our nights were peppered with friends from her far-flung travels. That night, Jack, a boisterous American acquaintance, had invited us for an Italian dinner, for he had tired of tagines. Josie resisted; as a vegetarian, she found that eating at home gave her more pleasure than cobbling together a meal in meat-heavy Moroccan restaurants. However, I implored her to go–knowing that if there was pork to be found, the Italians would have it.
We met in Guéliz, the modern section of Marrakesh, at La Trattoria–a sumptuous spot in spite of its prosaic name. Intoxicated by the dizzying array of swine (jambon de Parma, lardo), I went full carniwhore: veal saltimbocca. After Josie selected a conventional spaghetti with tomato sauce, Jack berated her for making such a simple choice. When she responded that her choices were limited as a vegetarian, they launched into a full-blown quarrel about food ethics.
“We are kings of the animal world,” Jack proudly proclaimed. He continued to extol the merits of meat (the protein punch! the crispy fat!) while Josie praised the nutritional bounty of fruits and veggies and voiced her animal cruelty concerns. I smiled, observing how my dueling companions’ appearances mirrored their argument: Jack, thick and greasy as a hunk of meat and Josie, lean and healthy as a string bean. Normally, I adore a juicy food debate, especially since I equally embrace both animal and vegetable. But, distracted by the arrival of my dish, I ignored their bickering.
On a pristine, white plate, rosy slices of prosciutto blanketed breaded, veal cutlets. Each bite of veal saltimbocca was packed with salty, piggy gusto. Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, my hog hiatus made the pork taste better.
[bctt tweet=”Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, my hog hiatus made the pork taste better.”]
Feeling particularly bloated from the unfamiliar ham, I took a passeggiatta to help digest. In Italy, this ritual, evening stroll is meant for unwinding after work. For me, I was hoping my walk would unclog my intestines. Nevertheless, I still arrived home uncomfortably full. Crawling into bed, I thought, “If a Thanksgiving nap helps cure a turkey coma, couldn’t it work post-pork ingestion?”
At 2am, I awoke bathed in sweat and raced to the bathroom. It was the apocalypse of food poisoning: two torturous hours on the toilet while vomiting in the trash can. Was I being punished for my sinful swine? Was my digestive tract taking the fall because I gave the middle finger to religious rules? Delirious from dehydration, I passed out on the tile floor.
I was awoken by a text from Josie, “Let‘s meet at Pacha.” Oops. I had forgotten we had been booked to model caftans at the glamorous beach club. Somehow, I mustered enough energy to type: “Help. Food poisoning.” Josie rushed over to my apartment, bringing fresh mint for a therapeutic tea and white rice for my sensitive stomach. “I think I lost ten pounds,“ I moaned. “I didn’t realize you would take this modeling thing so seriously,” Josie retorted, hoping her humor would heal my aching body.
Considering her spiritual background, I wasn’t surprised when Josie suggested we visit her healer, Mohammed, instead of a Westernized doctor. Because he lived on the outskirts of town, we had to take two busses to reach him. Boarding the crowded bus, I wondered if my addled condition qualified me for the handicapped section, but it was already taken by two, wrinkled women. Stuck standing, my weak hands struggled to grasp the hold bar. The stench of diesel made me woozy while the bumpy ride jostled my stomach. Welcome to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Moroccan style.
[bctt tweet=”Welcome to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Moroccan style.”]
We arrived at Mohammed’s apartment, a modest, lived-in space. He took my hand gently and led me to the living room. When I recounted my woes in French, our common language, Mohammed asked me to lie down. He gingerly prodded my stomach while asking where it hurt. Having never been to a healer, I imagined he would soothe me with gentle massage or medicinal herbs. Consequently, I was shocked when he dug his thumbs deep into my belly and chest. I protested, screaming that each poke felt like punches. I begged him to stop, but he ignored me, murmuring, “I make you better,” as he violently exorcised the toxins from my body.
By the end, quarter-size bruises dotted my torso, a constellation of agony. Mohammed assured me I would feel better the next day, endorsing his words with a calming verbena tea. As I sipped, I reflected on the irony: after weeks of adventurous eating at street carts, I had been felled by a fancy restaurant. Lured from my locavore diet, I had behaved like an ignorant traveler and paid the price wholeheartedly.
Yet, in spite of my “Look, Ma, I’m a foreigner,” faux pas, my weeks of immersion had rubbed off on me. After my digestive disaster, a tourist would have rushed to a Western hospital and swallowed antibiotics. I went to a native healer and drank traditional, Moroccan tea; my recovery was decidedly local. I even was plagued by sharam (shame) for having committed the, almost, deadly sin of eating pig.
Though I had dined like a tourist, I healed like a Moroccan.
Alexis Steinman is a freelance writer specializing in travel, edible, and sartorial subjects. The Seattle editor for The Daily Meal, her work has been featured in LA Magazine, Lost Girls World, and Reserved Magazine. Her quest for gastronomic goodness can be found on her food blog, Yum du Jour.