When I was about thirteen, my parents carted me off to Nairobi, where we had to stay in a private hotel for a while before we moved into our own place. It was in the hotel dining-room that I first noticed human being indulging in their distinctly strange eating habits.
One of the bachelors living there, a fiery-haired man in his early fifties, always smothered his pork sausages – which had to be well-done nearly to the point of cremation – with Seville orange marmalade. Until then, I’d always presumed that marmalade was designed to accompany toast. He usually ate his toast unadorned apart from the minutest scraping of butter. (No one touched margarine in those days.)
A man of habit, he always smoked a single cigarette after breakfast. While doing do, he would use the unburnt end of the match to explore both ears delicately. Then, with a full stomach, smoky breath, and clean ears, he would attack the day with gusto.
Years later, living as a bachelor in Harare (when it was Salisbury), I had a favourite Chinese eatery, which I frequented regularly. Faced with umpteen pages of comestibles, I did what most do: stuck to stuff I liked. On one occasion, a Chinese family came and sat just behind me, which I thought would give me the chance to overhear what they were going to order. After a considerable time of mulling over and discussing the menu, they called the waiter.
Two of them had fish and chips, the rest had steak. I was simply too inquisitive not to turn around, and apologise for asking why they had ordered fish and steak. “Oh, easy!” said the father-figure. “Special treat! We eat Chinese food at home every day.” A few years ago, my wife and I worked at a retreat for several months. Breakfast was always conducted in silence. Nonetheless, while helping myself to some oats, I found it impossible not to whisper to a colleague: “What are you doing?” as she poured rooibos tea onto her porridge. But then, I’ve eaten kangaroo’s tail and sheep’s eyeballs …