Monday, May 3, 2010

Letter to Mr. Bittman

Mark Bittman writes a food column for the New York Times called “The Minimalist.”


May 3, 2010

Dear Mr. Bittman,

I’m writing to you on behalf of my brother Scott, a Peace Corps volunteer in Northern Mozambique in desperate need of some culinary foreign aid.

I just returned home from visiting him in Africa, where he gave me a letter addressed to you. He wanted to send it to you himself, but the Mozambican postal service is not exactly what you would call reliable.

Along with the enclosed letter, he asked me to send you a sample of Mozambican dried fish, which we purchased for you at the market in Ribáuè, the village where he lives. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say that I was not successful in my attempt to smuggle the rather pungent parcel past customs officials on my way back to the United States. Who knew that police dogs were also trained to sniff out African delicacies?

I have, however, included a few photos to give you a sense of what we’re dealing with.

If you would like to contact my brother directly, here is his address in Mozambique:

Scott Brennen / P.O. Box 002 / Escola Secondária de Ribáuè / Ribáuè, Nampula Moçambique

He does, occasionally, have internet access [when he travels]. On those occasions he can be reached at:

Alternatively, I would be happy to facilitate any further communication and can be reached at the following:

Andrea Brennen / 21 Avon St. #1 / Somerville, MA 02143 /

Thank you in advance for your help. He, I, and our mother are all grateful. We worry about him over there, y’know?


Andrea Brennen


Dear Mr. Bittman;

Can I call you Mark? Good. Mark, I need your help.

You see Mark, I live in the Bush and there isn’t much to eat. I am a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural in-land Mozambique: I live in a hut, I cook with charcoal, I lose sleep to mosquitoes, and one time a crocodile ate my dog. I’ll eat just about anything, but there’s just not much of anything to eat. Mostly I eat beans: beans and corn, beans and rice, beans and cassava, beans and sorghum, beans and millet; when I want something special: beans and bread. Sometimes I eat greens, usually with beans. And frankly, Mark, after nineteen months it’s getting a little old.

And here is where you come in – you see, there is, in fact, another protein source. Mark, have you ever eaten Mozambican dried fish? Let me try to describe the experience.

Let’s start with bones. Lots of ‘em. Little bones, sharp bones, bones you can chew, bones you can’t. Bones that scratch as they go down; bones that scratch as they come back up. Next, add the smell of nearly rotten fish. No, not fully rotten, but you know everything one could hate about fish? Imagine that in concentrate. It smells like a practical joke, or like an afternoon fishing trip gone bad. It smells like forgetting your pet guinea pig in the basement for a month. Defeat, humiliation; yes, it even smells like Death. Now, salt. So much it makes you cry. Dirty, crunchy sea salt: big grains, little grains. It finds holes, it gets in deep. You taste it as you sleep.

So there it is, the three-part essence of Mozambican dried fish: salty, fishy bones. And here’s where I need your expertise: help me find a way to make this local product palatable. I could appeal to your sense of pity for a young American volunteering out in the Bush, but instead I appeal to your sense of exploration, of adventure. Let’s call it a challenge, perhaps your greatest ever: craft a good simple recipe for dried fish using nothing but a charcoal stove and locally grown foods. That means no electricity, no refrigerator, and no fancy kitchen equipment. I will include a list of what other ingredients are generally available here. Don’t worry, it will be short. Here in Mozambique your minimalist perspective is necessary not voluntary. Maybe this is what you’ve been looking for, what you’ve been waiting for. Yes, this could be your greatest challenge. Here, Mark, there is little, and here the need is great.

Thank you and good luck.


Scott Brennen

P.S. In case you want to try some, here’s some dried fish.

Generally Available Ingredients:

Dried fish; infinite variety

Piri-piri chili



Green petters



Chicken stock



Sugar, sugar cane

Grans: wheat, rice, corn, millet, sorghum, cassava

Sweet and regular potatoes

Greens: collard, pumpkin, sweet potato, cassava, mustard, cauliflower



White bread

Assorted beans


Rats, grasshoppers, flying termites – yes, people eat these

Dried mangoes

Sometimes Available:

Instant coffee


Powdered milk / Sweetened condensed milk







I have these spices from home:



Garam masala









Soy sauce

Chili powder

No comments:

Post a Comment