“We eat to curb hunger. We feast to mark occasions. We consume for pure sustenance. Plans hatch over food and become banked in our memories. Meals mark our lives. And sometimes they change everything.”

So ends the spare four-paragraph introduction to “Meet Me at the Bamboo Table: Everyday Meals Everywhere,” a book of short essays written by Anita Verna Crofts, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington who splits her time between Seattle and Portland. Crofts, an inveterate traveler and intrepid eater, chronicles her trips and her meals in this small book, which is also filled with her photographs. Her destinations are often exotic. Yes, there are stops in Italy, Alabama and even Maine (here, she writes about the food at a summer camp where she served as a counselor), but she also touches down in Estonia, Namibia and Syria. She rides the Trans-Siberian railroad and “lumbers” into Vietnam by foot, lugging a heavy pack.

As travel writing often does, the essays capture Crofts’ personal journey; in one, she travels to Paris as a teen; some years later, her boyfriend nurses her when she falls ill in Asia and her feelings for him deepen. In a third, she grapples with turning 30. In keeping, the design has an old-fashioned scrapbook-like/photo album feel. Always, she is tasting, thinking, dreaming food.

Next week, Crofts will give a reading from the book at Print in Portland. Meanwhile, we bring you a taste. “A Sudanese Minute” is reprinted with permission from the publisher. — PEGGY GRODINSKY

“Meet Me at the Bamboo Table: Everyday Meals Everywhere.” By A.V. Crofts. Chin Music Press. $16.95.


Khartoum is a sleepy capital city. its side streets are lined with willow trees, and five times a day calls to prayer pierce the otherwise quiet air. Few tall buildings compete with the sky, and much of the city is comprised of residential compounds no more than three stories tall.

The city feels like a sign of repose.

The natural world is more visible amidst all that is man-made. Incoming dust storms clearly advance toward the city from miles away, and proximity to the desert defines this urban oasis. Sand the color of a new penny and as fine as flour sneaks into every crevice and collects like dust on tabletops, patios, and car dashboards. Brooms are always in use in Khartoum. The temperature can shift severely, dipping at night and rising to oven-like blasts throughout the day. Whenever the warm desert air greeted me as I stepped off a plane in Khartoum, flip-flops came out and socks went into my suitcase for the rest of my stay.

We joked during our trainings about the difference between a Sudanese minute and an American minute. Place your thumb and finger an inch apart and you have the latter. Now throw your arms as wide as your wingspan allows, and welcome to Sudan.

While I kept my eyes on the time during meetings and trainings, over meals it was another story altogether. Time slowed when food was on the table. No one knew this better than Wisal, a Sudanese graduate of the University of Washington with a radiance that rivaled the sun. I counted on her to be my restaurant guide.

Coffee vendors are popular in Khartoum. Beans are ground fine and then steeped in boiling water, often with a combination of spices and sugars stored in the plastic containers on display.

Evening excursions took place when work was done for the day and the heat had abated, replaced by cool desert night. We used fingers to pull apart samak mashwi, grilled freshwater fish, served with key limes and a piquant dipping sauce. A hibiscus iced tea, karkaday, slaked parched mouths. Then there were meals of spiced grilled lamb with fresh wheels of bread and peppery arugula, accompanied by bowls of foul sudani, a hearty fava bean stew – think Sudanese chili. Always up for dessert, we would relocate to a cafe smack in the middle of a busy Khartoum roundabout, where you had a dizzying selection of gelato, single-serving cakes, fruit tarts, and coffee. The wide outdoor couches were made for lounging, and time unspooled as we were lulled by the shallow croons of circling three-wheeled jitneys. On weekends we returned to the cafe couches, protected from the sun by yawning umbrellas and a system of ingenious mist-makers that kept customers cool, as though we were produce needing protection from wilting in the heat.

My joy in Sudanese dining extended far beyond what was on my plate. It also included the simplicity of the ingredients, the Sudanese emphasis on hospitality, and their unhurried manner. I was treated to barbecue on the outskirts of the city, where diced meat was grilled right in front of you and presented with an onion, tomato, and cucumber salad to keep it company, along with a small bowl of sea salt, puffed pillows of bread, and green chili dipping sauce. I ate these meals seated on iron bedframes webbed with twine so that after overeating I had the option to recline and take a nap. I have been tempted by plates of kisrah, a sorghum flour pancake widely available from street vendors, and paired it with a shot-glass amount of coffee spiced with ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. I often passed on sugar for my coffee, which drew bemused reactions from my Sudanese colleagues. I enjoyed that many meals were served communally on aluminum trays, and how I had to lean in close to eat. Sudanese colleagues were eager to introduce me to their tastes of home, and the meals lasted for hours.

Sudan fed my curiosity, and its relationship with time prompted reflection. What was I missing? Was I moving too fast? What might surface if I did not rush to talk over all the quiet? I left Sudan full every time.

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