Not too long ago, while cruising the interstate on a six-hour straight shot south from Denver to Santa Fe, I pulled off a windy pass. At the frostbitten edge of the deserted mining town was a no-name petrol station, just off the exit ramp. I filled my tank and briefly fantasised about relocating to a thriving metro where tired drivers can refuel on hot meals and motorway lattes. No such luck in no manís land.
As I approached the convenience store to pay, I spotted a small, bland display of Cape Cod Potato Chips through the window. Itís a brand of all-natural, kettle-cooked crisps that Iíd never seen outside Cape Cod. To the untrained eye, they look like a government surplus product. The packaging is so plain that if the crisps werenít already on my radar, Iíd probably never notice them at all.
But they are truly great, so I grabbed every bag on the shelf and set them on the counter. ďIím thinking that maybe you really like these chips,Ē said the attendant. While he ran my credit card, we made small talk about the coming storm. The attendant was a heavy-set fellow, bearded and chatty. I liked him. So I handed him my signed receipt and then I gave him a bag of crisps.
As I turned to go, my eyes scanned the counter beneath the ancient cash register and a small stash of items stowed beneath. As with the crisps, I knew immediately what they were, before even really seeing them: a packet of Halwani Brosí maamoul and the familiar coconut white and island azure wrapper of a Bounty bar Ė with stickers affixed to both listing the ingredients in Arabic.
Neither maamoul nor Bounty are available in the US, except at speciality shops where expats can expect to fork over a premium for stale imports that bring back the nostalgia and heartburn of ordinary childhood treats. But in this part of the country, even Subway is scarce. I pointed at the loot and raised an eyebrow. Where had it come from?
ďAh,Ē said the attendant, ďa young guy from Saudi Arabia came in this afternoon, looking for somewhere to sit and have his lunch. Said he didnít like to eat in his car. So I let him eat right here. He left me these as a thank you.Ē
To the occasional excruciation of family and friends, my appetite for detail dictates a compulsive need to ask a lot of questions, especially if thereís food involved. I wanted to know what the guy had eaten for lunch. By now, Mike the attendant and I were on a first-name basis and halfway through a bag of Cape Cod potato chips. He described the manís lunch as white cream cheese in a glass jar, spread on to slices of Wonderbread. ďThatís Puck!Ē I screamed.
Iím not sure why I was so excited. Itís not like Mike was challenging my proclaimed ethnicity, which now, thanks to Puck, had been authenticated.†And itís not like I was competing to prove my competence at identifying common groceries throughout the Arab world.
Honestly, I donít even like Puck. And I havenít eaten a Bounty bar or a packaged semolina cookie in years. But I stood in that gas station and talked about Bounty and Puck like they were cultural ambassadors of my inner peace and happiness. And, although we were in the middle of nowhere, when Mike offered to share, I felt like right at home.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico