A Lesson in Cooking, Culture, and Tea
Last October, Jody Bergeron and Mitch Selbiger thought their Marrakesh trip would be canceled. They were scheduled to land on the heels of a deadly earthquake in the area and the Mid-East had exploded in bloodshed in Israel and Gaza. Remarkably, the tour company carried on.
The result was an unforgettable experience which included a cooking lesson and an introduction to the fascinating Moroccan culture. But the best souvenir was making a connection with a thriving nonprofit called Amal, dedicated to raising women up from poverty. In addition, Amal was providing food to refugees from the earthquake-stricken mountains nearby.
Sitting in their Rehoboth living room, Jody and Mitch excitedly shared stories of learning to cook local dishes while being introduced to Amal by a woman named Jihad. “It’s not the meaning of the word we are used to,” Jody says, but it is a popular given name in Morocco. “She looked like Audrey Hepburn and was so bright and hopeful about the work they were doing.”
According to Jihad, young women from Moroccan villages are sent to Marrakesh to be maids. They send all their earnings back to the villages, receive no education, and live in poverty. Amal, which has kitchens and restaurants in the city, turn the baking and cooking skills these women have into a way to make a better living. Amal also provides them with education and skills which allow them to get better jobs in hotels and restaurants. Many of them go on to work in the Amal restaurants or cafés as well as other fine restaurants.
Jihad explained that Amal’s work brings about 15 women out of poverty each year; it has already helped over 300 women into jobs where they can advance.
As for the cooking lesson, Mitch and Jody learned to prepare a meal in a tagine, a conical clay pot heated from below with red-hot charcoal. This primitive Moroccan oven was first used by nomads in North Africa and is still in use today.
“The experience was way more than just preparing a meal,” said Jody, explaining that the slow cooking of meat and fish in the tagine gave them time to hear about the culture from the local women who were assisting.
As the visitors donned bright orange aprons and prepared the meal, Mitch was fascinated by the tagine cooking process. “They light the charcoal using a bellows. It’s all very primitive, with incredible aromas” rising from the couscous, meat, and vegetables they were preparing.
As for the tea service, Mitch calls it “ceremonial, almost spiritual,” as they used sugar cubes “that looked like bricks, with the locals using eight of them in a pot, along with mint.”
“And we sat on these itty-bitty stools, with leather pillows on them, as we relaxed and drank the sweet tea,” Jody says.
But how did Jody and Mitch, along with more than a dozen other men on their tour, feel about being in a country where same-sex sexual activity is illegal and punishable by five years in jail? Mitch says, “They knew we were a gay group and there was no problem. No animosity at all.”
Jody adds, “There was no doubt that Jihad knew we were gay. I didn’t see any sign of a problem with it and she and the others provided a strong women’s presence. We talked about Rehoboth, and I even told her about CAMP’s Women’s FEST.”
Both Mitch and Jody explained that much more rewarding than the cooking lesson or the tea service was learning about the organization Amal. They donated to Amal in Marrakesh and are continuing to support it now that they are home.
While calling the trip—which included hiking, much sightseeing, and even a spa day—a fabulous experience, Mitch and Jody say the cooking class, meeting Jihad, and learning about Amal was a highlight. “The class was fun, we loved the food, and we felt like we were helping these women make new lives,” Jody remembers. “And they were so sincere and genuine about the program and the people they were helping. I wanted to cry. “
To learn more about Amal, you can go to Amalnonprofit.org. ▼
Fay Jacobs is the author of five published books and is touring with her one-woman sit-down comedy show, Aging Gracelessly.