Getting Giddy Over Celery: It’s the Little Things

We have lived in Casablanca for a year and a half, and this is the first time that we have seen real celery,” Audrey marveled while looking at the four huge bunches sticking out of the Carrefour bag, our prize of the day. With stalks nearly two feet long, this was celery like we had dreamed of for 17 months. Yes, we dreamed of celery.

It took us a while to realize that Morocco has no celery. It has celeriac, or celery root, but that is not the same. For months we thought the spindly little celeriac stalks were Moroccan celery. Tastes about right, but five or six anemic little stalks does not cut it when you need CELERY in a recipe. If the dish you are making calls for the Holy Trinity of culinary endeavors – celery, peppers, and onions – wimpy celeriac does not cut it. Morocco has cardoons, a thistle-like cousin of the artichoke that Youssef the vendor in the CIL told us was celery. We believed him at first. Then when Brian bought some to use in his gumbo last winter, along with the okra featured in a previous post, it disintegrated into the gumbo…worked fine to help thicken it, but the Trinity again was not balanced in equal thirds. Over time, we just came to accept that we could not cook with celery in our new home. No crunching celery and peanut butter either. Nada.

Fast forward to shopping on Friday. We had a day off from school in celebration of Eid al Mawlid, the Birthday of the Prophet Mohamed. In anticipation of Audrey hosting a “Freezer Party” on Saturday – several people from the on-campus apartments coming by for a many-hands-make-light-work cooking session to create multiple meals en masse so everyone could take home several ready-made meals to put in their freezers and pop out on convenient future dates – we had to pick up all the ingredients so Audrey could prep them. Because it was Eid al Mawlid, the souks where we usually shop were closed and we had to go to Carrefour Gourmet between the Anfa and Bourgogne neighborhoods of Casablanca. Whereas other Carrefours here are like Walmart without the Walmart people, Carrefour Gourmet is like Moroccan Whole Foods. In addition to local produce sourcing, there is also a variety of imported produce that allows for some out-of-season purchasing. Moroccan limes tend to be very tough-skinned and not terribly juicy, so if we need to juice limes we get the imported limes. Local spinach is sold in bunches of large spinach leaves bundled together; but if we want to splurge on a salad with baby spinach, we can often find clear plastic containers of it at Carrefour Gourmet.

Never, though, have we seen what we saw on Friday. As we filled paper bags with carrots, broccoli, onions, clementines so fresh the leaves pulled with them from the trees are still lush and green, and more produce that we then take to the Scale Lady to weigh the bags and slap on stickers with the price of each bag, Brian saw something remarkable: on the produce displays between crates of lettuce and herbs and cabbages were long bunches of celery…REAL celery! Thinking back on the moment, Brian said, “My heart leapt when I saw it!” Pointing out the discovery to Audrey, as soon as she realized what was there she got serious and said simply, “BUY IT ALL!” We did not buy it all. There were eight bunches spread around the display, and we bought only four. We were giddy.

Casablanca has proved a wonderful post for our first overseas gig, for it provides a good balance between exposure to things very different and access to things familiar. We enjoy the many wonderful things to which we have been introduced in Morocco. Yet, we admit freely that part of being so happy here is having access to the little things that bring comfort and familiarity to daily life. Food is memory for people, and our time here has redefined the concept of comfort food for us as we hold past memories and make new ones. We can buy Heinz ketchup at O’Self and Carrefour and sometimes Marjane stores. We can buy bacon and Smithfield ham for us and Kraft Mac-n-Cheese and Pop Tarts for Charlotte at the Commissary in Rabat. We would survive just fine without access to these things…but splurging now and then to enjoy a decadent taste of stateside life brings comfort.

So we loaded our four bunches of celery, with 22-inch stalks (yes, Brian measured them once we got home), into our shopping cart with our other supplies. Like allegedly-Sudanese okra, we were ready to pay any price for the find. The Scale Lady weighed our celery and slapped a sticker on the bag saying our treasure cost a mere 60 Dirhams (about $6.00 USD). We were more giddy.

We took our celery package – about the size and weight of a lanky newborn baby – home to put it in the freezer for future use in Brian’s upcoming Mardi Gras gumbo, various soups, and any other dish that may call for celery as an ingredient. With all the Freezer Party supplies taking up fridge and freezer space, though, we had to store the bag outside on our balcony table overnight. On Saturday, when the Freezer Party neighbors arrived, Audrey showed them our find from Carrefour Gourmet and they declared with laughter their massive Celery Envy over our supply. We are not alone in wishing that Morocco had celery. Today we washed and diced the celery, bagged up about 1 ½ gallons of celery for our upcoming culinary endeavors, stuck it in the freezer, and still kept about half a bunch in stalks for consumption, slathered with peanut butter, over the next few days.

We do not know when we next will see celery here. One rule of thumb for shopping in Morocco is: if you see something you might want, buy it now because it may not be available when you want it later. Who knew finding celery in a grocery store could make us giddy? But it did, and we bought all that we could store because it probably will be gone next week. It is a little thing, but a little thing that will give us much happiness as we continue to make new memories in our Moroccan home.

On your mark…get set…here we go!