The best meal I ever ate was handed to me in a shoebox.
We were at the end of a two-week, circular motor trip around Pakistan. We had started from our base in Karachi, driven north up the Indus Valley to Lahore and Islamabad, then continued further north into the hills of Swat and Kalam. The passable track for an automobile ended at the tree line above which the rock cliffs of the Pamir Mountains soared majestically into glistening snow fields.
There we turned back south, dropping down through the Malakand Pass to Peshawar. The second week was spent meandering further south through the North-West Frontier. We stayed in rest houses (few modern hotels in Pakistan in those days) and military forts and ate the traditional food of the country. No stores selling crackers or cheese spread or even raisins were to be found in any of those remote hill towns. Pakistani cooks are generous with the butter in which they cook their meat or chicken, and they curry most of it. Our taste buds were dulled by fat and numbed by oriental spices.
Quetta, a major town south of the Frontier province, offered the comfort of a very Victorian hotel. Bob, my husband, went off to an appointment with a United Nations official while our 3-year-old son, Kit, and I showered and did some laundry. The dining room menu at the hotel offered the usual curry or chicken swimming in fat, but we slept on real mattresses that night. Weary of driving rough winding roads, we put the station wagon on a railroad flat car the next morning and prepared to ride the Bolan Express through a very long day across the Sindh Desert and back to Karachi.
The UN colleague (he was with the Food and Agriculture Organization) came to the train station to see us off. He apologized to me for not inviting us to dinner the previous evening. His wife was visiting her family in Europe, so he was on his own for the moment.
"But I've brought you a lunch," he said. "There's no dining car on the train." He added: "The lettuce is safe to eat. I grew it myself in my garden."
Just the thought of fresh, untainted lettuce made my mouth water. Most tourists cannot eat garden produce in Pakistan unless it has been soaked thoroughly in an antiseptic. We had eaten no fresh vegetables and little fruit (only that which could be peeled) during the two-week trip - and no fresh fruit had been available after we left Peshawar.
The train rocked all the dry morning long through a landscape of broken hills and scoured wadis, hot sun overhead erasing the shadows and dulling all color into a monotonous beige. The train windows were open to circulate the air a little. Cinders and smoke drifted back from the steam engine. The passenger cars had few amenities - not even cushioned seats. By noon we were stiff from sitting on hard wooden benches. We had wilted in the 100-degree F. heat and were very dirty. We freshened our faces and hands as best we could with packaged wipes.
I provoked a little drama for young Kit. "Now we shall open the magic shoebox!" Slowly I lifted the lid. He peered into its humble interior and lifted out the promised head of fresh lettuce, a boiled chicken (no fat!), a loaf of home-baked bread, and a small jar of mayonnaise. The hotel dining room had filled our thermos with cold tea.
I have eaten in fabulous restaurants in Paris, Singapore, Tokyo, and San Francisco, but nothing I've savored in any of them has ever tasted as good as that sublime lunch: chicken sandwiches and cool tea, enthusiastically enjoyed as the Sindh Desert rattled past our windows.