Do You Know How to Make Couscous?
By Courtney Maum
“Do you know how to make a couscous? Do you want to fuck?”
This line was from the only kind of man who hit on me during the five years that I lived in Paris. Overweight, short enough to be considered “stubby,” and always overheated, these men were usually “of a certain age.” (This age being at least three or four decades older than me—I was in my early twenties at the time.)
I remember exactly where I was when I was asked this: on Avenue Ledru Rollin, in the 11th arrondissement, about twelve blocks from where I was living at the time. I had just left what was then my favorite café in Paris, “Le Bistrot du Peintre.” I thought that the man wanted directions. I got that a lot, people asking directions. Americans have a certain openness about them, a readiness to smile, whereas Parisians walk through their city en garde, always ready to be insulted by a physical or verbal gesture, and always prepared with an affront to send back. The American in America might be the multitasking kind who is always in a rush, but the American in Paris strives to be a flaneur: walking slowly, talking slowly, open to all options. On that grey day in Paris, I must have had an accessible air about me, the look of someone who wasn’t in a rush. A demeanour that apparently translates to some men as the mark of a woman who knows how to make couscous, and also wants to fuck.
Now, the ironic thing about this man’s question is that I didn’t. I didn’t want to fuck, and I also make a terrible, terrible couscous. I had solid skills in rice and pasta making at the time, but with couscous, I could never remember the ratio of water to grains. Did you let the water bubble before tossing the couscous in, or did you cook them in the water first? Should you salt the water beforehand? A little? A lot? Mine always came out hard and clumpy like polenta, a far cry from the perfect lightweight semolina I slathered with the oil from charred merguez sausages and turines of sweet potatoes in the family-style Moroccan restaurants I liked to go to with my friends.
So, no, I told him, I did not know how to make a couscous. And again, he asked me, “Do you want to fuck?” I remember laughing, until he grabbed my hand. My wrist, if I remember correctly, he wrapped his hand around my wrist. I shook him off, expecting to see his pursed lips stretch into a grin, expecting him to say he was just kidding—did I have directions, did I have the time—perhaps he would offer me a drink for my trouble, a more palatable offer, surely, but one I would still refuse. But he did none of these things. He glared at me, thoroughly disappointed. I heard myself telling the man thank you, but no.
Thanking him for what? For accosting me in the street and making assumptions not just about my expertise in the kitchen, but about my willingness to bed a perfect stranger? And a geriatric one at that?
When I turned away from him, he didn’t follow. He didn’t holler after me or cat call, or try to win me back to his side of the pavement. He just walked away also, perhaps looking for another girl to provide him with an extra special lunch.
I don’t know where I was headed to that day, because I wasn’t walking in the direction of my apartment, but I remember that I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering about the couscous. Why couscous, of all things? And did he mean just couscous, or all the traditional accoutrements as well? The vegetables, the chicken legs, the different cuts of meat. If I had said yes, what would have happened? Would he have had all of the groceries on hand in his apartment, or would we have had to go to the market together, down the street?
I still think about this absurd encounter sometimes, and I still make a shitty couscous. It’s a grain that makes me nervous. In some kind of culinary self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s like I have to fuck it up.
One time, on a vacation with my now-husband to the glacier region of Montana, we found ourselves in a forest service cabin with a wood burning stove. We’d hiked out with sausages and couscous, because couscous was quick to make, and light to carry. But once we started preparing the simple dinner, the old nervousness returned. Did I pour the grains in over the bubbling water, or in with the cold water, like rice? Should I add olive oil? Curry? It felt very important at that moment that I get it right. Even though we didn’t have electricity or toilets, we still had a single bar on our telephones—enough to send a text. I sent out a epicurean SOS to my friend Chelsea, an American I’d met when I lived in France. “Help!” I wrote. “Couscous! How much water to grain? Boil water first?” She replied instantly to a question I had asked her at least four times before. “How do you not know how to make couscous yet?”
It was a good dinner, as all food after physical effort is. The remoteness of the location coupled with the total lack of technological distractions helped sink in a lesson that had taken me an absurd amount of time to learn. In life, just like with couscous, you go optimistic: double to one. And in general, starchy grains aren’t ideal pre-fuck.
The humor columnist behind Electric Literature’s “Celebrity Book Review,” Courtney Maum is a frequent contributor to Tin House, Bomb and The Rumpus. She has just finished a novel written entirely from the point of view of the celebrity recording artist, John Mayer, called “John Mayer Reviews Things.” courtneymaum.tumblr.com @cmaum