"We call these Desert Pringles," Ralph Bousfield says, wielding a handful of salt grass. "Try one!" Jacques Pépin breaks off a spiky blade, tastes and frowns. Though spring hares crave it, salt grass turns out to be a less satisfying snack than the next item on the menu, harvester termites. "They're crunchy," Pépin says, chewing one. "Quite nutty, buttery."
Pépin is sampling bush food at Bousfield's San Camp, an outpost in the Kalahari Desert. It's the first stop on a seven-night safari that will take us through the southern part of Africa, from Botswana to Zambia. Of course, seven years would be a more realistic time frame for exploring this vast terrain, but Pépin has a lot on his plate, with two TV series and his duties as a dean of the French Culinary Institute in New York City. On this tour, he is going to get a concentrated taste of the continent, even if it only serves to whet his appetite for a return visit. Africa does this. Nobody can shrug off the huge plains and rivers and skies, the wild beasts, the music and the people, even the shameful, beautiful remnants of colonialism. Nobody who has been here once is immune from wishing to come back.
African food, varied as it is, is not normally the draw. All too often, for the safari visitor at least, menus promise that dreaded noncuisine known as "international"--partly a legacy of the colonial era, partly the product of lowest-common-denominator tourism economics. The two camps on Pépin's itinerary, however, are way more sophisticated than that. Here at San Camp, the chefs conjure up wonderful food in the middle of the desert; at Tongabezi, the resort in Zambia where we will spend three days at the end of the week, the chefs are skilled at incorporating African ingredients into Western dishes. From working with the cooks in these places, Pépin is hoping to discover something of southern African food, both in its undiluted state and as it has been adapted for travelers.