The Mystery of the Tepid Brew

McLean, January 2005

The summer of ’63 in Kuwait was, in retrospect, a particularly nasty one. The saying was that, when it was hot, it would reach 120 degrees in the shade but that, unfortunately, today there would be no shade. In reality, it was only that hot one week out of three. The next week would be a little cooler, maybe 95° only, but with a humidity of 99%, whereas the third week would bring us a sand-storm known locally as the toz. And then, back to 120° in the shade.

As lunch-time came around, I would be looking forward to getting home and downing a cold Heineken. “Home” was Kuwait Government accommodation: a two-bedroom furnished apartment sporting, among other amenities, a brand-new fridge whose mammoth size had precluded its installation in the kitchen. Hence, it decorated our entrance hall. That fridge was obviously a honest fridge, dedicated solely to serious cooling and, yet, our beer at lunch time would inevitably be lukewarm.

When questioned, Phillip D’Souza our Indian cook at the time, could offer no logical explanation.

The whole matter of Indian cooks might be worth a slight digression. There were relatively few Western expatriate couples in Kuwait in the early 1960s, and the joke among us was that there would be eleven Indian cooks for twelve expat families. Hence, if you fired your cook, usually after a bout of total exasperation, chances were even that another of the eleven cooks had been similarly disposed of, approximately at the same time by another expatriate family, and would thus become available. And so, like a game of musical chairs, Indian cooks would rotate through the expat contingent. It was not uncommon to be invited to dinner to another of the twelve families, only to find ourselves served by one of our former cooks. Although we referred to them as Indians, cooks were generally Christians from Goa.

Eliane, my wife, worked at the time for Behbahani Travel Bureau, the local representatives of Swissair and SAS. One of her colleagues was Goanese and hence, whenever we were in need of a new cook, she would mention the matter to her Goanese colleague. Somewhat miraculously, a replacement cook would conveniently appear the next day at the travel office for an interview.

These cooks had many characteristics in common, including swarthy looks, black curly hair kept under control by a generous coating of Brillantine, voluble promises of excellent curries and, or so it seemed, D’Souza as their family name. As the interview progressed, their right hand would creep, slowly but inexorably, across their chest and reach into their breast pocket, from which would gradually emerge a small-size engraving of the Virgin Mary. That apparition had as its sole purpose to demonstrate that the cooks were fellow Christians. (Appurtenance to the Christian faith was a prerequisite if a cook expected to be hired by expats, as these cooks would automatically have access to our reserve of beer and spirits. Allowing access to alcoholic beverages to any Muslim in Kuwait would have meant, at that time, the cook’s instant expulsion and, which was worse, mine).

Now back to the serious, even crucial, matter of the tepid beer cans: a full press, applied to the current D’Souza cook, had revealed nothing. The man, under my skilful interrogation, just could not fathom why our Heinekens would be anything but ice-cold. And yet, the Kesteloot family’s morale was dropping proportionally to the rate at which the beer temperature was rising. Something had to be done.

Hence, one day, instead of returning home around noon as usual, Eliane and I both arrived at the apartment around 11:30h and, as we burst into the entrance hall, the problem that had haunted us for the past couple of months was finally elucidated: the fridge door was wide open, and the fiendish D’Souza was seated on a chair, with his feet propped up on one of the fridge’s inner shelves. When we expressed our strong disapproval, he offered, rather meekly, that his feet were always feeling too warm.

That same afternoon, the word spread quickly again amongst the local Goanese community: Memsahb Eliane, of the Behbahani Travel Bureau, was looking for a new cook.

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