It has come to my attention that today is the last Thursday in November. Now, back home this means Thanksgiving: a time of intense family politics, delicious food, gallons of booze, and tryptophan poisoning for days. Clearly it’s one of my favorite holidays, and frankly, I’m surprised more Ghanaians haven’t gotten into it. To celebrate I’m bringing y’all a food themed post. Yes, blogging about what you eat is narcissistic, but then again, so is having a blog in the first place. So having already crossed that Rubicon, let me say that I DREAM of my mother’s cooking. Vividly. In color.
Because of this, a lot of people (Danny, Audrey, and Max) ask if there’s food here. Before I comment on the racist undertones of that statement, let me offer this caveat: the national dish of Ghana is Fufu. I’d publish a photo here but haven’t found a polite way to take one without seeming like that ridiculous white girl photographing her food in the bush. It’s also super hard to handle a camera when your hands are covered in raw Cassava starch mush, fish scales, and boiling hot palm wine soup. I’d type you out a thousand words to compensate, but Fufu merits far fewer. I’ll give it five: Whatever you do, don’t chew. With that, I’ll let the internet and your imaginations fill you in.
Luckily, I live in Accra, and here we have a wonderful thing called Max Mart. What you need to know about Max Mart is this: Max Mart has hummus, lentils, lettuce, and cheese. It also has an aisle for “Ethnic Foods” which means an entire Indian/Mexican section complete with bagged nacho kits (yes that includes powdered sour cream, cheese, chips, beans, and “salsa sauce”) and Uncle Ben’s rice. The reception in there is great, and I usually call my mom as I shop to ask her important things like “What exactly goes into a caesar salad dressing? Can I substitute limes for lemons? How much is too much to pay for parmesan, on principle?” For those of you interested in the answers: Mom’s recipe for Caesar salad is on SimplyRecipes.com, according to Mom you can’t swap out lemons for limes (but I do anyways), and there is no price too high to pay for cheese.Whenever I doubt my genetic makeup, I remember conversations like these and then look in the mirror to see my Mom staring back.
All this to say that Accra is the high life–we’ve got grocery stores with almost everything you could ever want (though half the time when you want it it’s “finished,” meaning they either never had it or didn’t bother to stock it that week) decent sushi, TWO smoothie joints, and good pizza, not to mention access to cheese. Last week I even found a bakery across town that has halfway decent pastries. It took 45 minutes to get there, but cost all of 6 bucks for a pretty good cinnamon roll, a great chocolate croissant, and a double espresso so strong I was shaking as I typed up my field report (sorry not sorry for the typos Jason). So life here is palatable. My only problem with cooking is that we only have power about half the time, so our refrigerator situation is beyond sketch. I’ve given up on the idea that we even have one, and just shop daily for veggies and other perishables and live off staples.
Shout out to Ben Rodgers–I eat a ridiculous amount of lentils, and yes I use your super fancy technique of cooking them in salt and water and never ever covering them. You’ll be glad to know that I have finally mastered the art of making a proper vinaigrette, though the balsamic situation here would make you cry. No they don’t have sherry vinegar.
But all this food glory only covers the weekends. Of the last 27 Days, I’ve spent at least 17 in the Bush, dreaming of food I can’t have and getting progressively hangrier and hangrier. My google search history for those 17 days consists of different food items that have cheese in them and pictures of decent baguette.
And before I continue, let me state for the record that I am NOT a picky eater. Anyone who knows me will tell you that if it’s on my plate (or theirs), I’ll try it, and then usually wolf it down cuz food is food and if you haven’t finished yours then it’s fair game. If this were a 30Rock episode (which is the greatest aspiration anyone can have in life) this would be the part where we flash back to me stealing popsicles from kid siblings, sneaking bites of Seamus’s lunch when he decided he’d rather play than eat, swiping sandwich halves from Max as he yells at me to “keep my filthy mits” off his pastrami and pepper sub, sneaking crackers away from Risa on the side of Hwy 1 while she cries over how stupid Big Sur is, and lifting coffee off Jason when he’s not looking. Freya is the only person on the planet who has challenged my food stealing ways, mostly because she eats as much and as fast as I do, and that makes it very hard to steal from her. Either something has to be truly revolting, or there has to be something physically wrong with me for me to not eat. That being said, I try and avoid fufu.
So if I’m clearly not subsisting off fufu, what do I eat when far from the salads, lentils, and cheeses of Accra? The guys will tell you that I eat only egg and bread. Much as I love them, they are incorrect. I only live MOSTLY off eggs and bread. In response to their concerns about my diet (not enough fufu, too many vegetables and eggs) and his paranoia about blood pressure/cholesterol, Jason has imposed a daily egg quota–I’m permitted two a day. Luckily the long arm of VBP law only extends as far as he’s willing to reach, and Mr. Finch has learned pretty quickly to never take food away from me. Some mornings I even have three eggs, just cuz. My tool bag is now known as the “egg and bread” bag by the guys. I’d be annoyed if it weren’t true–at any given time, I’ve got an omelet and some bread in there. And I’m ok with that.
There’s a food cycle to living in the bush–the first week you experiment out of politeness and a need to fit in. You eat the fufu, share in the Banku, slurp down the plam wine soup, and try not to choke on the fish bones. Every night you suffer for it. Pure starch fills you up fast and then disappears just as quickly. Think of it as eating a bath salt–it’s super solid in your stomach, weighs you down and sits like a rock until it fizzles up and disappears in about 30 seconds, leaving behind a slick coating of oil that makes you nauseous and hungry at the same time. All this would be worth it if eating like a Ghanaian somehow transformed you in the eyes of your friends, co-workers, and the people on the street who constantly yell racist comments your way. But it won’t. While it may endear you to some, mostly it just makes you more of a spectacle. No matter what you eat, people will point, stare, laugh and yell.
The second week you think you’ve learned your lesson, you take it slow and pack some ramen to combat the constant hanger. In public you still try whatever is given to you. You find your local staple (egg and bread) and stick with that for breakfast while eating local food for the rest of the day. You may go to bed hungry, but you know that there’s eggs in the morning! This has it’s drawbacks. I almost broke down crying my second week in the bush when inexplicably all the egg and bread women in Bawjiase decided to not show up to work. Ebenezer, Akapo, and Fatawu had no idea what to do with me and had the driver drive in circles trying to find someone to feed me until Jason showed up with a sandwich made of bread, butter, hardboiled eggs, and pepper sauce.
The third week rolls around and you’ve got a routine down. Egg and Bread comes from Kokor around the corner. Watchi (beans, rice, and egg) for lunch. Rice, tomatoes, onions, and garlic from the woman down the road for dinner. Tea in the morning, milo at night, chicken from the girls at the front desk. The hanger dies down and you can think rationally most of the time. This doesn’t stop you from googling images of food. But it’s a manageable week.
Week four is hell. Your routine may be useful, but it drives you nuts. The googling is too much. You dream constantly of foods you can’t have. For me, this meant mac and cheese and carrot cake. But I had planned ahead, thought this thing out–I knew I’d probably end up spending Thanksgiving in the bush, and packed accordingly. In the bottom of my bag was a box of mac and cheese I’d found in Accra. All week it sat there next to my clean socks, haunting me. There’s nothing harder in the world than knowing there’s cheese to be eaten but settling for rice and fufu.
I caved by Wednesday and commandeered the hotel kitchen when I saw that the kitchen girls were going to to try and boil 2 cups of noodles in 1 cup of water. They had never seen a white woman use a stove, let alone powdered cheese in a box. I tried to explain Thanksgiving to them, and would up saying it was the day where we worship our ancestors and the food gods in a celebration of family. That got across, though I may have given them the impression that the whole thing centered around boxed mac and cheese as the central dish. I would be totally fine with this change–turkey is over rated, everyone is just in it for the stuffing.
In any case, here is an album of food images to accompany a long tangential food rant:
Lucky for me, Jason pulled me back to Accra to celebrate in style with some of his and
Dorrie’s American friends. And while we all wound up bringing the same dish, (green beans with caramelized onions and garlic) it was a lovely evening with wonderful people. I got home just in time to Skype my family in California as they ate their own Thanksgiving Dinner.
It was clearly a civilized affair.
More later, miss you all bunches!
All my love,