Yam

Friday, August 22, 2014, for the first time I held a yam in my hands, a two and a half foot long root, six inches in diameter at the top, brown with clinging of bits of our mother earth from which it was pulled, hefty in the hand. I washed it like a baby, this thing utterly new to me, this foundation of the dinner Monica arranged for our Fulbright neighbors and one of their University of Ghana colleagues. I pealed it, sliced it into one inch discs, and subdivided the disks into two inch planks. They boil up like the potatoes this former Idahoan knows (“famous potatoes” used to be and maybe still is the license plate slogan), and I imagined that one could mash them and put salt, pepper, butter, and sour cream on them, and I could pass them off as Idaho’s finest. The yam, in addition to cooking like a Russet, is a similar shape, though slightly narrower at the top, to another root crop of my youth in Idaho, the sugar beet. I suppose we humans usually look for the familiar in the novel–my mind certainly does so; we learn by expanding from what we know punctuated with an occasional eureka moment–with the proviso that I am trying a different culture’s cuisine on in my kitchen, the only way I know to learn it. I think of the many millions of times persons have eaten this staple in western Africa, roasted, boiled, fried, pounded. I now partake of that stream of humanity with this humble root. We are one in this practice. Lovingly holding this root, like a child, is part of how Africa is holding my family, how Africa is the first home of humanity. Africa is our mother, and this root is drawn directly from her to nurture us. Eating it is only part (and I think much less than half) of the learning. More is here: Holding each piece, smelling each part, tasting the unusual elements, imagining it as one cleans, cuts, sautés, salts, cries over onions, blanches, peels, crushes, fills the air with steam. Boiled yam is served as the foundation for Palava, an onion, palm oil, tomato, pepper, egushi (ground squash seeds), and greens dish, with meats and sea foods added, today some beef chunks, shrimp, and fish fillets dredged in ground millet and sautéed before being added to the sauce. The tomatoes needed to be blanched, peeled, chopped, and mashed; and the onions (eight of them) finely chopped. My recipe does not identify the language, but says that “palava” means business or trouble. So this is also then “Trouble Sauce.” I thought of that book of wonders, Like Water for Chocolate, as the tears troubled out of me from chopping onions mixed with the food. There was no garlic, I repeat, no garlic, in this dish (This is new!). This was a five hour preparation time meal for five adults and two children (next time I can do it in three). No one died. Our eight year old Ghanaian guest, when I brought him into the kitchen to taste test the meal, said it is good, not great, but good. I am a little bit African today. Saturday, Monica took Hannah to play with Adwoa and Mansa. Their aunt, Charlotte, and uncle, Augustine, got to meet Monica. Suddenly our social capital is deepening. Charlotte is the one who gave me the egushi which I did not find when shopping, while she and I were talking cooking (She made my mouth water.). In the midst of that conversation she did a quick check for my veracity after I answered in the affirmative that we had eaten banku: She asked, “Hannah, how do you eat banku?” And Hannah answered nonchalantly, appropriately holding up her right (not left!) hand, “With your fingers.” We have had quite a few conversations with Hannah about the etiquette of left and right hand usage in Ghana: The right is for food, greeting, pointing, and the left is for attending to, well, private matters. Banku is made from corn meal and is similar to polenta. It is eaten usually with an okra stew, sometimes a gravy, to make the banku slide down your throat easily. Monica brought some of my leftover Palava to Charlotte at her request, and it was judged good. Charlotte teaches mathematics at a nearby primary school and Augustine is a French professor at the university here. Charlotte has offered to take Monica shopping in the market so she can get a good sun hat without paying the extra charged white folks, the Brunie tax. A young woman who lives with the family is likely to become our seamstress: Monica is already dreaming up the African dresses that I will see her and Hannah in soon enough. Sunday morning Monica and Hannah played with her figurines, slowly pretending to wash their hair. After breakfast we took a walk, Monica and Hannah engaging in an impromptu scavenger hunt of flowers, sticks, and rocks. We heard some water running: Monica and I look at each other longingly. We have no water. We think about it, however, a lot. Having no tap water is one way to focus the mind. Our rooftop tanks emptied out at the end of dinner Friday night. So we were able to host the dinner well, even as we created a pile of dirty dishes and our bodies both awaiting more generous water. We have bottled drinking water and a couple of small barrels of tap water just for this moment, but we do not know how long we need to make them last, so we are slowly using our cache. Once last year, we are told, there was a five day period without water. Charlotte said that we could get some water from them if need be. Apparently their abode has a larger water tank for when the municipal water shuts off. We will eat leftovers and wash only one place setting for each of us to use. And we will go to restaurants. And take brief sponge baths. Monica left Hannah at her friends’, the Asaah’s, house. We have other adults now who we trust to keep her safe. This is a huge deal. Monica can lie down at the same time I do. The parenting “ON” button can be momentarily unpushed; how strangely refreshing. I am now committed to cooking for or with Charlotte and her family.

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