Friday, July 10, 2009

How are you keeping it? Good-good?

I never could master the Liberian handshake. Granted, I don't really have anyone to practice with who knows what it is - it's kind of a slide/snap maneuver, your hands have to be really dry, and you should've been practicing since shortly after birth in order to master it by adulthood. So my chances, I'm guessing, are pretty slim.

It was July 18, 1989 when I returned from six months in West Africa. For my 20th birthday two of my friends took a treacherous cab ride to the American Embassy compound to buy me a bag of frozen strawberries at one of the few supermarkets in the country. Perhaps you know they're not native to the tropical rainforest, but in case you didn't - they're sooo not. Pineapple? Mango? Coconut and banana? All you want. No strawberries. Also not easy to find - ice cream, but they did it. Ann and Denise, I'm still grateful and amazed that you went to all that trouble!

There's coffee, though, and coffee trees smell nothing like coffee. They have the most gorgeous blossoms and a heavy, sweet but not cloying smell. Whenever we went by them all I could do was close my eyes, breathe deeply, and hope and pray to remember the moment.

Why did I stop eating red meat in Liberia? Two words - no cows.

What we did have was chicken, rice, dried fish, palm butter, scorching-hot peppers, rice, chicken bouillon cubes, rice, rice, various types of bread, rice, fresh fish (if by the sea), shortening (instead of butter/margarine for the bread), "bush meat" (whatever unlucky critter ended up in the stew pot), rice, palm wine, plantains, Spam, rice, greens, and rice.

All served on a bed of rice.

School - I was at a university - could not open without electricity, which ran for 3 hours in the morning and 4 hours in the evening. However, when the generator conked out again after having spent 5 days raised from the dead to open school, life and the semester went on undisturbed. And dark at night.

When coming back from Cote d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), our intent was to walk the 8 miles from the military checkpoint at the border to the next town. But a car came along and picked up the four of us. What would they have done without us sticking our flashlights out the windows to light the way in the absence of headlights?

During the school year I lived on campus and not at the missionary compound. The cafeteria served bread - like a thick shortbread, or sometimes cornbread - for breakfast and dinner. There would be a thick pool of heavy margarine, or a smear of Crisco, on the plate as a spread. The Americans would often bring peanut butter into the cafeteria.

At lunch we stood in line to get a bowl of rice. Then we stood in another line for soup, which in the US we would call a stew. There were several different colors of stew, each with a hint of red from the palm oil. I'm sure they tasted different, but I could never taste anything except the AAAAAAAAGGGGHHHH of peppers.

Did I mention I looked terrifically thin when I got back to the States? Suck it, Atkins Diet.

The American professors had apartments on/near campus. When one of the professors went back to the States for a few weeks she allowed us to use her home - and at that point I cooked an entire four-course meal for seven on a hibachi with no refrigeration and one knife, thankyouverymuch. YES. Do I feel any conflict now with my nifty collection of multi-functional kitchen accoutrements? Well no, not until this minute... hmmm..... well, I'll say this - standards are higher in the US as an adult than they were in Liberia (or anywhere) as a college student.

Sweetie mentioned recently that if we're going on a trip there's sure to be a Stephanie-developed checklist of Stuff To Bring. And I can't tell you how difficult it was to get used to a much more laid-back way of traveling. Specifically, when do we leave? When the bus is full. If a big group comes by tomorrow and buys tickets, we leave tomorrow. Otherwise, no. How long is the trip? Depends on if it's rainy season or not. Depends on if the military checkpoints lets us pass. There's no way to know. Now put your head back on your canteen and go to sleep.

And throwing ourselves on the mercy of strangers to take us in whither we landed just blew my mind. But you know, what a wonderful thing - to fling one's self on the wings of adventure and be confident of a warm welcome. It never, ever failed to materialize - a safe, dry place to sleep.

Fufu is boiled, pounded cassava root. Women young and old sit outside with their pot of fufu-in-process and the pounding stick and they pound all day. ALL DAY.

Tastes like wax.

Cassava fries, though, aren't bad.

Liberia is a tribal country. You can draw all the lines you want to around a map, but patriotism is tribe, not country. Every tribe has its specialty industry, and the Mandingo tribe made incredible bread. Like French bread - crisp outside, fluffy inside, perfect with (I'm not kidding) Laughing Cow cheese, which you could buy one wedge at a time on the street in the capitol.

Going to Liberia when I was 19 made it really weird to say "I'll just have a beer." In college - where I had been a mere 60 days previously - there's so much faux-drama and secrecy and posturing about alcohol that it was other-worldly for it to be a non-event to have a Club beer. Which, by the way, I've never liked, but sterilizing your water gets old pretty fast and makes bottled beverages much more appealing. I've never cared for soda, either, but orange Fanta was my best friend for a while.

It's also how I knew I had malaria - I was at the market and spit out my Fanta saying it had "gone bad." It can't. The soda was fine, it was me that wasn't doing so great. And that's really all I remember until about 5 days later when my fever broke.

Palaver is a highly civilized concept. To palaver is to peaceably discuss an issue, for as long as necessary, until a workable solution can be reached. In small villages issues are not put to a majority vote - because if 51% support an idea, then you have 49% of your village unhappy with it. One imagines a leader doesn't sleep well that way, and probably not much of the citizenry, either.

There is also a wonderful dish known as palaver sauce; I'd be happy to share the recipe but I can't find kpon leaves or plato greens anywhere and doubt they're much available. Sadly, due to the absence of worlor seed, I won't be sharing the worlor sauce recipe, either.

The bananas I've had in the states have, frankly, fallen short of what I've learned a banana can be. Head out of the gutter, please. In West Africa they were small, creamy, and intensely flavorful. If you have the opportunity to pick up some red bananas they most closely approximate what I had available (really available, like "dropping off the tree").

One of my favorite dishes was Groundnut Stew. Groundnuts are known as the States as peanuts. This wonderful dish is cleverly served atop rice.

From the Phebe Cookbook, written by the folks at the Phebe Hospital compound - and by all means, take advantage of the supermarket and its selection of natural peanut butter!

Groundnut Stew
1 pint (2 cups) roasted peanuts
2 lbs. chicken or beef
1 bouillon cube (chicken or beef) - check the label to see if it's gluten-free, if that's a concern
Tomato paste
1 medium onion
1 TBSP butter (optional)

Season meat with salt and pepper. Let stand for a while.

Cook meat on medium heat until partly tender. Pound peanuts in mortar until like butter. Add 2 cups sterilized water to peanuts. Strain through a sieve. Pour the liquid into a pot with meat. Add a little tomato paste to give color. Cook until as tender as desired (approximately two hours).


Cynthia said...

If I were to use peanut butter, how would that change the recipe?

Stephanie said...

Replace "2 cups of peanuts" with "1 cup of peanut butter" and skip the pounding/straining step. Natural/sugar-free peanut butter is best.

Happy cooking!

Cynthia said...

Cool. I've got some chicken breasts and I was going to make curry, but I think I'll try this recipe instead.