i tell stories because the women in my family taught me about food…
Set up three stones in a small triangular pattern.
Throw some freshly-cut wood and dried corn leaves into the mix.
Light it up, then throw in some Coco-yams.
Roast them until their rough skin turns smooth, brown and rootless.
Cut them into pieces and eat them with warm palm oil, a pinch of salt and dried Mololo or salted Goat meat.
Cooking is strategic much like telling a story. Setting up a scene and or developing a story’s plot is like cooking. Granny always told me to set up the stones, she said to place wood in a triangular manner between the stones and then light them up. Wood needs to be dry and light to catch fire. Wood must catch fire for food to be cooked. But wood had to be provided for like a willing audience avails itself for a story. The vessel that carried a story is a pot that carries food. One beguiles the other. Hands create while mouths tell. People who gather around pots at night under the lights of a hovering half-moon, scooping soup and exchanging gazes and pleasantries want to be inspired. They want to see and believe and food is an entry way into placed beyond our imaginations.
By now, you must know I’m African. Coco-yams, palm oil and salted goat meat are a dead giveaway. My folks are from the west, from the mountains, of a country geographically more specious than Germany, called Cameroon, with however only an estimated nineteen million inhabitants. We eat. That’s what we do when we are gather in the same room for whatever reason. There is always a pot brewing in the kitchen. Some meat, some veggies and a good old gossip. The gossips have become beautifully woven cautionary tales over time, to scare and inspire. We are a story-centric family and food is how and where the story begins.
My granny lived a full life. You don’t age that gracefully without some really good stories. Good, bad, ugly, she saw it all. She told us those tales every chance she got, and she did that using food. My earliest memories are of her telling me about her youth while peeling plantains and washing red beans. My grandfather’s hungry lips would linger and question “aren’t you done yet, Mola-na?”. Mola-na, means woman in the Bakweri tongue. They were married for 50 years and in that time, he never ate outside of their home. That is how much he loved her cooking. Food was everything then, food is everything now. I lived with them for a few years. We could get up at cock crow, there were no clocks to call us out of bed. A woodpeckers peck on a tree just outside granny’s room was usually the clue. We woke up, to Granny who had already prepared puff puff and beans and cups of warm milk. Granddad would get a horn of palm wine instead of a cup of milk. As kids we were told palm wine in the morning makes a man strong. It is drunk on harvest. The night before its consumption, granddad would scrape some lines on a palm tree and insert a straw-like instrument into it. Underneath the straw would be a bowl hanging to catch every drop of wine the palm tree felt it had to give for that day. After we had all had filled our stomachs with the most deliciously fried balls of wheat and yeast, we would head to the farm. People own farm lands in Cameroon. There is a huge agricultural system. You only have as much as you can cultivate, produce and sell. Granny always said “a man who cannot feed his family isn’t a man at all”. On arrival at the farm we were given portions of land we were required to till and cultivate. I had a tiny corn corner. I planted in straight lines that ended beside a mango tree. When work was over, we rushed home, showered in a little creek behind Granny’s wooden house and sat waiting for food to be served.
Food is a thing men and women in my family understand. Food is not a women chore alone. My grandparents made it a habit to teach their children to sew and cultivate and cook. Independence to them meant, to be able to fend for yourself by yourself.
There are fights and grudges that have been held and kept till this day but for food they can be laid to rest for at least an hour. It didn’t matter who you were, great granny’s Mbanga Soup would bring you to your knees. It is one of the most cherished dishes of the Bakweri people, from whence she came. She was married off at twelve and on the night of her betrothal, she learned to cook the illustrious soup. Mbanga soup is eaten with pounded yams and dried fish and meat. Mbanga is palm nut. To achieve this said soup, palm nut must be washed, boiled then squeezed until there is no juice left in it. Once that is done, it is boiled in a pot with meat, fish, and some unique spices. Cooking time is anywhere between one and three hours. Pounded Yam is usually being simultaneously made while the soup boils in a pot on the very common three-stone-fire place. Yam pieces are thrown into a mortar and are beat and further made fine like grease using a pestle. It is the sound of music and feet running down a stream on a summer morning. Women pounding and sweating next to fire-sides and huge aluminium pots cooking was a thing back then. Men would instantly decide to marry a woman after seeing her prepare a meal. My Granny was one of those women. She had been taught to be a women who prepares and cooks. A women who knew to harness the power of food to get what she wants. “The way to a mans heart is through his stomach”, she was told. Many years later in her 70s, she told us that line was a lie. She had created her own version of that line, “filling up the stomach and telling stories is how you make a marriage work when sex and passion is all dead an gone” … food is a valuable thing to behold. It is power to anyone who knows how to utilise it to their advantage. Food is also culture and history and a moment in time captured in chewables. We eat, we tell, we rejoice, we remember and then we forget. That is the power of food and that is perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from my late Granny.