Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Cooking Lessons

What is it about food that brings people and cultures together?

I’ve been learning how to cook some Ghanaian dishes from Victoria. She’s taught me how to make aji detsi (spicy peanut soup), jample (bean and corn meal paste) and mportomportor (thick yam stew) so far. I sit on a stool in our small kitchen, furiously scribbling directions in my notebook while she effortlessly mixes ingredients by memory. She knows proportions by pours and handfuls, while I try to estimate her measurements into cups and tablespoons. My efforts have earned me the humorous nickname “ameibovi” or “little black person.” She told me that I am not an American girl anymore, but an Awakorme girl. I should have learned from her the first time around, but I never did, I think partly because our relationship was so different three years ago.

My host mother and I have always had a good relationship. There was a significant language barrier though, and our personalities occasionally clashed. We are both incredibly stubborn and I think we mutually frustrated each other from time to time. In retrospect, most of our disagreements were probably just cultural misunderstandings that we didn’t have the language skills to work out. But even though I didn’t have quite the same closeness with Victoria that I’ve always had with Worfa, she took me in as her own from day one and I have always been grateful for that.

This time though, I can see a real difference in our relationship. Victoria’s English has improved significantly in the last few years. She still speaks in a curious, grammar-less pidgin that might be difficult for most people to decode, but we’ve both learned how to phrase things so that the other will understand and we get by just fine. It’s taken time- literally years- but I’ve also learned to see things from her point of view better and have patience when the cultural gap between us rears its obnoxious head. She asks me a lot more questions about America than she used to, trying to understand where I’m coming from. Do we have coconuts in Michigan? What do we eat? Is it cold this time of year? Do people smoke to keep warm? Why do people pierce their belly buttons? It’s a curiosity I never got see when we were struggling to communicate even on a basic level. She disapproves of many practices in the western world, but she always seems to be willing to make an exception on my behalf. She doesn’t like tattoos, but my butterfly is “fine-o.” She doesn’t like piercings, but my nose stud “it fit you.” We’re home alone together a lot more often than we used to be, and we frequently sit down to share a mango or watch a movie together. Sometimes we chat, sometimes we sit quietly. There’s a new camaraderie between us that in itself was worth the return trip. Perhaps it took two years of missing each other for us hard-headed women to realize just how much we mean to each other.

This time when I return home, I will have a part of Victoria to bring with me. I may not be able to mutter in Ewe or imitate her signature cackle, but I can prepare her recipes for my friends and family with the same care and happiness that she has always used to cook them for me.

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