Friday, May 08, 2009

Question #6: What makes YOU the expert, white American lady?

When my book A Good Soup Attracts Chairs came out in 1993 I made a conscious decision not to put my photo on the book jacket. A few months after the cookbook's publication I was speaking to the African-American book buyer for our local university and she looked at me dismissively and said (more or less) "If I'd known you were white, I'd never have gotten the book." Not everyone feels that way, but some, especially African Americans, resent white people telling them how to cook the foods that are part of their heritage. They want to write (and read) their own cookbooks, such as those by Jessica Harris. I can accept that, and understand it. That's why when I do presentations before large groups, if possible I try to be with a (black) African co-presenter.

On the other hand, I don't believe people today think Julia Child, author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was somehow inadequate because she wasn't French. I would never presume to call myself the Julia Child of Ghanaian cuisine, but there are a couple of parallels, particularly in her ability to make French cooking accessible to ordinary people in the U.S.

Since the 1970s I've been eating and learning in the kitchens of family, friends, and colleagues how to prepare Ghanaian food. As a sociologist, a writer, and a "foodie," I've also looked for the stories behind the food. Since marrying my Ghanaian husband in the 1970s I've spent decades looking at his culture from the inside out, and/or the outside in, at a different level than most foreigners will ever have the opportunity to do. I've lived and studied and worked in Ghana. Finally, as a doctoral student in rural sociology during the late 1980s and early 1990s doing ethnographic and survey research, my field work took me around Ghana talking to women and men about the food they eat and grow and purchase.

Did I mention I truly love Ghanaian cuisine? We cook and eat it in our home every week, so in that sense I know what I'm talking about (of course, we also eat Mexican, Brazilian, Japanese, Thai, Italian, Korean, Mediterranean, Eritrean, Moroccan, French, Chinese, regional American, etc. food, too!) Learning to cook Ghanaian dishes, to adjust them for Western palates and substituting for or locating unusual ingredients has taken me years. My first attempts at fufu, for example, were disastrous, as were my early efforts at fermenting cornmeal to make kenkey or banku dough. I remember with pride, though, the stunned look years ago on one Ghanaian university student's face when a group was over at our house chowing down from a huge pot of palmnut soup (along with fufu and omo tuo, or rice balls. He kept looking around, disbelieving that I was the cook. He couldn't even look at me. "But, but, but," he stammered, "she's white. How could she?" I'll always treasure that memory.

Though Ghanaian cooking is basically an oral tradition, I possess an unsurpassed collection of West African and Ghanaian cookbooks as part of the African Cookbook project. I have spent months shadowing master cooks at Flair Catering in Ghana and received a travel grant to travel throughout the country to study cooking in all 10 regions, including the unfamiliar northern regions of Ghana. That makes me able to fill in the many blanks in other's books and experiences, frequently written or explained by Ghanaians who do not quite understand how much North Americans don't know about their country and culture or that Ghanaians modify (unnecessarily) to please the imagined foreign palate. Other culinary writing by short-term Western visitors to Ghana frequently suffers from "stranger's eyes" who miss a lot and make lots of amusing (and incorrect) assumptions. I have finally recognized my place at the intersection of two worlds is a strength.

As I've said before, I got fed up (pun intended) hearing the negative and distorted nonsense people said about West African cooking, so started writing about it from my perspective (see link under features to the article "We eat first with our eyes: on Ghanaian cuisine." ) I also ended up doing a lot of cooking demonstrations for schools, 4-H, scouting and other community, church, etc., groups, including the African and nonAfrican community (faculty, staff, and students) at Penn State where my husband teaches and where I earned my doctorate.

After the 1993 book I insisted I'd never write another cookbook. It was a very time-consuming and detail-oriented project (undertaken while I was completing my doctoral dissertation and raising 3 children), I had to learn to be a food photographer, and the multiple recipe testings part was a hassle, too. Nevertheless, that book catapulted into the world of culinary professionals, and I joined a group Julia Child helped found, the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals). My career has shifted dramatically since that time, and in 1997 I founded the African Culinary Network. In the mid-1990s I was approached several times about writing the sub-Saharan Africa volume for an upcoming Greenwood Press series on Food Culture Around the World, including several persuasive emails from series editor Ken Albala. The first few times I brushed the idea off because I was no expert on sub-Saharan African food: I only knew a bit about Ghanaian and Anglophone West African cooking.

Finally, I recognized that if I didn't write it, it might not get written at all, or else someone who didn't care as much as I did might do it and not get it right. I began immersing myself as much as possible into sub-Saharan African culture (travel, books, films, restaurants, internet research, interviewing people, etc.) Several years and trips to Africa later, by the time the book came out in 2005, I realized that I do in fact know more about African cuisines that most people in North America. Also that most people I know in Ghana and other parts of Africa do not have the luxury of studying and writing about their cuisines, and appreciate my efforts. I also realize that people outside of Africa (or in other parts of Africa) ARE interested, and curious, and that is another reason behind this blog.

Finally, I've been fortunate to live in different parts of the U.S., from Berkeley, CA to Cambridge, MA; from Golden, Colorado to central Pennsylvania; beyond the U.S., from Ghana to Japan to the U.K. to Brazil. Plus I've been able to travel extensively: Hawaii, Louisiana, Texas, Nigeria, China, South Africa, France, Tanzania. . . You get the idea. Mix all these experiences together and you understand that I have quite an international perspective. When that is blended with my specific set of personal experiences: my writing career, my community organizing and sociology backgrounds, raising my own 3 children and 2 adopted nephews from Ghana, my teaching and instructional design experiences, my love of good food, etc., they have created in me a passion (I use that overworked cliché warily, but it is at heart a wonderful word) to share what I know.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Recent sources of information about African cuisine

(these links are current as of 4 April 2007):

On the growing interest in African cuisine: "African food is conquering America! More and more of my friends and colleagues are starting to get interested in African cuisine. . ."

An article in Cooking Light called "West African Hospitality" and featuring francophone cuisine (recipes from Benin, Senegal, and Cote D'Ivoire) by the well-known culinarian Jessica Harris:,14343,443650,00.html

(Word Press') Sociolingo's Africa has an archive of postings on African cuisine:

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