Monday, April 20, 2009

Question 3: How can there be cuisine where there is so much chaos: starvation, wars, corruption, malnutrition, AIDS?

The media image of African society in the U.S., including its food, has been almost uniformly negative. Africa's Media Image, a book published in 1992 and edited by Beverly Hawk examined why this consistently superficial, stereotypic and negative image has come to be. It includes commercial criteria (e.g., the under-representation of media resources on the continent [in 1986, 31% of newspaper correspondents were stationed in Europe compared to 8% in Africa], p. 17, presumably because Africa does not "generate attractive revenues") and the focus on the sensational such as war, famine, and AIDS; political criteria (this has to do with "power" issues, and traditionally African countries have been viewed as largely insignificant), perhaps excluding the immediate independence years of the late 1950s and early 1960s coinciding with the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., when Africa was briefly fashionable, or in the 1990s when Nelson Mandela was elected President in South Africa; sociolcultural criteria, where American news correspondents have been largely insensitive to cultural nuances in African countries (there are exceptions, such as Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times). In 2005, The Africa Channel was created to counteract the superficial and negative-biased coverage available in the U.S. On the radio, a similar effort is being made via "Africa and the World." In addition, there has been the emergence of a number of African bloggers, both male and female, (including, notably Emeka Okafor whose influential Africa Unchained and Timbuku Chronicles and the links on his sites aim to showcase the faces of Africa that are too often invisible in U.S. media.

Many parts of Africa are going through struggles with poverty and social upheaval. We should not ignore the reality of these challenges, and must try to understand corruption and greed and respond to problems in Darfur or the Nigerian Delta or Ethiopia. However, that is, once again, only a piece of the story.

When I was a student at the University of California in Berkeley during the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s my parents saw news stories and were sure my life was in danger because Patty Hearst had been abducted near when I lived, or the campus had been shut down during a protest over the Vietnam War or a conflict over "People's Park." The sensatonal media portrayal was completely divorced from the reality of day-to-day life.

In addition, though India, China, or Ireland have all suffered times of famine, we do not assume they have no great culinary traditions. Throughout Africa, people still celebrate births with outdoorings and naming ceremonies, along with marriages, engagements, holidays, initiations, festivals and funerals. People like to eat the food they consider good when they have the resources to eat what they want. Why should Africans somehow be different? The claims that Sub-Saharan African cuisines are "neither rich nor complex" (Elisabeth Rozin), or are "low" (as opposed to "high") (Jack Goody), will be tackled in the next posting.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Tanzanian Breakfast at TEDGLOBAL

That first morning at TEDGLOBAL I went to breakfast at the lovely Serena Mountain Village resort where I was booked for the 4 days of the conference. Several safari tour groups stayed there during the same time. The breakfast buffet was long and plentiful, filled with fresh tropical fruits, cold cereal and granola, croissants, breads and pastries, oatmeal, and fruit juices. Pots of hot coffee and tea were brought to the tables.

I respectfully requested to speak to the sous chef, Alex Babu. When he came from the kitchen, I explained that this was my first visit to Tanzania, and how could I get a traditional Tanzanian breakfast. He looked puzzled, and asked what I meant. “I want to eat what you eat for breakfast,” I explained. His face brightened and he promised to do so the next morning. That day I was treated to the best breakfast I had at the conference: a mild, creamy sorghum porridge eaten with fresh whole-milk yoghurt and sugar, and in place of toast, freshly cooked root vegetables: ripe plantain spears, chunks of a wonderful white sweet potato, and what we call cocoyam (taro) in Ghana.

I suggested that perhaps they could try serving the porridge sometimes alongside the standard western fare. The following day I noticed sorghum porridge had replaced the oatmeal. It also appeared, alas, that I was the first person to help myself to it. However, later at the conference, an American woman who had overheard my conversation with Alex the day before, came up and thanked me for asking them to serve the porridge, which she had tried and found excellent.

En route to the conference, I spent a few days in Ghana with a Ghanaian friend who promptly offered me corn flakes, bread and tea my first morning at her home. When I asked about koko (millet/corn porridge), and koose (fried cowpea fritters), she promptly honored my request. The fresh millet porridge with a stunning bite of ginger, sugar, cloves and hwentia, mixed with a little evaporated milk, along with the satisfying koose (a.k.a. accra, akara, akla, bean balls, kosai, kose, and koosé) was my favorite breakfast from that trip. The next day I had a slightly fermented corn version that was also delightful. Served alongside the wonderful mangos in season (and I prefer the traditional small juicy yellow ones), I had to stop myself from doing what my family calls "the happy dance."

It still baffles me why Africans so often replace their hearty, tasty, and healthy traditional breakfast meals with “modern, western” choices. And it saddens me to find them catering to tourists with “continental” breakfasts when they have so much more to offer to non-Africans.

I’ll continue making observations from the conference (which, despite the triteness and inadequacy of the words), was truly astounding with its potential to empower people to change lives. I was amazed and overwhelmed to find such support and enthusiasm for my campaign to restore to the continent a proper respect for and appreciation of its culinary heritage and contributions. I owe Emeka Okafor and the sponsors of the TED fellowships a great debt I’ll do my best to repay.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

African Gastronomy Coming to the table at TEDGLOBAL

TEDGLOBAL "Africa: The Next Chapter"

The insightful and far-seeing organizers and supporters of the upcoming TEDGLOBAL conference
in Arusha, Tanzania recognize that Africa's culinary star is rising. "TED" stands for technology, entertainment, and design, and TED's annual conference in California is legendary as "an annual event where leading thinkers and doers gather for inspiration. " This June they're holding their first conference in Africa. Tami Hultman, now of, who in 1985 edited the fabulous Africa News Cookbook, nicely summarizes what the conference is all about.

Emeka Okafor, a UK-raised, New York-based entrepreneur of Nigerian origins, has been hired as the conference organizer. Well-known, among other things, for his fabulous, eclectic blog timbuktuchronicles, he realizes the importance of African entrepreneurs involved in the African-food industry.

100 of the invitees to the (pricey) conference are described as ". . . people actively involved in creating Africa’s future who could not afford to attend on their own. Four companies – AMD, GE, Google and Sun Microsystems – are providing fellowships to cover expenses, and admission fees will be waived." I am honored to have been selected to receive one of those fellowships, and hope to represent African culinary and other food industry professionals. I have some ideas to carry along with me (from a digital archive of African cookbooks to culinary teaching dvds to a television show), but please let me know your suggestions, observations, etc.

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