Saturday, August 9, 2008

Portrait of Grandma, with hot red pepper sauce


Grandma is leaving our little extended family unit today to go visit with a friend. She has other names, of course - like most West Africans, both a local (or traditional) and a Europeanized (or "Christian") name. But she is such a magnificent role player within the Effon family here on the outskirts of Fort Bragg, and so proudly, that I'll remember her as Grandma to DeDe and Leyla and the other kids who have been running in and out all week.

She is Mommy, too - to Della by blood and milk, and to Pafio and the rest of us by marriage or marriages, since it took two separate commitments to connect her to me. She has always been a pleasant, attentive, and nurturing Grandma and Mommy.

West African kinship structures go back many centuries, and they have held up far better than anyone could have expected, given the devastating cultural changes they have been asked to survive. That's not to say they are perfect. Pafio is glowing on the subject of his wife's mother, and he embraces her as his own mother, not his "mother-in-law," though the problematic concept of "mother-in-law" has just as much power over there as it does here. In fact, a common ornamental plant in West Africa is known as "mother-in-law's tongue" because of the sharpness of its leaves.

Our Grandma here must have a sharp tongue when she needs it, though I could provide no evidence of that. When Pafio and I got away from the family for the first time on this visit to enjoy a ridiculously delicious IPA at Fayetteville's local brewpub The Mash House, he didn't hint at any hard side of her she is keeping hidden. "She is just who you see," he said.

I see someone who gets up every morning and begins to prepare food. And she can really cook. As a former overfed travel editor, I love to eat out wherever I go and see what's going on in the public kitchens of the world, but not when I am here. When I am with the Effons, I stay as close to the family kitchen as I possibly can.

On this visit, we ate peanut soup, of a kind I have heard Nigerians call "zoo soup" because it has so many different kinds of meat in it: goat, crab, dried fish, escargot, I'm surely leaving out something. We had fish pepper soup, made with tilapia. We had fried butter fish with the distinctive dark red pepper sauce made in West Africa (that's Mommy, above, after making a big batch of it). We had stewed chicken and goat. We had fried plantains. I'm surely leaving out something.

My catalogue of what we have eaten gives me up as an American, however assimilated into this deeply satisfying kinship structure I might be. Americans tend to identify a meal by the meat or entree, whereas West Africans invariably identify it by starch. If Mommy is cooking stewed chicken with rice, and I ask her what's for dinner, she will say, "Rice." If someone later asks me what I had for dinner, I'll say, "This really amazing stewed chicken."

I'll bring in my own, late, beloved grandmother, Pansy Fern Sans Souci, to close this one up. Fernie was notorious, all the years I knew her, of letting whatever she was eating get all mixed up on her plate. No boundaries - all confluence, for Fernie. If anyone would object, she would say, "It all goes to the same place, anyway"!

1 comment:

Nikki said...

She is beautiful!