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Mama's House

For Ghanaian immigrants, there's no place like home.

Mama T is leaving.

She's moving to Cincinnati, where her husband is working a factory job now, where there's another apartment waiting, another community expecting her. She's going with her son Rafael, and she's taking her pots and pans. She's taking her living-room set with the white lace doilies. She's taking her recipes and her traditions. And after she goes, there will be nowhere for Denver's tight-knit community of Ghanaian immigrants to eat.

Mama runs a house restaurant -- a semi-secret, unlicensed eatery that operates out of her crowded two-bedroom apartment in Aurora. "I talked to her on the phone yesterday," my friend Mark says. "Just to make sure she was still cooking today. And she said yeah, from eleven o'clock through."

Mama's kitchen doesn't take reservations. Dinner is catch as catch can. You knock on the door and maybe Mama's there, maybe she's not. Through means there will be pots on the stove, but it does not necessarily mean that anyone will be there watching them.

Mama has been running her house restaurant, in a variety of homes, for six years. Mark had eaten at her last spot, but he's not sure where she's cooking now. "When I called, I asked her where she was," he says, skidding his old Volvo to a stop on Parker Road. "And I don't know...she speaks good English, but sometimes it's still hard to understand her. Or hard for her to understand me."

He reaches into the back seat, pulls out a camera case and digs around in the pockets for a scrap of paper that has assorted address permutations scratched on it. "Side of Florida and Dayton," he says, mimicking Mama, his voice slowing, tongue thickening. The accent is strange and almost Caribbean -- one that makes "Florida" into three distinct syllables and "Dayton" into Day-tone. "That's what she said to me, but the address? I don't know. I wrote down a couple, so we'll see."

Mark spent three years in Ghana as a teacher with the Peace Corps. He loved the country and wants to get back there someday, maybe open a bar or a school of his own. His Peace Corps work is his connection to Denver's Ghanaian community, the community his connection back to Ghana, and as he drives through the snow, we talk about the people, the culture, the diaspora that sent tens of thousands of displaced Ghanaians to the United States (roughly 3,000 call Denver home). Mostly, though, we talk about the food, about what he ate while he was there, what he misses most and what he now has to go to Mama's to get.

In Ghana, the men don't cook, he tells me; the women do. But that isn't to say they just stay home, chained to stoves, tending to home fires. Rather, they run restaurants.

"If you were to get a job managing, say, a gas station in Ghana -- which would be a very good, very respectable job -- your wife would immediately find a place close by to start selling food," Mark explains. This might be as simple as a charcoal grill set up by the side of a road, where she'd sell grilled meats or plantain or kabobs. The next step up would be a couple of chairs, a screen so others passing by can't see those eating. After that, a roof. After that, walls.

The fanciest restaurants in Ghana are Chinese -- rice being a special delicacy in the starch-obsessed food culture -- and fried-chicken places. Mark tells a story about a Ghanaian who got a job managing a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Germany. The industrious fellow stole everything that wasn't nailed down -- menus, recipes, signage, banners, kitchen equipment, what have you -- and had it all shipped back to Accra. When he returned home, he opened his own quasi-KFC, but because no one in Ghana would understand what "Kentucky" was, he called it Kiki Riki Fried Chicken. "It's a very famous restaurant in the north," Mark insists. "Ask anyone, and they'll probably know it."

But aside from Kiki Riki Fried Chicken, Ghanaian food hasn't been corrupted by colonialism or degraded by the influences of immigrants (except for the Chinese and their ever-present takeout operations). Today it's essentially unchanged from what it was centuries ago. At roadside stands, in shacks and "chop bars" and gas-station parking lots, the people eat beans and non-native corn. They eat fish and rice balls and risen, raw starch dough called fufu, which is made from pounded plantain and cassava root. "You'll see these guys who are just all biceps pounding the cassava," Mark says. "They use what looks like a whole tree trunk and just pound the shit out of this stuff until it's like a paste."

The meat is primarily goat, although the Ghanaian diet also includes chicken and fish. And because the Ghanaians like their meat prepared in very specific ways, they've found unusual sources here in Denver. The goat, for example, is specially processed by a rancher out near the airport, with the animals butchered whole with their thick skin and subdermal fat left on, their hair taken off with a blowtorch. "If you're not cutting bone, you're not cutting meat," Mark explains. "That's what they say. And the goat is cooked skin and bones and all."

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