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Mama's House

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

American food horrifies most Ghanaians, so the community feeds itself out of necessity. There are African markets that sell prepared foods -- prepared, always, by someone's wife or sister -- and a few Chinese restaurants that cater to the immigrants. But because most of them are men who've left their wives and families behind to come work here and send American dollars back home, there is also Mama's, where they can gather to gossip, argue politics and eat.

"With Mama leaving, this is a very big deal," Mark says. "Everyone is trying to figure out who'll cook after she leaves, whose wife will take over. Everyone has been talking about it, saying, ŒWhat about your wife? No, what about yours?' If someone has a wife who comes here and just wants to be a housewife, they say, ŒNo! You can't just be a housewife in America. You have to work!' But really, they all just want to know where they'll be able to eat what they like."

Tonight, though, is Mama's last night in business. Tomorrow is her going-away party at the Knights of Columbus hall. After that, she'll be gone.

"Hey, this looks promising," Mark suddenly shouts, pointing across the dashboard at a block of cookie-cutter apartment buildings that look just like every other block of apartment buildings we've passed. "Can you see the address?"

I can, and though it doesn't precisely match the number Mark has written down, it does share four of the five digits, in tumbled order.

"Let's try it," he says, and slowly guides the Volvo in.

We find a building number that matches and an apartment number that's close. Mark knocks.

No answer.

"This doesn't look good," he says. "Usually you'd hear voices, music, people inside. I don't know."

He knocks again. I smoke a cigarette and watch the snow fall, watch it haloing around the parking lot lights. It's quiet for a Saturday night. Mark says it's possible that Mama has stepped out and will be back momentarily, that she's tired and just not answering the door. Of course, this could also be the wrong place entirely.

We decide to continue looking, cruising through townhouse developments while Mark makes phone calls, trying Mama's number and getting no answer, calling a friend at Air Afrik who he thinks knows a guy who might know the right address.

It suddenly occurs to me that I've had a lot of nights like this one. Nights spent looking not for goat bones, but for girls or The Man. The messages that Mark leaves have that same edgy expectancy I remember from nights spent hunting for eight-balls or trying to run down the weed guy on a Friday night. And that guy who knows a guy? Jesus, how many nights have I wasted chasing him?

"Okay," Mark suddenly says. "I've got an idea. We're going to go see Francis."

Francis works at Kantamanto Market, maybe even owns Kantamanto Market, I don't know. More important, Francis knows Mama, so he's our man.

Kantamanto is a small African grocery that sells fresh produce, canned goods and staples like fufu flour, hairnets and gum. In the cooler, there's Guinness Malta (a non-alcoholic health drink made by the same company famous for selling a similar, very-much-alcoholic health drink to generations of Irish); on the shelves are cans of fish paste, international calling cards and DVDs. The market is invisible from the road, shoehorned into a tiny space behind a liquor store off Havana -- one of those places you just have to know about before you can find them.

We step inside, into the crowded warmth and close-set shelving, and the first thing I notice is the smell. It's indescribable -- not bad, but totally alien, earthy and thick, made up of the skins of vegetables I've never tasted, herbs I couldn't name on a bet, powerful cologne, cardboard boxes that have traveled halfway around the world, machine oil, earth and blood. It hits me like a punch, the way stepping into a greenhouse does, the way stepping into a Whole Foods or Cost Plus World Market never will. It is both the smell of food up close and life far away. In a place like this, even the air is foreign.

Conversation stops when Mark and I step inside -- in that awkward moment of trespass, crossing a very real social border between one world and another. Kantamanto Market exists to serve a specific community, and it's one that Mark and I are not a part of (not on the surface, anyhow). It's a color thing, of course. It's also a language thing, a culture thing, a taste thing. But in this first instant, we're just a weird curiosity: two white guys coming in from the cold on a Saturday night.

But that passes quickly. I'm instantly entranced by the food and start fondling the giant yams, the dusty baggies of cola nut and crystallized ginger, the tiny African eggplants called "garden eggs," no bigger than golf balls, each carefully wrapped in tissue paper. And Mark just starts talking, his voice doing that trick again -- slowing and thickening and taking on an accent so natural, he might as well own it. He's comfortable here, and since Francis is busy inside the little glass booth where the register is (taking money from customers through one slot, talking through a circle of holes like you see in gas stations in bad neighborhoods), Mark drifts over to a group of young men who are just standing around and asks about the weather. He asks their names, where they're from, how they ended up in Denver, how they like it and why they left Ghana.

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