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Mama's House

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

The answer to that last one is always the same. Jobs. American money. A better life. A chance to return to Ghana someday as very rich men.

Mark talks about the Peace Corps, asks them about their wives, their girlfriends. Somewhere in the back, a band saw starts up -- the sound unmistakable -- and shortly after, a young kid passes by pushing a cart loaded with big, bloody, raw hunks of goat meat bound for the coolers. A half hour passes before the negotiations really start, before Mark says, "So, do any of you guys know Mama's new place? My friend and I want to eat Ghana food tonight."

Immediately, there are raised voices, hands waving in the air. No, they say. Mama is leaving. Mama's not cooking anymore. Mama is gone.

"No," Mark replies. "I talked to her yesterday. Yesterday she tells me today is her last day. Today she would be cooking from eleven o'clock through."

"Through?"

"Eleven o'clock through," Mark insists.

The men convene a conference, all speaking in a language that Mark understands only a little, and me not at all. Francis comes out of his booth to talk to Mark, then to the men. A consensus is reached that it's possible Mama might be cooking tonight. Now Mark just has to figure out where.

Ghanaians are not, apparently, a people who care much for addresses.

Finally, two of the men -- K.B., who's big and quiet, and Akwesi Hanson, who's short and talkative -- decide to take us to the place where they think Mama may or may not be. "Come on," Akwesi says. "You follow us. We'll find her." Akwesi holds open the door, and the four of us are washed back out into the cold on a wave of alien smells and reggae music.

Fortunately, the drive is quick. A couple of turns, a moment of hesitation at the intersection, and then Mark and I follow K.B. and Akwesi right back into the parking lot of the first apartment complex we tried, the first door we knocked on.

"Isn't this -- " Mark starts.

"Yeah," I say. "It is."

Again we climb the stairs. Again we knock on the door. And again there's no answer.

"She's not home, I think," Akwesi says, shrugging his big jacket with the fur hood close around his thin shoulders.

K.B. pulls out a cell phone and retreats to the car. He's only been in the country a short time and doesn't like the weather. Akwesi, though, has been here for years. He, Mark and I stand out in the cold talking about Ghana, where it is seventy degrees every day and the sun never stops shining. Akwesi tells me that his name means "Sunday-born," and how everyone in Ghana is named after the day of the week on which they are born. He has no idea where the name Hanson came from.

After a few minutes, K.B. calls Akwesi over to the car.

Mark starts apologizing. "I'm sorry this has taken so long," he says. "I'm sorry she's not home. I wish I could have planned this better."

How can I explain to him that this is what I wanted? Exactly this, with all the confusion and the waiting, the anticipation and disappointment. That I would gladly trade a hundred nights at places with actual addresses and menus for this, the car and the cold and the company we've found. That this -- all of this -- is what I've been looking for since I started this job: an experience not just of food, but of the culture that food nourishes and the people that culture serves.

I say it just like that, I suppose -- and do.

Akwesi shouts from the car and calls us over. We're going back to Kantamanto, he says. They have a plan.

At the market, K.B. shops for me. He opens a green plastic cooler set at the head of one of the aisles and takes out two plastic-wrapped tubes that look like fat tamales wrapped in banana leaves. This is kenkey -- fermented cornmeal dough a lot like masa that's left to ripen in the sun. He sniffs one, nods his head, tucks both into the crook of his arm and then, as an afterthought, grabs two more that don't have the banana-leaf wrappers. He picks out a tomato, an onion, roots around on the shelves until he finds a can of sheto, a herring, shrimp and vegetable paste cut with a wicked dose of red chile. He gathers everything, brings it to the counter, taps the pile of supplies with one hand.

"This," he says. "This will make you dinner. Just in case."

Meanwhile, Mark and Akwesi have been talking with more men at the market, and it seems that someone has heard about our plight and knows someone who knows someone who knows where Mama might be: at a strip-mall salon a few blocks away, getting her hair done for her going-away party.

"We go there and we see," Akwesi says. "If she's there, maybe she'll cook for you."

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