Mama's House

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

"Probably she cook for you," K.B. adds. But if not, he's made sure that we have dinner covered.

Mark and I follow K.B. and Akwesi to the salon, where we find women in chairs, women under dryers, women having their hair sculpted into any number of improbable geometric configurations. Akwesi asks after Mama, then Mark asks after Mama. At first, no one will even admit that Mama is there.

K.B. starts explaining how to prepare the kenkey. "You chop the vegetables very small," he tells me, bringing the edge of one hand down into the palm of the other. You pinch off a piece of the kenkey, make a dent with your thumb, use that to scoop up the chopped tomato and onions and the sheto. There's a Chinese restaurant that caters somewhat to the Ghanaians just down the way, he adds, pointing, "a little that way." It's one of those buck-a-scoop places that I can never understand how it stays in business. Now I know.

Keep the home fires burning: Mama T prepares the 
last supper.
Mark Manger
Keep the home fires burning: Mama T prepares the last supper.
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"Go there," he says, "and you ask for the tilapia, fried." It's not on the menu, of course. "Before they cook it," he continues, "say add salt, okay? Extra salt. There's salt already in the batter, but you want more."

"And that tastes just like Ghana food?" I ask.

"Just like," says K.B., smiling.

Mark returns with good news. "Mama's here," he says. "She's in the back. They're getting her."

I ask if we still have a chance at getting dinner.

Mark shrugs. "At first they wouldn't admit she was here," he says. "This is such a Ghanaian thing, for her to say she's cooking, you know, eleven o'clock through, and then just leave to get her hair done. Maybe it was slow, or she just didn't feel like cooking anymore. We'll see."

And then Mama herself comes out, shorter than I expected, younger -- prettier, even -- with her hair slicked down with whatever it is that the stylists use to work their magic. She has a cape draped around her shoulders, and it's obvious that she's in the middle of a process, but when she sees Mark, she smiles and comes right over. "Mark!" she says. "How are you?" She takes his hand and leans in close between us, the classic conspirator's pose. "You want me to cook for you? Okay. But could one of you drive me back here when we're done?"

And just like K.B., just like Akwesi, Mama is only too willing to interrupt her life and her Saturday night in order to see the two of us fed. Anxious, even. She's halfway to the car with the goo still in her hair and the cape around her neck before we both insist that she should finish with her hair first. We can wait.

"You're sure?" Mama asks.

We're sure.

"Okay, then maybe nine o'clock I will be done. Then you can eat."

"You'll be cooking at nine?" Mark asks.

"Yes," Mama says. "Of course. Nine o'clock through."

We shake hands with K.B. and Akwesi in the parking lot, offer to stand them to dinner for their help.

"Not necessary," Akwesi insists.

"It's okay," K.B. says, reminding me again about the Chinese restaurant and to ask for extra salt.

Mark tells the guys that they should at least take a couple of beers. We have four bottles of Gulder Ghanaian lager in a bag in Mark's car. He offers them each one. They discuss it, refuse again, are asked again, agree to take one. Total.

"My friends," Mark says, "there are two of you. What will you do with one beer?"

More talking. An accord is reached, with K.B. and Akwesi taking one beer each for the road, followed by smiles and handshakes and sincere thank-yous all around.

"So it looks like we're going to get dinner after all," Mark says. "You ready?"

I am. I've been ready for years.

When we finally arrive at Mama's, it's nearly ten, but Mama welcomes us warmly into her home, takes our coats, seats us in her small living room dominated by couches and a huge TV showing an old rerun of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, then gives us our options for dinner. She has some rice balls, but maybe not enough left to make a meal. She has soup, kenkey (of course), goat. There's a bottle of wine unopened on the sort of filigreed silver server I haven't seen since Christmas at my grandma's house, and gin in a plastic jug turned cloudy and brown by the spices, leaves and bits of bark steeping at the bottom. We ask for some of this, please, and please, a little of that. I let Mark do most of the ordering, because for the first time in a long time, I have no idea what I'm asking for and even less of what might eventually arrive.

Mama works fast in her little kitchen, almost silently -- a model of professional efficiency going through motions she's made a thousand times before. For six years, Mama has cooked almost every night, throwing what amounts to an impromptu, non-stop, round-the-clock dinner party for an unknown number of guests. You show up and she just cooks whatever is on hand, serves it on the same plates she uses to feed her family. Over the years, she's gotten so good at it that what would be a nightmare for any normal hostess is just her routine.

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