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Mama's House

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

"You could show up at two in the morning hungry, and if she was there, Mama would cook for you," Mark had told me earlier. K.B., Akwesi, Francis, the girl behind the desk at the hair salon -- they'd all said essentially the same thing. Mama is a hostess in the truest sense of the word, a restaurateur stripped of all but the most essential character.

And we are her final table.

When dinner begins, we eat fufu, of course. Huge blobs of it, risen and smooth-skinned and yellow, served in big bowls. We eat bankuand soup. We eat with our right hands only, as is the custom, pinching off a wad of the cassava paste and using it to scoop up mouthfuls of smooth, sweet peanut soup, okra broth or light soup with a slick of palm oil floating on top. Eating meat on the bone one-handed is a trick to learn, eating soup with no spoon impossible to do delicately. Mark just sinks his hand in to the wrist and slurps from his palm, packing his mouth with fistfuls of banku, and I take my cue from him. My broth -- the light soup -- is spicy but smooth, the burn mounting then fading away like that of a perfectly made posole or menudo. It's good and undeniably rustic, with a balance and precision of taste that comes only with long practice in the kitchen. The goat skin tastes charred and earthy, the meat is as chewy as boiled chicken, and the fat has a slick musk to it that lingers on my tongue and fingertips for days.

"Check this out," Mark says, lifting his dripping hand from the bowl. "A nipple."

He's right: goat-nipple soup. He pops the thing into his mouth with a grin and goes right back to eating.

No matter how intimate or authentic, the restaurant experience is an essentially isolating one. There are special rooms in which to dine, people paid to be accommodating to my needs, plates and pots and silver and glassware all made for the business of selling me on the vision of a chef or owner. In ethnic restaurants -- especially those that operate almost exclusively to serve a specific community the raw fish or pigeon or calves' brains or yucca they can't get at an Olive Garden or in a Happy Meal -- there's the added bonus of being served a taste of someone else's home, a slice of their memories of comfort and strange latitudes.

But here, I amhome -- in Mama's home -- and she serves me on her own plates. The giant, battered stock pots that line her stovetop and the floor of her tiny renter's kitchen are the same ones from which she takes her own meals and serves her own family. I am offered the silverware out of her own drawers, a seat at her table and a meal unlike any I will probably ever have again. When I look over at Mama in the kitchen, she's smiling, watching us eat. There's a goat leg poking out of a stock pot, more pots stacked up everywhere, more rolled kenkey, more swollen mounds of fufu. Should anyone show up in the middle of the night looking for dinner, Mama will be ready.

But no one does. It's after midnight by the time I push back from the table, hand her a few crumpled bills and thank her for one of the best nights I've had in longer than I can remember. She smiles, nods and sees us to the door, just happy to be doing what she loves -- even if this is the last time.

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