One early afternoon, I found myself in a resturant too expensive for my budget, sitting next to a lovely Italian mother. She was enjoying an appetizer and commenting on the different "earthinesses" of various mushroom species. I had little to contribute to the conversation/ I thought about chimint in how my sister ate several handfuls of dirt as a toddler, so maybe she'd be good at distinguishing mushrooms/ My guess was that Jennifer had suppressed the momory due to the trauma of Mom's washing her mouth out with soap after each episode. I didn't have a chance to slide in my commentary anywhere, which is just as well, since the lovely Italian mother happened to be the wife of my boss's boss's boss's boss. As the most expendable lakky invited to this office luncheon (aka Proverbial Low-Man on the Totem Pole), I thought I should keep my mouth shut until I made sure that "Fungus Connoisseur" wasn't hidden in my job description somewhere. Mushroom conversaton aside, choosing something to eat was a bit stressful that day. The staffmember on the other side of me was a master chef, so I couldn't very well order a PB&J with a side of Mac&Cheese I thought it best to stay away from foods with ampersands altogether.
This entire introduction has led me to the point where I can assure you that a situation like this would never happen in Togo. They appreciate their "earthinesses" as much as the next nationality, but they'll even warn you to chomp lightly--sometimes the earthiness can break your tooth!
In much the same way as my father thinks it's not a dinner if there's not beef and some sort of potato involved, the Togolese don't think it's dinner unless it's a starch with a spicy sauce. There are four main starches--corn, igname, rice, and pasta--and they often get mixed together. The most common starch is pâte. If you have noticed an etymological resemblance to "paste," you've pretty much figured it out. Pâte is a firm ball made from boiled corn meal. It's like grits, but with less attitude.
Ignames are long (some more than 2 feet) tubers. They look sort of like potatoes on steroids. Lots of steroids. The skin is tough and looks like Cedar bark. The Togolese slice off the skin, then boil chunks of the igname until it's fairly soft/ They then pound it into a sticky purée using Q-tip shaped wooden sticks that would put Louisville Slugger to shame. (On a side note, if I ever create a world-class softball team, I am going to recruit the ladies who pound ignames all day at restaurants. Their biceps are huge.) This incredible investment of effort yields what has become one of my favorite West African dishes: fufu.
Rice is particularly common with beans in teh morning. The rice and beans combination, called watchee, is good, but I am just not a spicy breakfast kind of gal. The organisms that have colonized my digestive tract prefer to be woken gently, with sweet concoctions. Like chocolate.
Pasta, whether it's spaghetti, macaroni, or curly shells, are always called "Maca," I presume from "macaroni." I think they regard it as a bit of a treat; so if you order rice, they'll often throw a little maca on top for you. One day, I bought a fried pie from a street vendor/ Figuring it was highly unlikely I'd get apple or cherry but maybe I'd get mango or pineapple; I bit into it and disvovered ... spaghetti! It was a spaghetti fried pie! Another day I chomped into an egg sandwich to discover ... once again--spaghetti! A spaghetti sandwich! You see, the Togolese, God love them, have not heard of the Food Groups and thus do not get the concept of putting something from a different Food Group into a carbohydrate. I'm leaving that battle to the Health volunteers. I 'm just gonna continue to enjoy my starch sandwiches.
In the market, if you pick up any random thing that looks like it grew out of the ground, the vendor will tell you it's "for sauce." That might not be your question. Perhaps you want to know the price. Well, it's "for sauce." Or maybe you'd like to know what the Heck it is. Well, it's "for sauce."
Sauce only has two criteria, as far as I can tell:
1) it must involve oil, and a lot of it.
2) it must involve a hot pepper called piment, and a lot of it.
Anything else is fair game. Roots? Sure! Leaves? absolutely! Small animals? throw 'em in! The amazing thing is that, with only two exceptions, the sauce usually turns out to be pretty tasty. One of those exceptions happens to be the sauce made from the leaves of a Baobab tree, which tastes (drumroll, please) like sauce made from the leaves of a tree. The second exception separates the Hard Core PCVs from the Wussy Clinging-to-Mama PCVs--okra sauce. Now, having grown up in the South (aka "God's Country"), I know that the only decent thing to do with okra (and squash, green tomatoes, fish, chicken, turkey, and everything that was ever alive) is to deep fry it. You'd think the Togolese would be quick to jump on board. I mean, they've got cornmeal and they'd be happy to fry you up a spaghetti sandwich if you asked. But no, they don't fry okra. They boil it, then pound it, which yields a substance politely referred to as Gluant (like glue!) Sauce and impolitely referred to as Snot Sauce. You can actually bite into it and still have that mouthful connected to the plate. My thinking is that we should be able to rig up an artesian well system to get the whole experience done with as soon as possible. I'm thinking that you should be able to bite the bullet and take one mouthful, simultaneously lifting the plate above your head. Shouldn't that cause the entire concoction to slip right past your tastebuds, never to be suffered through again?
On special occasions, the sauce will have meat in it. Sometimes there's beef, but most often goat, sheep, or chicken. One thing to realize about Togo is that little food goes to waste here. That means you'll be served fish heads, goat livers, and chicken necks. One of my more difficult experiences was watching my little brother empty out a chicken intestine, grill it on a stick, and eat it.
On my twelfth birthday, my mom's "kids all over the world don't have such good food as this" speech finally got to me and I decided not to be a picky eater ever again. But that did not prepare me quite enough for Togo. In training, I made a point to eat until I was full enough not to need another bite before asking what I had been served. I was sure that I would have to eat bushrat at some point, and I just wanted not to be starving when I found out what it was. It turned out that I didn't need that strategy, though. By the time I had eaten a few bites of bushrat, I decided I liked it and proceded to clean my plate after my host mom confirmed my suspicion.
One event that caught me offguard involved vegetables. I had let a couple of tomatoes go fuzzy. Really fuzzy. The family had a pale they gathered waste in for the animals, so I contributed my nearly-all-white tomatoes. I saw my nine-year-old sister's eyes bulge. She looked at her mom, who was also stunned, so I wondered what I had done wrong. Surely tomatoes wouldn't hurt the goats and chickens that ate out of the pale? I sat back down on my porch where I had been doing laundry before discovering the fuzzy tomatoes, and I saw my sister drop what she was doing, run over to the pale, pull out the tomatoes, and grind them for the family's dinner sauce. My mouth literally fell wide open. I had to remind myself to close it qnd look calm. I fumbled with the laundry for a few seconds, trying to be alright with what I had just seen, but I couldn't. I had to run inside, where I cried in shame for throwing away vegetables that my neighbors were thrilled to eat. I felt so wealthy, wasteful, and so embarrassed about it.
I suppose that some lessons have to be learned the hard way, and, in Africa, that is one everybody has to learn--food is not wasted here. If you eat half an apple, a kid on the street will be honored to finish it for you. If you leave food on your plate in a restaurant, the staff will eat it. If you have vegetables that have begun to rot, give them away. It kills me to offer vegetables with mold on them--we just don't give people food we wouldn't eat in American culture. That day inspired me to come up with a system for offering food in a way that, I hope, causes less embarrassment for everybody involved. I try my best to pay attention to how ripe food is, and give away what I can't eat before it goes bad. If I fail at that, I take my edging goods to Azétou and ask, "Is this still good?" She nearly always says yes, so I say, "Do you want it?" She is always excited to get free veggies, and thanks me over and over again. Or, I just eat them. Fuzzy. I know my mother would NOT be happy to see some of the foods I eat on a regular basis, but it hasn't hurt me yet, and sometimes that is just less shameful than admitting how high our standards are for food in the US.