East, West, Then Backward: Falling for Groundnut Soup in Ghana

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[Illustrations: Laura Freeman]

Bulk food is a survival strategy. I grew up with three brothers and three sisters in a home with academic parents; there was never any money, ever. But funds magically tripled under the vise grip of my mother's well-wielded membership cards. My siblings and I spent countless weekends pushing carts through the icy, broad aisles of those warehouses: Sam's Club, Pace, Costco, BJ's, Price Club. We would race through the towers seeking samples to taste, begging my mother to let us split the $1.50 Alfredo chicken bakes at the hot dog stand by the checkout. To be poor and never know hunger is unusual in America, and yet there we were: a chubby, ragtag, bookish crush of seven immigrant kids, eating second and third helpings most nights.

Costco was the five barley loaves and two small fish that fed our clan. My Indian mother was a sorceress in the kitchen, whipping up large Punjabi meals (three to four courses a night) for all of us. But while my mother approached Costco as a fact of life, my father, an Afro-Trinidadian professor, had a particular zeal for it. He spent a lot of time at Costco, returning from long solo shopping trips with well-considered ingredients in cardboard boxes under his arm. My father had a manic personality, and food, like all things, became an obsession. He'd buy gallons of pink Asian barbecue sauce and feed us wings for weeks; a certain brand of bulk frozen vegetables for stir-fries, a particularly affordable packet of oven fries. His latest discovery would become the meal that month, and we'd eat it multiple times a week.

It was tiresome, but complaining was out of the question. In true immigrant-family fashion, no meal was over before you wiped your plate clean. My older brother, the pickiest eater among us, would famously sit at the table for three-hour stretches, refusing to force down another bite. The next morning, he would be greeted with the same plate of food to eat for breakfast. Waste not.

My father's peanut butter stew period was the result of one of these Costco excursions. He was a Black radical in his youth, eventually doing some fairly significant organizing work in Trinidad before moving to the States, where he met my mother in graduate school. My siblings and I grew up in a staunchly Afrocentric household of after-dinner djembe lessons—it was the '90s, and Black was beautiful in our home. So when my father heard that in West Africa they cooked a stew with peanut butter, called "groundnut soup," he began toying with recipes at home. In reality, our family's connection to the region was probably tenuous at best; nobody had actually done the genealogical labor to unearth our ancestral home. West Africa was an informed guess, though, and my father's political interest in the place had more to do with an affection for outmoded Garveyism and totemic symbolism than genealogy. Learning to cook peanut butter stew represented good pro-Black parenting to my father, and that was reason enough to begin the project.

Like all of my father's undertakings, this one began with a bulk purchase of the necessary supplies (in this case, many gallons of peanut butter), which would commit us to a few months of experimentation. Having never been to Ghana, my father had, needless to say, also never eaten the genuine article. This was pre-Google, so he must have gone to the library to get the recipe. I remember, vaguely, a pulled page from the sort of multi-culti, late-'90s, pan-African illustrated cookbook that he was fond of: two skin-on chicken drumsticks protruding from a murky, uniformly brown broth in an earthenware bowl flanked by dasheen leaves, and a masthead of blocky, ethnicized text.

If memory serves, the peanut butter stews of my childhood were awful. I hated them. The peanut butter was grainy and insoluble, the chicken tough and overcooked. It was a hard sell for children, even those duty-bound to clean their plates. My father was quick-tempered, and our refusal to eat would have been met with gruff, if unspoken, indictments. This is our history. This is what our people ate. So we ate it: ashamed, resigned, gritting our teeth.

In the years since, those peanut stews have taken on a dimension of lore. They have been filed away in the family's collective mental catalog, revived as a conversation topic and a source of laughter only during Christmas or Thanksgiving gatherings when dead air consumes the table.

***

I was 19 when, in September 2007, I left school to spend a semester abroad studying "Arts and Culture" in Ghana. But after just four weeks, I had clocked at least a dozen hours on the phone with the college's financial aid office, trying to figure out a way home, any way.

Unsuccessful, I was in the throes of what can best be described as shell shock when I came across the Savoy Hotel, nestled at the foot of a hill just four short blocks from Cape Coast Castle. It was cheap, moderately clean, quiet, and extremely vacant; mine was the only occupied room. It had overhead fans; the requisite painting of the city's slave forts; a large, firm bed; a gas burner; and a porch on which I could chain-smoke in privacy. Once I arrived, I barely set foot outside for a week and a half. Ghana had broken my heart.

I had arrived with an explicit mission to uncover my roots, my fatherland. I was there to fulfill my destiny: a profound and enduring connection with an ancestral home. In the years since, it has occurred to me that this was an unearned and misplaced expectation. Nonetheless, I was part of a historical trend. Throughout my trip, I would encounter so many other Black Americans, dripping in wax-print cloth, who had made the same voyage. Each of us arrived clutching the Kwame Nkrumah quote: "I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me." I was, as far as I was concerned, returning home, to true freedom and knowledge of myself, against all historical fact, truth, or hope.

Instead, I had unwittingly traveled to Ghana with 17 white college students. We met in the airport, where we were handed folders and a guidebook to basic phrases in Asante Twi. My peers were excited about a West African trip for reasons totally foreign to me. Each day, the program asked us to wear Ghanaian clothing and mimic Ghanaian dances for public performances in small villages. It was at the very least hokey, and at worst violently appropriative. While my fellow travelers leaned into these experiences gleefully, I retreated into myself.

I approached each interaction harboring a desire for a warm Black embrace, a homecoming, and instead was met with cold shoulders and the moniker oburoni. "Oburoni" is a term that literally translates to "alien," but signifies whiteness in Ghana. "Oburoni" was delivered with a celebratory lilt when it addressed my white travel companions, but when it addressed me, oburoni truly meant "other." "Oburoni" punctuated each new introduction in Ghana, a profound and incessant othering that annulled my root-seeking mission. I made a number of friends in my travels, but each exchange was undercut when my white-boy travel partner accompanied me: He was super oburoni; I was sadly just oburoni. The revelation that Ghanaians didn't necessarily see me as any more their brother than my white colleagues was a shock. I missed the obligatory Black head-nods. I missed my friends. I missed Black people. White idolatry and the remnants of colonialism are obvious bedfellows, but I was still struck by the rejection. Within days, all of my travel companions had ordered Ghanaian wardrobes to match their strapping new Ghanaian boyfriends. I was unmoored. I commuted each day to class hungry for Black connection amidst tides of Black people.

Food, too, was a battle for me. Ghanaians eat a lot of heavy, fried food, and portions were dictated by forces beyond my control—usually a sweet homestay mother, bent on displaying generosity and hospitality with an oversize scoop of rice. During my first three weeks in Ghana, each meal was a pile of rice as large as my head, a small dollop of tomato stew (incommensurate with the portion of rice), and half a fried chicken. My lifelong tendency to wipe my plate clean was being put to the test. I didn't want to be a rude guest at my short-term homestays, so I would become too full to speak; mealtimes were quiet exercises in endurance.

I remember peeling my sweat-soaked shirt from my chest and stomach after a meal at my host parent's kitchen table, wiping my brow with the back of my greasy hands. I spent that night retching in bed, under a ceiling fan, nursing clean water from sanitized plastic water sachets. Lying on my side, I counted the hours until sunup, when it would be appropriate to dart from my room to the bathroom without waking my homestay family. The overeating made me sluggish. Those first three weeks in Ghana were a warm, underwater head trip: getting lost on busy northern Ghanaian streets while struggling with 100-degree temperatures and nausea. Everything tasted the same; everything made me sick and bloated. Fruits and vegetables with high water content were off limits because of the risk of Yankee stomach sickness. It wasn't long before I began to dread mealtimes. Left to my own devices at lunch, I began a strict diet of fried chicken; jollof rice (rice seasoned with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and peppers and usually served with chicken or beef); and bread and egg (fried-egg sandwiches). Food, previously my greatest joy, had become a chore.

Over time, I became the Black progressive killjoy on the trip. My study-abroad peers sought out expat watering holes in Accra for meals and drinks. These were sports bars packed wall to wall with drunk, flip-flop-wearing, white NGO workers and US diplomats. The bars were flanked with rows of Black employees serving trays of sliders and wings—a colonial tableau that cost me my appetite. I stopped attending these group excursions, spent hundreds of dollars on phone calls home, and stalked around in a rage. My discomfort with my colleagues' African-baby selfies, blond cornrows, and hip-jerking rain dances reached a tipping point. I began lashing out. The other members of the group stopped speaking to me. After repeated warnings about Ghanaian homophobia and very credible safety concerns, I was also in the closet for one of the first times in my life; even gender performance and sexuality had become a taxing gauntlet. I grew sullenly depressed.

In early October, I finally fled the rest of the group, heading south to Cape Coast, seeking proximity to the other African American tourists who came there to visit the slave castles and universities. There was safety in seeing other Black Americans on a daily basis, if only to exchange quiet glances of bewilderment and resigned sadness over the failure of our missions. It was then that I holed up in my one-room suite in the Savoy, which served as my closet and safe house for the rest of the trip. I began cooking my own meals on a burner, stocking the mini fridge with ingredients to re-create the Indian curries I had grown up on. Short on money, and mistrusting some of the sunstruck meat products available for purchase in the market by the hotel, I interspersed my diet of stout beer and cigarettes with curried hot dogs, Spam, vegetables, canned beans, and potatoes.

***
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I met Maame Serwa my second night at the Savoy. Cabin fever had firmly set in, and the promise of nightfall's cool air had driven me from my coop. Cape Coast is a small fishing city loosely structured around twin slave forts, Cape Coast and Elmina, both local tourist attractions, and two large colleges that pull students from Accra three hours away. Like any college and tourist town, it skews young and stays open late, but Cape Coast is also a beach town, and nights are spent walking on the shore.

I was staying on Ashanti Road, which drives its way through the city's downtown. It's a commercial street, with the requisite dress shops, furniture stores, barbers, convenience stores, fish stands, cell phone and SIM card kiosks, and several tiny restaurants, featuring signs for the few locally ubiquitous beer brands: Castle Milk Stout, Club Lager. Maame Serwa's restaurant was three doors down from my hotel. There was no sign, but the chef herself was just inside the door, balancing a bowl of okra on her knees, twisting off and flicking the useless ends of the vegetable to the street to be swept up later.

The whole building was painted an icy periwinkle. Inside, a small space with a tin roof, two tables, and plastic chairs. The restaurant smelled like the smoked fish that hung to dry on either side of the stove. Maame Serwa looked to be in her late 40s and was, I quickly learned, a single mother to two obedient and handsome children, Yaa and Kwaku. The kids were doing homework when I walked in, and Kwaku quickly popped up to grab a Castle Milk Stout for my table. Minutes later, both children were excitedly sharing their schoolbooks, toys, and art with me. This was an oburoni-free zone.

Maame Serwa played hiplife over the radio and had me wash my hands in the kitchen before I ate. I scanned the menu, but, as in all Ghanaian restaurants, I knew that an item's mere presence on the menu did not guarantee availability. There was red-red (stewed black-eyed peas), kontomire (dasheen leaf stew), okra stew, tomato stew, fried chicken, plantains, whole grilled fish, and groundnut soup (or peanut stew, as I knew it). All were served with either banku (mashed fermented corn and cassava), omo tuo (rice ball), waakye (a rice and bean dish), kenkey (a sort of sourdough dumpling served with fish and pepper sauce), a Chinese-style fried rice, or fufu (pounded, fluffy cassava root).

My childhood resistance to my father's peanut stew had produced an unwarranted hesitation to eat groundnut soup again. So when I decided to order it that night, it was mainly because that's what the children were eating at the adjacent table. Knowing that I was likely going to be her only guest that evening, I didn't want Maame Serwa to have to cook something new for me.

Nkrumah famously said that Ghana looks "not East, not West, but forward!" Groundnut soup looks east, then west, then backward. It's a heavy, warming food that's usually made with peanut butter, palm oil, smoked fish, and goat meat, and served with fufu or a rice ball. Peanuts are indigenous to South America and made the trip to Africa aboard trading and slave ships from their native Brazil. They journeyed back to the Americas with slaves, where, generations later, George Washington Carver would work to popularize the plants as an alternative to cotton crops. Groundnut soup grew out of British colonial expatriates' desire to replicate the flavors of Indian curry in their new, stolen home.

And so, it was in a bowl of groundnut soup that I found some solace in Ghana. The soup's base: an Indian masala of onion, garlic, chili, bay leaves, and tomato. The meat: a tender, long-simmered goat, as in so many Trinidadian curries I had grown up on. The heat of the chili and the depth of flavor: my motherland. The peanut butter, the goat, the smoked fish, plantain, and cassava: my fatherland. It was a welcome break from the cycle of fried chicken, jollof rice, and bread and egg. It was herbaceous, silky, and fresh, with the deep, complementary intensity of spice, smoke, acid, and umami. I was insatiable. The miracle of food is its ability to transport, to comfort, to provide a sense of safety, to allow for stillness. Food can be an acknowledgment, a warm touch. When one is traveling and away from home, food can bridge gaps in language, resolve homesickness, forge friendships, and cement memory.

Two weeks later, I had eaten all of my meals with Maame Serwa. Each day, I'd sit at the island in front of the open kitchen, and we'd talk while she cooked. Her son began to visit me at the hotel. I went with Kwaku to the beach. I checked to see if they needed things when I passed the storefront. I went on family shopping trips with them. On one such trip, we went to visit Yaa, who was starting at a rural boarding school that week. I rode in a cab with Maame Serwa and Kwaku, and she suggested I learn how to cook some Ghanaian staples: groundnut soup and fufu. I agreed, of course. My trip was coming to a close, and I was a bit crestfallen at the thought of leaving my new—and only—Ghanaian friends.

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Upon our return, she invited me to her house, which was, it turned out, just a few doors up the hill past my hotel room. She was transformed at home, relaxed. She wore a black dress with a white floral pattern and sat on the stoop of her apartment with it hiked up around her knees. The song of the year, "African Queen" by the Nigerian singer 2face Idibia, poured from the radio, and Kwaku chased a ball around the courtyard, assiduously avoiding his homework. She taught me the recipe for groundnut soup, which I quickly scribbled in my travel-weathered composition book. She gave me the easier tasks: I peeled the garlic, washed the produce, and did dishes. She dealt with the meat, ground the peanuts, fried the onions, and boiled the plantain and cassava for the fufu.

While the groundnut soup cooked on a burner inside, she sat on the stoop and kneaded the cassava and plantain with her hand, then brought me over to practice pounding it. Fufu is made in a waduro, a large mortar, by pounding the starches with a pestle-like woma, a seven-foot-long, heavily weighted wooden staff. I heaved the woma above my head, driving it into the dough. Between poundings, Maame Serwa would fold the dough. It was an acrobatic act that required strength, dexterity, and muscle memory that I had not earned. I trembled, convinced that I would smash her hands in the dough, and frequently faltered, driving the woma into the floor beside the waduro. I wanted so badly to be good at this, but I also knew what to expect from this scene. Normally, I would be arm-wrung into performing a culturally specific action, and then ridiculed for doing it, to chants of "oburoni."

I waited. It never came. Instead, a firm hand on mine, guiding me. "You must do it quicker." A reassuring smile. "Good."

Maame knew why I had come.