Monday, November 29, 2010

Cooking in Madagascar

I lie in my bed, listening to the well-timed symphony that accompanies my neighbor Edwige’s preparation of her family’s morning meal. First, a splash of diesel to charcoal. Five-fifteen. Second, a greedy whoosh of flame. Five-sixteen. Third, the creaking of metal stove handle as Edwige arcs the stove from side to side, oxygenating the coals. Five-twenty. The dull thud of rice hitting cooking pot becomes audible, followed by a trickle of water from the spigot. Before six o’clock, a glutenous slab of rice porridge emerges triumphant. In more prosperous economic times, it would have been crowned by few pieces of charred zebu meat-protein for a morning which will be spent working the cotton fields. The inhabitants of Madagascar, it has been reported, consume the highest per capita quantity of rice in the world. The actual word for “to eat” is mihininambary” Translation: ‘to eat rice.'

I have never been late to teach my English classes at the local high school--the sounds serve as a sort of natural alarm clock.

“Kamo-e!” Edwige yells into my apartment as she shuffles around the cooking patio area. Edwige knows I am awake, listening to her as she prepares breakfast. In a northwestern dialect “kamo-e!” is a rough translation for “you’re lazy”.

“Tsy kamo aho!” I retort, as confidently as I can muster at six o’clock in the morning.

I am not lazy!

Edwige laughs heartily.

Buildings here in St. Claire, Madagascar are porous, malleable, their artifices easily penetrated by both the vagaries of nature and the insistence of curious neighbors. Edwige’s meals leak through my walls. Life here is lived out loud and privacy is a four-letter word. Things have a way of finding their way in whether you want them to or not: the people, the food, the fevers, the smoke, the dreams. People from my town would not understand why anybody would want to be alone. Here, they have a saying: “Cross in a crowd, and the crocodile won’t eat you.” I agree with this. I do not like to eat alone.

Edwige is right. I would not try to light my stove this morning. I would stop at the market for a breakfast of single fried doughnut and a small cup of whole milk yogurt on my way to school. There is a food stall rigged with both an electrical outlet and a refrigerator. In the early morning cool, the little pot yaourt slides down the gullet like liquid gold. I stand in front of the refrigerator and feel its frosty breath sweep over my toes. Maybe I will stop along the dusty road that leads to the school, which will soon be populated by hundreds of youngsters in pale blue shirts, to buy a cone of fresh roasted peanuts from one of the neighbors.

For the first few months, I had the luxury of a gas stove for my culinary needs, sitting on top of four concrete blocks. It was hooked to a red gas bottle via a rubber hose over which I was constantly running a mixture of bubbly, soapy water to check for leaks. During this period, dinner was a bountiful orgy of leafy greens, green mangos, yellow mangos, tomatoes, onions, garlic, rice, and dry white beans. At that time, I still cringed at the thought of the ground zebu meat from the market. I did not believe the prevailing local wisdom, namely the conception that the same pounding Malagasy sun that pounds the dampness from hanging laundry--ten minutes, tops, on a clothesline hanging above the concrete pavement--would stealthily sanitize the zebu meat. And chicken: the thought of me purchasing, beheading, decapitating and plucking a chicken on my own would have put the stove-sitting to shame. My inadvertent vegetarianism would eventually be cured by the discovery of grilled brochette and chicken stalls in the market. Topped with tart, shredded mango called lasary, they were heaven, Shangri-La and nirvana rolled into one compact and delicious package. I realized how my gas range allowed me to live in a sort of symbiotic limbo where I was preparing local meals, with local foods and dining on delectable grilled meats twice a week. I felt independent. I felt self-sufficient. I was in control.

Then, one evening, disaster. My precious gas bottle sputtered a murmur of capitulation as I prepared a pot of rice. This was not surprising, especially given my predilection for long-cooking tsaramaso (a tasty hodgepodge of cannellini-esque beans boiled with olive oil, onion, garlic and tomatoes). Shortly thereafter, a civil war would erupt. Soon, there were no more gas bottles for foreign English teachers. In due time, there were no more gas bottles for hospitals, government buildings and buses.

For those born and bred in the West, the Madagascan stove seems like an alien contraption, a small stool or settee--a forced marriage between a dark metal bowl and several cans of green beans which, incidentally, are a delicacy in these parts (as is anything which must be transported hundreds of miles from the capital city, at the peril of quicksand roads and underfed bandits). I embarrassed myself during my first trip to our local market, a huge and magical sprawl of wooden stalls and ladies wrapped in colorful cloths called lambahoanies when I decided to sit down atop a stove, actually believing it to be a stool. My bottom would recover eventually, though the ego-damage would be of a more longstanding variety.

That was nearly six months ago.

Despite an elapsed time of nearly one-half a year, I still find it impossible to entice any sort of flame from the contraption without the assistance of thousands. Edwige’s six year old daughter is more proficient in lighting the stove than I. My resistance is psychological. To relinquish my cooking method is to relinquish my identity, no? For all I know, Edwige might as well be a wizard, tossing in eye of newt, wing of bat, whispering one ancient and magical incantation to entice flames from the nameless void. There’s gotta be something more to this, I keep telling myself. Something I’m not getting. Some secret little trick to make the lighting process fly by faster than a hot knife through fresh zebu lard.

But I am American. In America, there are microwaves. There are take-outs and TV dinners; our bodies are fueled by preservative-laden, chemically enhanced foods that keep us going and never let us down until, well, they do. To abridge the process of cooking is to bring freedom and spontaneity to life. If Betty Crocker is freedom, then Beef Wellington is entrapment. To spend at least half an hour just attempting to light a stove before the commencement of any type of cooking would be regarded as highly odd. I am an American and Americans, I’ve found, enjoy shortcuts, circumventing process, at times to the detriment of our long-term spiritual growth. I have never felt better than I did away from cheesy pizza, gooey lasagna and Doritos by the handful. True, for the first few months I had violent, Technicolor dreams of swimming through gooey pizza, climbing my way to the top of a mountain of cheese, sailing in a river of chocolate sauce and ice cream and maraschino cherries. Shortly thereafter, they abated and never returned.

The courtyard light highlights Edwige’s silhouette on a white wall, as I emerge for the day in my homemade polyester dress, dark blue with gathered shoulder pads. Edwige is chasing a chicken around with a sharp knife. She is an imposing presence, now arcing her stove back and forth, preparing the flame for some delicious poulet au coco, chicken in soupy coconut broth. Around ten-thirty in the morning, the kids will be back for lunch and she will be ready. Edwige reminds me of a popular creation myth, swinging her paintbrush back and forth to color the heavens, flecking out enough flaming coals to make the stars. In this exhilarating and sometimes deeply confusing place, Edwige serves as a sort of guide.

“Handeha hampianatra?” yells Edwige, as I emerge from the stall. She stands in the courtyard, holding, by the neck, the limp body of a chicken. “Are you going to teach?”

“Maraina,” I shout. That’s right.

“Efa mihininambary?” Have you already eaten rice?

“Amin’ny bazaary,” I reply. At the market.

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