FROM DR. BAKER—This week, please welcome returned Peace Corps volunteer Sarah Fowlkes. Her columns are sure to get friends talking about the vast continent of Africa. You are free to republish or reprint this column to spark discussion.
By SARAH FOWLKES
I have eaten a locust.
It was crunchy, and salty, and strange. But for the culture in which I was living, this was a way to turn a plague into a blessing.
In France they eat snails, in Cambodia they eat tarantula. But, popular TV shows like Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern have led us to believe that people in other cultures only eat “weird” things.
Remember: Here in the U.S., things we eat and the way in which we eat them may seem strange to other cultures. I remember sharing “Pop Rocks” with some of the children in Madagascar and being so amused by their reaction to the strange popping candy. While it is true that many cultures eat things we might find bizarre, there is a huge variety in the food across the African continent.
African food is full of life. While living in Madagascar, I enjoyed buying tomatoes from the bazaar down the street; going into a field and picking fresh strawberries; and drinking hot milk fresh from the cow as the sun rises. Yes, sometimes people ate insects, or stomach lining, or pig feet, or cow brains (that was a tough breakfast), but they also eat beans, and chicken, and beef, and pork, and many of the same things we do in the U.S.
There is also a lot of variety between different African cultures. Moroccan food reflects where the country is situated as a crossroads between Europe and Africa, blending flavors together. Ethiopian food is spicy and eaten using Injera, a type of flat bread, instead of utensils. The food in Madagascar changes depending on where you are in the country. Families living near the coasts eat a lot of fresh seafood, rice seasoned with coconut and saffron, and the freshest fruit you have ever tasted. The mountains are colder, and families living there consume more stewed beef, chicken, and vegetables (and no meal in Madagascar is complete without rice).
My experience in Africa has shown me just how incredible the culture surrounding food really is. I spent time with people who had next to nothing, but were always inviting friends, family, and even the strange white girl from another culture in for a meal. These offers were also incredibly genuine. They were not inviting guests because they felt an obligation. They were not giving visitors their best food because they were trying to impress someone. They do these things because they get so much joy out of being able to offer something, to share something, with others.
The culture surrounding food also extends to cooking. People take pride in their meals, and are always willing to teach you how to make the dish. Because they don’t often have the luxury of a refrigerator or other modern cooking appliances, cooking is often very labor intensive. But it is also another opportunity for bonding. It is an occasion for family members or friends to do something together, to share a conversation while they chop onions. While many Malagasy people were reluctant to let me help at first (“No, you are the guest! You are tired! Sit down!”), once I convinced them that I was really interested and wanted to learn their way of cooking, making meals with my friends became some of my fondest memories, and made me feel like a part of the family.
Yes, they eat bugs in parts of the world, including Africa. They also eat all kinds of things that we may find odd or disgusting, but these aren’t the only things they eat. They also create some of the most diverse and delicious food I have ever tasted, and the culture surrounding food is inclusive and truly inspiring.
Join us tomorrow for Part 5 in this series: a discussion on development in Africa.
TODAY, LET’S ASK:
Are you more willing to try African food after reading this article?
What kinds of American food traditions might people from other parts of the world find strange?
SARAH FOWLKES is a recently returned Peace Corps volunteer who worked in Madagascar. She now is working on a dual masters in business administration and public service at the University of Arkansas and the Clinton School of Public Service.
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