The overarching motive of my work as an urban agriculture volunteer is food security. Mirroring that is the overarching theme of my daydreaming: food. Food that I cannot have. Food that I could buy in the market here and transform into something familiar. I should say that I’m disgusted with myself that in my work toward food security and against malnutrition, in my efforts toward making sure children eat enough protein and families simply have enough food for three meals a day, I find myself obsessing over what are in comparison the pettiest of desires: peanut M&Ms, omelets, and jalapeño poppers, just to name a few. I have spent many a day crouched on the floor of my room hovering over a care package someone sent me, eating entire bags of candied macadamias or strawberry granola out of sheer desperation and intoxication by exotic American flavors.
I had been warned about the lack of variety in Senegalese cuisine being a major stumbling block for volunteers. Yes, the cuisine here is flavorful, and can be made even more complex with some creativity. But I eat basically the same three or four dishes over and over again: rice with fish and onions, rice with peanut sauce and chicken, couscous with bitter leaf sauce, rice with bits of dried fish mixed in. The same base of flavors run throughout each meal. Along with the rest of Senegal, I eagerly awaited the holiday Tabaski, known elsewhere in the Muslim world as Eid al Adha. On my mind was the potential for a knock-out fabulous feast.
Tabaski occurred this past Saturday. Anticipation for the day reached a critical high. Expansive live sheep markets sprung up in different parts of town for everyone to buy their requisite meat. Tailors worked around the clock cobbling together thousands of new outfits, since everyone must have a new complèt or boubou for the fête. On the eve of Tabaski, vendors in Kolda inched their carts full of dress shoes among the masses gathered for last minute shopping. And as with any major holiday such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, Tabaski-related travel is a nightmare, complete with sad-looking live sheep strapped to the top of every dilapidated bus in town.
I spent the day sitting in my host family’s indoor-outdoor kitchen area reading a dated New York Magazine, texting Senegalese friends Tabaski blessings, and helping to peel potatoes. I was also invited in on the snacking-while-cooking phenomenon I so thoroughly approve of. I snacked on onion bits, green-skinned oranges fresh from our citrus tree, and grilled mutton served dibi style (short for “dibiterie,” a place that sells grilled meats): spiced, blackened, served with mustard, and eaten with the hands. After witnessing the blood-avalanching death of our nurtured sheep earlier that morning, I didn’t quite have the stomach to partake in the organ slicing going on around me. Instead, I contributed to the holiday cheer by telling Pulaar jokes and being part of the receiving line of door-to-door well-wishers. From what I have experienced thus far, Senegalese holidays are equal parts feast and fashion show. It is just as important to eat savory food as it is to go around the neighborhood showing everyone your gladdest new rags and prom-worthy dress shoes (if you’re a woman) or straight-from-Morocco triangular slippers (if you’re a man). As neighbors and family streamed in and out of the compound over the course of the day, I blessed them and they blessed me, asking for God to bring health and peace to their children and the whole world.
As the day rolled on, I read my magazine and went deep into my schizophrenic practice of living in two worlds at once. I was sitting on the ground amid the bustle of a Senegalese home kitchen, taking in the scents of split peas and wrapped intestines, while reading articles about gourmet cannoli and blue-crab crostini. One restaurant review under “New and Recommended” was for a place on First Ave & 6th St called “Permanent Brunch” (I’m salivating already) with “a southern-slanted menu at [the chef’s] paean to breakfast foods served day and night, featuring an artisanal-bacon bar.” Artisanal bacon? What a genius non-Muslim indulgence! And what torture to my mind.
(I should note here that my life is not completely devoid of culinary thrills. This past week was also Thanksgiving, and I and about 20 volunteers gathered to make biscuits & gravy, pancakes, deviled eggs, hash browns, cranberry sauce, rice crispies treats, banana bread, pecan pie, mashed potatoes, squash pie, salad, homemade ice cream, chicken, grilled meat, and a turkey sent down from Dakar and deep-fried in a huge witch-like cauldron. Gatherings such as these tend to be an opportunity to gorge oneself, a major drawback being supreme gastrointestinal problems due to overeating and a sudden infusion of lactose [the Senegalese dairy palate consists of some milk but definitely no cheese or cream].)
On Tabaski, there was a considerable amount of work that went into preparing our freshly-slaughtered sheep. I watched from a comfortable distance as the neck was sliced, the body was hung on a tree, and the skin was peeled off the muscle, as in a frog dissection. Multiple organs were parceled out on a flat rice sack as my family decided who to give gifts of mutton to. He had been a good sheep, grazing every day in a field and coming home to be leashed to a tree in our compound at night. The kids called him Barack Obama, while I’d simply nicknamed him Tabaski.
Finally, the big moment came. Lunch. We had couscous Marocain with canned vegetables, juicy mouton, and a delicious onion sauce. Compliments were paid to the chef. I know I’m lucky. My host mother is in fact a wonderful cook. Other people come to our house and are amazed at what she can do with Moringa leaves pulled off of trees near our house. If she were to have her own write-up in NY Mag, it would go something like this: “Chez Mariama. $ Dirt path parallel to main road, Kolda. The Senegalese comfort food trend gathers steam with Chef Mariama Diallo’s zinging twist on home-style favorites. Generous portions with loud family ambience. Chicken with mustard-onion sauce on rice, spicy fish with potatoes and squash.”
In the evening, I finally went on my own Tabaski tour with Mariama around the neighborhood, showing off our brand-new matching complèts (her idea). I took pictures, greeted little children, and recited my Tabaski blessings. I was all dressed up. I was content. And my stomach was full.