“Onina mi.” “Atomoo.” “You are invited.” These are three ways we invite others, sometimes total strangers to share our plate of rice or our bowl of soup. The first is in Ga, the language from the coastal region of Accrs, my maternal grandfather’s mother tongue. The second is Fanti, from but further along the same coast, my maternal grandmother’s mother tongue. These two languages are among quite a number spoken in Ghana, West Africa. In almost every language/dialect here, people invite others to eat. It is actually considered rude not to invite others when you sit down to eat.
This is the culture in which I was raised and this is why I believe in the power of food to heal. Not necessarily the healing properties of food, of which there are numerous, most of them with proof. But rather in the fact that when we break bread with others/strangers, we begin to cross boundaries, which in turn creates a bond that removes “Other” from our lexicon even if momentarily. I have been inviting others into my kitchen and to my table since I moved to the U.S. about eighteen years ago. Some of my long lasting friendships have formed over a shared bowl of fufu and soup riddled with goat meat, or jollof rice and chicken. Tears in our eyes, noses threatening to fall off because of one too many habeneros, we have found our similarities often far outweighed the visible differences.
I usually promise to feed people almost on impulse, the moment I meet them. (ok, maybe not the first thing I say, but you know…when you gel with someone you know). Some take me up on my offer and arrive tentative, not sure what’s in store for them. Some are enthusiastic to share in another’s culture. I initially set them at ease by inviting them into my space and instantly asking them to don an apron and begin working. Tonight we are fixing Nkatsi Nkwan (the Fanti words for Peanut Butter soup). I put them to work at the chopping board or opening cans and operating blenders. While their hands are busy, I ask them about themselves. People love to talk. Most people love food. The foodies definitely want to share what else they’ve had the pleasure of trying or cooking. The reticent ones are often nervous that they won’t like the end product of whatever their hands are preparing. Sometimes, they think they’ll ruin the brew. I gently guide my sous chefs around the kitchen, encouraging them to nibble on something while we work. Then the real ministry begins.
They tell me about where their ancestors come from. I usually probe and help people, who originally claim they have no culture, dig deep, uncovering those ancestors who came over. We talk about how far back they can trace their lineage. What they know about how their family got to be in the U.S. Then we talk about foods and their significance to them. What was brought over. What they are reclaiming. What they have adopted. For some, I am the first Black person they have interacted with. For others, they have an international panorama of friends and have quite the “exotic” palate. I nod, I smile, I ask questions. We note similarities with exclamations: Oh yeah? Yeah! Me too! Before we know it, we are no longer strangers.
We take breaks and hold taste-tests, pausing to offer milk or yoghurt to those who need to cool down from trying the habanero-infused Nkatsi Nkwan. Usually, we prep for two pots: spicy and mild; often the mild goes untouched once people discover they actually love spicy. I share the origins of the meal we are preparing. I tell of the house help who taught me how to cook. How she is now 76 and walks with a visible limb and how now I’m the one who gets to feed her when she arrives at my house whenever I am visiting Accra. I tell of how different ethnic groups within the country or elsewhere on the west coast, cook the same dish. How I have a habanero-primed palate and my first girlfriend had never seen a habanero before she met me. I tell of my first
encounter with the pepper and the subsequent trip to the medicine woman to procure a mixture to heal the burning palms and eyes. By this point, the soup is cooked. This soup is finicky; it has to be boiled, then simmered until the natural oils rise to the top of the pot. If this recipe isn’t followed, the substance ingested is sure to come up or out within minutes. We know just how unpleasant situations like this can be.
This cooking time buys us time to break the surface of getting to know the Other. When someone finally hands out place settings, people are hip-bumping each other, playfully smacking each other upside the head, and joking about how everyone has that one inappropriate uncle or chat-till-you-excuse-yourself aunt. We sit down and I invite each person to offer up something they are grateful for, want to acknowledge the presence of, or would like goodwill to be extended towards. This gives the soup a chance to breathe. Someone begins dishing out bowls of soup, people reach for their starch of choice: sweet potato, yam, rice, fufu (if I have managed to snag a box from the African market). We spend the initial minutes tasting and praising each other for the various parts played in the whole creation.
Wherever I find myself, I practice a ministry of feeding, inviting others into my space to experience the joy of cooking and breaking bread with others because this is the only way I know how to learn about the rest of the world, break down walls, and build community. Of course it helps if you have what I’ve grown accustomed to calling the Last Supper Table. Mine comes with three additional leaves and seats 12. I saved a seat just for you! Akwaaba!