Don’t you just love going to dinner parties? They’re especially fun when you live in a foreign country, where as an expat you tend to end up having an eclectic group of international friends who often have exotic stories to tell. Here’s the tale of one such an interesting evening when my man and I lived in Ghana, West Africa. We’d been invited to a dinner party at the house of our German friend Kurt, along with several other friends.
Beans are good for you, are they?
The theme is Italian, which means fresh pasta from the Italian shop, Italian wine, and freshly ground Parmesan cheese. Kurt is elated at having found this wonderful Italian shop, on a side street off Oxford Street in the rockin’ neighborhood of Osu. Since the customer before him had just bought out their entire supply of Chianti (four bottles) he was offered advice on which other wine would work well with his menu. We sample the wine, and connoisseurs that we all are, we agree, this wine will do: It is red and it is dry.
Flowers decorate the table, as do candles stuck in old Chianti bottles he must have saved from a prior gustatory feast, and a pretty table cloth with handmade lace sections. Russian, he says, but it fits the table and since there are no real Italians at our table tonight, we’ll just let it pass. (Kurt lived and worked in Russia for some time.) A famous opera singer is busting his gut on the CD player. Except for the table cloth, it’s all so wonderfully Italian. Kurt loves putting on theme dinner parties. A couple of months ago we were treated to a Russian feast, with caviar, vodka, borscht, the works. We may live in tropical Ghana, but don’t you feel sorry for us.
While we enjoy the scrumptious food, we discuss cooking disasters, which is always an entertaining subject, don’t you agree? We’ve all had them, but our friend Marley’s story beats all, and leaves us gobsmacked.
Marley didn’t know how to cook when she first got married and now the mother of three, she still does not. She has embraced this defect in her female genes without regret. Tony, her husband, does the cooking for their family of five. Once you’ve read this story, you will agree this is a good thing.
However, in the early years, Marley tried, really she did. As she tells us this, her eyes brim over with pathetic appeal: Please, believe me!
In the early 80’s, newly married, she and Tony worked for an aid agency and lived in the draught stricken north of Ghana. Cooking was a challenge because there was almost no food available locally to actually do this with. They were dependent on food shipments sent by the agency that would arrive at certain intervals, sometimes late, sometimes half-eaten by bugs or crawling with weevils, sometimes not at all. The local population was not so lucky. They had to survive on what was available locally, and it was famine time. They suffered from hunger and malnutrition. Kids with terrible extended kwashiorkor bellies were everywhere. This is not the funny part.
One day Marley had made a heroic attempt at producing chili, a spicy American bean dish of Mexican origin. She cooked buggy dried red beans, some pinto beans, added canned tomatoes, you know, the usual stuff. Then she did something else that will forever be a mystery. Somehow, she managed to make the chili inedible, a concept almost unknown in this part of the world at this time in history, under the present deprived circumstances.
Neither she nor Tony could stomach the stuff. Picture them now sitting at the table, trying to chew it and swallow it. The door is open to catch whatever warm draft might want to come in and stir around the stifling desert heat. And there, standing in the open door, are the village children, staring at them with hungry eyes and big bellies.
They offer them the food.
The kids attack it.
Then draw back, in disgust. They refuse to eat the beans.
They leave, hungry.
We are in awe of this tale. I feel that Marley needs a medal for the courage to tell this story. How bad were these beans? What had she put in them? Too much hot pepper? No. Too much salt? No. She does not know what went wrong. However, whatever it was, it will forever prove she has a magic touch in the kitchen.
The pot of chili ended up on the garbage disposal place in the yard behind the house, which was never much of a heap since the local people plundered it regularly looking for treasures. In these desolate, impoverished parts, everything was a treasure. Empty cans, pieces of string, dirty tin foil, anything edible.
The only thing that remained of the trash heap was the beans. Nobody wanted them, not even the scrawny goats and mangy dogs that had managed so far to escape slaughter. Apparently even nature was rejecting the stuff, since it did not decompose or degenerate for a very long time.
What had Marley put in the pot of chili for seasoning? Formaldehide?
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Tell me your cooking disasters! Just don’t send me a sample.