This book was on many bookseller’s and bloggers most anticipated of 2016 books list, and for that reason, it has been on mine. Fortunately, I must have put in my library hold before anyone else in town heard about it, because it was released in June, and I just finished it this morning. It is rumored to have received a seven figure advance for 25 year-old Gyasi, and in my opinion, it was worth every penny. Each chapter tells a story of Ghanian half-sisters Effia and Esi, and their progeny through the generations. Effia’s side remains in Ghana, while Esi’s family winds up in America. Most of the book was difficult to read because of the brutality of the slave trade, wars between the Fante and the Asante, Jim Crow, plantation slavery, and miner’s working conditions, to name a few. Having just finished an amazing book about heroism in WWII, my spirit is weighed down by man’s inhumanity to man, and yet, I know these stories are important, and, as in Gyasi’s case, I am drawn to them because of the promise of the beauty of the prose. The scene where Yaw takes Esther to Edweso to visit his mother is achingly beautiful. He weeps, she comforts, he begins to forgive. She tells him his family history. “What I know now, my son: Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home…When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.” This is so reminiscent of the Native American parable of the two wolves that live inside you, hate and evil and love and forgiveness. The one that lives is the one that you feed. (This was from the book, Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project.)
Trying to find the beauty for this book was hard because of the cruelty that was leveled upon, and propagated by, in some cases, generations of this family. I then turned to the last pages of the book that were very satisfying to read, and I found it there: home. Marjorie has encouraged Marcus to join her in the water, and despite his fear of it, he does, and when he does, she says, “Welcome home.” Home has so many meanings. It can be the place where you grew up, or where you currently reside, or a place that brings you joy, even if you don’t spend much time there. It can mean being in the company of those who make you feel safe and loved. For Marcus, it was finding his heritage, connecting the disparate dots of information about his ancestors in their homeland, Ghana with the woman he loved.
Image from http://www.traveladventures.org
This is a beach outside Cape Coast Castle to which, in the final scene in the book, Marcus flees from “The Door of No Return.” It is the beach where Marjorie’s grandmother took her on her annual visits to Ghana. It is where Marjorie welcomed Marcus home. Cape Coast Castle was where slaves were held before being shipped off to America. They were held in the very bottom of the castle, the dungeon. They were packed in so tightly, they could not move. There was no bathroom, no food, just bodies piled in a dark cramped space. When Marjorie and Marcus visited the Castle, Marcus was overcome by the horror of those conditions in the place where his ancestors were once held.
There was a lot of food mentioned in the book, but the recipe that made the most sense to represent it was groundnut, or peanut, soup, as illustrated by the simile in the passage that follows. James, Effia’s grandson, gets a lesson about politics in the Gold Coast, when he learns that the Asante king, Osei Bonsu, his grandfather, has died.
“The Asantes are saying we killed their king to avenge Governor McCarthy’s death.”
“And did you?” James asked, returning the man’s stare with force, anger beginning to boil up in his veins. The white man looked away. James knew the British had been inciting tribal wars for years, knowing that whatever captives were taken from these wars would be sold to them for trade. His mother always said that the Gold Coast was like a pot of groundnut soup. Her people, the Asantes, were the broth, and his father’s people, the Fantes, were the groundnuts, and the many other nations that began at the edge of the Atlantic and moved up through the bushland and into the North made up the meat and pepper and vegetables. This pot was already full to the brim before the white men came and added fire. Now it was all the Gold Coast people could do to keep from boiling over again and again and again.”
Peanuts were introduced into West Africa from South America via the Portuguese and replaced the native bambara groundnuts. Meanwhile, in much of Ghana, the prevalence of the tsetse fly made cattle-rearing impossible, which led to a diet without milk or dairy products. In order to make rich, creamy soups or stews, thickeners like ground legumes, nuts, melon, sesame seeds, pureed vegetables, okra, palm butter or ground peanuts were used.
Groundnut soup is made from a basic chicken stock and is very flexible: one can use more or less peanut butter, or add a variety of vegetables from eggplant to mushrooms. Also, the recipe can be easily adapted to a vegetarian version by substituting fish stock or vegetable stock for the base. However, besides peanut butter, the holy trinity of Ghana’s cooking, tomatoes, peppers, and onions, are necessary ingredients. Serve with cooked rice or rice balls, or boiled potatoes.
Only use peanut butter that has no additives, and especially no sugar! I used Teddie because it contains only peanuts and salt.
1 onion, finely chopped
1 13 oz can of chopped tomato
1 1/2 C creamy peanut butter
4 C boiling chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water, divided
1 red pepper, chopped
2 C mushrooms, quartered
2lb cooked chicken, shredded
Liquify the tomatoes (in a blender) or with immersion blender in a large pot. Mix in the chicken with about a cup of stock, and bring to a boil.
In another bowl mix the peanut butter with 1 1/2 cups stock. Stir until you have a creamy sauce.
Put the peanut butter mix in the tomato and chicken mix. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir together. Cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes stirring frequently. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve hot.