So you’ve come to Mali to teach school. You’re thousands of miles away from home, missing family and in a couple of weeks you’ll be celebrating Christmas.
You and your roommate decide to host a dinner for your fellow volunteers, a motley group of singles and one married couple.
Chicken will substitute for the turkey. Plenty of potatoes and veggies to be found in the market. Nothing to simulate cranberry sauce, but dressing and gravy are doable. Your roommate’s copy of Fanny Farmer’s Cookbook is a godsend as good old Fanny’s recipes are basic and you can find most of the ingredients, if not all the spices.
Now for the sweets. No way to make shortbread. Cookies, sure, but are they really festive enough?
Then one day you trot off (ie walk slowly in the heat) to the market near your house to buy some veggies, and there, in a little three-walled shack made of corrugated tin, you spot a barrel of liquid, identity unknown. You speak enough Bambara to ask what it is, but you don’t understand the answer.
“Let’s buy some,” your friend says.
“What for?” you ask.
“She shrugs. Maybe we can figure out what to do with it.”
She’s the cook so you agree and head home for a jar and trudge back to the market where the vendor fills it for you. You take it home and put it in the fridge.
The next day, you see that the clear liquid has solidified to a white paste. You dip in a finger and rub a bit against your thumb.
“Texture of shortening,” your friend says, then gives it a sniff and a lick. “Let’s try making a pie.”
“A pie! What will we use for filling?”
Back to the market, the big one downtown this time and there you find a variety of tinned foods from China fortunately with pictures on the labels. You choose apples, buy a couple of tins, take them home, thicken the juice with flour, and proceed to make the crust.
Because there are no plastic bags (or containers with lids) to be had, you keep the flour in a calabash bowl covered with a cloth. You take off the cloth, tap the sides of the bowl, spin it and tap again. Tiny bugs (flour beetles? flour mites? weevils?) scurry up the sides. You tap and spin until satisfied the flour is bug free and measure out the amount needed. You refuse to worry about germs. Your rationale? The heat of baking will kill them.
And, the pie? Delicious. The pastry the flakiest you’ve ever had. Only later do you learn that the liquid you bought at the market was the very Shea butter now found in skin care products.
P.S. I’m off to Mexico for a month, where I once tried making shortbread for Christmas, but it was so hot the dough melted.