Sunday, May 5, 2013

Finding the right season(ing)?

“It is the wrong season for bui [a baobab fruit drink],” Maria told me, “but for you it’s okay, it will be okay not to wait. Your body won’t know the difference.”
It was winter in New York, and I was standing among piles of dried fruits, tubers, and grains that Maria and I had collected from the shelves of her shop in south Harlem. 

My assignment was to find, learn about, and try to cook a cuisine that was unfamiliar to me, but available near my neighborhood; Maria, along with the two younger women she had working with her, was trying to help me with what she clearly thought was a task beyond my skill level (“call me,” she said, giving me her phone number, “when you cannot make this and I will tell you what to do.”). I chose to visit “Little Senegal,” a few blocks of primarily Senegalese (but also other West African) businesses – everything from restaurants and food markets to hardware and taxi services. Really, not that much different from most blocks in Harlem; slightly city-worn, multi-colored awnings over glass windowed storefronts, letters painted or pasted onto the windows to advertise products and sales, a few people hanging out in doorways here and there. The main difference is heard, rather than seen, as these small groups of people are chatting in a mixture of French, Wolof, and sometimes other West African languages. I can hear the afternoon passing in the rise and fall of these conversations outside the door as we sort through the bags and bundles on the counter.

            Maria pulls out a bag of dry, green, crushed leaves, which she tells me are called “mboum.” She adds that this is also the name for the dish made from these leaves, which is the best Senegalese dish, but one that I will not be able to eat because I am not African. “Maybe,” she amends reluctantly, “if you had been to Africa. Maybe then. But you, no, you will have trouble eating it. Maybe after awhile you can learn to cook it, but you will not know how to eat it.” Nonetheless, she piles my arms high with the other necessary ingredients, including peanut powder, ground millet, red chili flakes, and dried baobab fruit and ginger to make the accompanying bui drink. After this, she and the other women argued for a bit about the right way to cook the mboum (with oil or without, mixing the spices as a paste first or boiling them with the meat), and sent me home with the injunction to mix the leftover millet with milk for the next morning. In Senegal, she says, they say that if you eat the millet mixed with milk, then you will live forever (“or for a very long time. But I don’t know if that’s true here, it’s just what they say in Senegal”).

            I should note that this short encounter just about encompasses my limited knowledge of Senegal, the Senegalese diaspora in New York, and Senegalese cuisine. I make no attempt to explain this interaction in terms of broader social, cultural or political concerns. Instead, I am interested in the questions and possibilities that were raised, as Maria and I talked, about the boundaries of intelligibility and temporal experience. I am interested in how these boundaries were being generated by (and perhaps negotiated through) the bags of food products, carefully prepared and shipped from thousands of miles and countless hours away yet still tentative, not-fully-produced, needing attention. There is a vast literature on the ways in which preparing and eating food does not just measure time, but in fact produces it, and I was prepared to think about how this was accomplished before I arrived at the shop. However, I was surprised by the way in which those modes of temporal production immediately had to be reshaped to conform to what seemed to be the limitations of my own body to engage with them. I could perhaps cook, eventually, but never eat properly (in a sense that seemed to have little to do with taste when I asked). I could drink the bui but only because on some level my body could not sense its (un)seasonality. There are obvious questions to be asked, too, of the way in which the multiple possibilities within the foodstuffs could be mobilized in relation to place, as well as to the body – the millet required not only a knowing hand and the addition of milk to produce longevity, it might also require a particular place and community (or at least, not this place).  My own sense of the limitations of the assignment and my participation in it also had to be adjusted. I anticipated, admittedly naively, being able to locate elements of a cuisine, learn how to make them, and then do so; my sense of how temporality might be implicated in this process would derive from these steps. For Maria, however, the assignment was immediately about the act of consumption. For her, whether or not I would be able to drink or eat the end product was much more significant (or at least less flexible) than the intervening stages; I had to shift my sense of both duration and process, and think about extending my participation into consumption before I even contemplated production. 

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