Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cooking in Kenya

This is my friend Nate, he went on a volunteer vacation with Habitat for Humanity where his group help a rural village build a new house.  When he was showing me his pictures I was amazed at how basic the process was, instead of just getting gravel, they gathered large rocks and then had to break them down into gravel here is what it says on the wbesite about the buildings they make:
All Habitat Kenya-sponsored houses have masonry walls, concrete floors, foundation slabs and corrugated iron-sheet roofs. The houses are built with fired brick, stabilized soil block or rough stone.

And here is Nate's further explanation:

We built for six days and mostly worked on the foundation work: clearing the site of debris, digging the holes for the foundation walls, stacked bricks and applied mortar, once dried we filled it in with dirt, layed gravel for the floor and then eventually poured cement (made from very finely broken up rocks, water and some sort of pre-made mix that was added--I didn't see specifically what it was but looked like a concrete bag.  Perhaps we were using some pre-made concrete but added the small gravel rocks to make the concrete go farther.  I suppose buying bags of concrete would be very expensive in Kenya -- cheaper to use the rocks, which are easily available, to save on building costs.

The most interesting thing for me was his story about volunteering to do non building work.  I for one would have been the first in line to help out in the kitchen, not just because I love to cook and am fascinated with how different cultures cook, but because anything that would break up the tedium of crushing rocks all day would be much appreciated. 

Nate was the first person to volunteer for kitchen duty and apparently his being a man was very uncomfortable for the women working in the kitchen, they laughed uncomfortably for a few moments while letting him roll out one maybe 2 flat breads then the volunteer co-ordinator came in and told him he had to leave. Men don't cook in Kenyan (many African) cultures and the site of Nate in the kitchen was such a freak out to these women they couldn't take it and had him removed.   This in the same culture where men hold hands with other men who they are friends with, something in our culture that still makes many people uncomfortable.

Ever since Nate told me this story it has stuck in my head.  I wanted to write about it here, but I didn't have any great insight or point about it.  It reminded me of stories Richard Wrangham writes about in his seminal book Catching Fire, which is you haven't read you really should.  It's the most fascinating book about cooking and the way we came to use fire to cook our food and how that changed who we are, in every aspect of our being.  In Catching Fire Wrangham talks about gender roles and cooking, men always went out to hunt while women would forage and gather closer to home and make dinner.   If the men where successful and they had caught something there would be something else to cook, but there needed to be supper on the table when the men got back or watch out.  It was acceptable to beat your wife if she did not have food ready. 

So the weirdness around Nate's cooking makes some sense in that the lives of these rural people have not change that significantly, women are still entrusted to "keep house" while the men build the house or go off and work or hunt. 

In pondering this I mostly just feel very lucky to be living in a culture where it is perfectly acceptable for men to cook.  That our gender roles have become more fluid.  Famous chefs are still predominately men, something we accept without a thought and yet in Kenya this would be a perplexing and uncomfortable reality:  Why would men want to do this?

In the last year I've become fascinated with the food culture of Africa, which is vast yet something we know so little about, there is Moroccan, Ethiopian and that's about it. Of course with civil strife,
poverty and war consuming so many African nations it's no wonder they aren't all sitting around writing cook books.  So having even just a glimpse of how the people in Kenya live and cook thanks to Nate has gotten me very excited about one day going to African and exploring

This is the lunch that was served daily during the two weeks he was volunteering.  The end of the trip was a fairly posh safari.  I think this food look delicious, but can understand how every day of the same thing might get a little tired.
Below is the menu from a famous Nairobi restaurant called Carnivore that specializes in exotic and wild game meats.  Ostrich Meatballs anyone?

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