Photos by Jason Foster
Post Soundtrack: Ham N’ Eggs
ORETHA CASTLE HALEY BLVD: Over the years, I’ve come to know Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard as place where culture and forward thinking has been held and incubated. Back in 2012, in conjunction with Junebug Productions, I had the honor of making a short documentary about the late, great John O’Neal. Mr. O’Neal, a Civil Rights and theater legend, is the co-founder of the Free Southern Theater and founder of Junebug Productions. For a time, Free Southern Theater had a space on Oretha Castle Haley and Erato. I also worked as a projectionist on Lockdown, another Junebug production (a play this time), that was directed by my now wife, at Ashe. The cornerstone of the boulevard, Ashe has been integral in furthering the art, teachings and culture of the African Diaspora to New Orleans for twenty years and counting.One summer I taught a filmmaking class at Rethink, fast forward to the end of the semester and we held a gathering for all of the students, staff and teachers at Cafe Reconcile. There my students screened their films for family and friends. I also watched films, and screened a film of my own (shout out to Patois), at Zeitgeist which was, at the time, right across the street. The street was (and still is) a grounding force for me when I was getting my legs as an artist. It’s changed a lot since then (what hasn’t) but the lessons learned and the connections that I’ve made along way remain.
*NOTE: Some photos in this shoot were taken using a film camera*
“This is for my grandmother
The backbone and the front door
For the woman whose mind weighs heavy
every time she sees this frail body
Who questions my mother on how those who live
in the land of plenty
can come back so hollow and empty.
There is no room for skeletons on the family shamba
They belong only in its closets”
A few years ago, I made an intentional decision to spend more time back home in Kenya. Now the visits have become regular enough that a steady routine has followed upon my arrival. The meeting up with cousins over drinks and dances, the intentional isolation from the internet, the weekends visiting relatives in shags. On visits to my cucu in Ikinu or when seeing my Gikuyu girl cousins, an inevitable comment about my disappearing frame is almost always made. Sometimes they are made in jest, other times, out of genuine concern. Few women on that side of the family know the feel of their bones against their skin. Some of their husbands are either stick thin from alcohol and sickness, or bloated by it, but they are are hard (working) women with soft bodies, they are all thick frames and strong hands. They cannot reconcile the body I return home in with the one I left with. The one that they had broadened back to recognition with their too full tin plates whose flower bottom I can never seem to find when they serve me.
Eating is one of my favorite activities when I am in Kenya. Every time I visit for more than 2 weeks, I come back stateside with a couple pounds more of luggage and a couple more pounds, period. I LOVE Kenyan food. Ndengu. Chapo. Samosas. Githeri. Mandazi. Sukuma Wiki. Nyama Choma. That beef stew everyone knows how to make. Ndoma. Smokies. Mukimo. I love it all (except the Matumbo…yall can keep that). I find myself eating constantly at home – when downtown, I go to one of 3 spots for lunch and often leave with the button of my jeans open but no hole in my wallet. During holiday, I enjoy the nourishment of fresh meat slaughtered by the men drinking by the walking path in the forest complete with vegetables and beans picked from my cucu’s farm or bought from the local market. I get used to eating fresh, flavorful, nourishing and (mostly) nutritional home made, or close to home made meals. I find myself hungry and eating more and more often, and towards the end of the trip, I start to blend in more with my cousins in the photos we take.
And then I return to the U.S. and almost immediately, I begin to lose weight. The food, particularly the meat, tastes artificial, more like an approximation of a food through essence or flavor than its actual taste. Initially I’m just as hungry, but because of the taste, my appetite gets smaller and smaller. I’m also much busier/more active & have a more packed schedule in the U.S. which inevitably means less time to just sit around and eat. When I do eat, I don’t feel particularly full, but also don’t feel like I can eat anymore of what is in front of me, especially as I find myself eating out more and more having little time to cook. Combine that with the reality that I hold most of my tension in my stomach when I am stressed and you get a frustrated relationship with eating. Sometimes I just find myself so frustrated with the food options around me and day dream about living in a place with a Kenyan restaurant nearby or starting one myself just so I will have consistent access to the food.
I grew up in a household where everyone cooked and to some degree enjoyed it (the only person who I don’t remember liking it was my sister). We rarely ate out. When we were young, my siblings and I would get out of school and before our parents came home from work around 5/6 pm, we were expected to do some sort of meal prep. The older we got, the more responsibility we got in the kitchen, but my favorite times were when my mom was cooking chapatti and I was her designated helper. I took my job seriously. I would make sure she had the perfect amount of oil pre-poured, the right sized spoon to dispense it with, the receiving plate for the cooked Chapo etc. I would hover around her as she prepared the dough, watching her knead, twist and roll it up only to flatten down with the rolling pin into the flat circle that she browned to perfection in the pan. She would deny us all a taste until she was eventually worn down and let someone (usually me) sneak a taste, but only if the whole was shared with the siblings and other parent.
When my mom (and the other African women) prepared for the larger African gatherings we would have, cooking became a day long affair. I would wake up in the morning to the sound of pots and pans clanking, providing a base rhythm for the Gikuyu words jumping out of my auntie’s mouths to dance over. Over the course of the next few hours, mounds of food would accumulate in the kitchen and the sweet smell of smoked meat would come in through the open windows where the men, gathered outside with beer to cook meat, loudly argued the politics of a place they left decades ago.
I never realized how much food was a part of my cultural connection to Kenya until I left my parents house. Because I didn’t spend much time in other people’s houses, I assumed everyone around me was eating similar foods and relating to them in similar ways.
When I left home, I was distraught by the lack of familiar food around me. After a year or so, I wound up in New Orleans which has its own well known food culture, but one that doesn’t particularly make my stomach grumble. When I went to college, I was able to piece together a semblance of a steady diet because of all the different options offered under my meal plan and I also took advantage of the student health services and started to see a nutritionist because of my weight fluctuations (she was not particularly helpful
overall, but she did get me to be more cognizant of my eating habits). When I graduated, I vowed to cook more since that I would have access to my own kitchen area, but I wound up doing a barely paying fellowship that saw me working 50+ hours a week leaving little time to do so and even less money to buy foods I could stomach. After that year, my travel schedule started to become more hectic, and my eating habits became chaotic on the road trying to stay fed, but also not feel like shit after eating. When I began touring, I ran into similar issues of food accessibility during travel, especially for someone who can’t just eat anything without getting sick (I have a protein allergy). When I went back home to Kenya this time around, I was 114 pounds.
Since I’ve come back this time around, I’m proud to report that I’ve been able to maintain my weight (the doctor said I was a sold 134 when I went in for a check up). When I was on tour, I was able to do so by making sure to pack many MANY snacks when I traveled and not avoiding airport food because its ridiculously overpriced. This time around, my wallet definitely felt lighter, but I remained about the same weight. Since the tour ended, I’ve been spending many days at home just cooking for myself and eating. I’m taking an intentional period of rest for myself and it’s been more difficult than I imagined. Sometimes I find myself feeling guilty that all I did all day was cook and eat, but then I remember all the days in the past 5 years that I barely ate because I was busy doing _____ for others. I have to remind myself that as much as service is a part of my person, I have to be around, healthy and whole in order to serve, that I must (literally sometimes) be full in order to pour from my cup especially if I want to survive as a compassionate person in the long run.
When we were thinking of post ideas, I suggested we write about our (cultural) relationship to cooking/food and include a recipe in the post. When I began showing a more intentional interest in my culture, my mom gave me a cookbook she’d gotten in Kenya in the 80s. Though I don’t recall seeing her using recipe’s much growing up, its clear from her notes in it that she did at one point use it, even if she eventually settled into her own recipes.
Denisio: I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately which in part is due to a new individual I’ve been following on Instagram, Ashtin Berry a hospitality activist and writer who’s Insta story and feed are filled with information on food justice, intersectionality in the service industry, fashion and book recommendations. These days I pretty much just look at her feed, get my life and log the fuck off.
I’ve always had what I believed was a pretty healthy obsession with cook. I love preparing food for others. Some of my favorite excerpts in some of my most treasured novels are detailed descriptions of food and cooking. On blue days I get a boost by watching cooking videos on youtube with no intention whatsoever of making anything. My love of food comes from a long line of cooking enthusiasts on both sides of my family; each used food for comfort, love, nourishment and revival.
My grandmother on my mother’s side, I called her Nandi, used food to care for others and to bind the communities she inhabited. It was also a way for her to remember. Feeding and nourishing children was part of her life’s work and when her community in Liberia shifted to a small neighborhood in Rockville, Maryland her work continued. At least once a month she’d get up early on a Saturday morning to make treats for all of the kids on our street. Sometimes it was donuts and my little cousin and I would fight to be the one to shake the freshly fried confections in a paper bag filled with cinnamon sugar. Other months it was milk candy, a traditional ginger toffee made from sweetened condensed milk and grated ginger. The ingredients are cooked on the stove until browned then rolled and pressed into small disks with well-oiled hands and finally placed on parchment paper to cool and harden. My grandmother would put them in mason jars for storage and hand out the jars to our friends in the neighborhood. I’d always sneak a couple while they were still warm and chewy.
My grandmother on my father’s side, I call her Omar, saw food much like my other grandmother. For both her and my Pop-Pop, food was a labor of love they gladly provided for their children and grandchildren. During my summers in North Carolina my plate would be piled high with fresh vegetables grown in my grandfather’s garden. Omar prepared these offerings with little fanfare, usually a pat of butter and a little salt so as to enjoy the natural flavor of the vegetable du jour. At the time I was convinced they wanted to torture me. Dinner tables became battle grounds and I’d gag my way through the veggies for the promise of an iced lemon pound cake or butter pecan ice cream. My 35-year-old self now longs for those vegetables my Omar force fed me. Turnips speckled with black pepper. Beet Salads that stained the plates a jeweled pink. Mustard Greens fragrant with the musky smell of ham hocks. Zucchini sautéed with sweet onions. In true southern tradition, Fridays were for fish and it was almost always catfish or trout, sometimes caught by my Pop-Pop. He’d season it with his own blend of spices and a little lemon juice, then bread it in cornmeal before frying it a combination of preserved bacon fat and oil. I’ve never tasted any catfish that has come close to what he used to make. To this day, the smell of cornmeal frying reminds me of hot sticky summers in Fayetteville.
My Dad learned to cook from both his mother and father. So he would make things that he grew up on. Breakfast was his domain and quickly became my favorite meal time. He could make pancakes that were perfect circles and often paired them with fruit: bananas, blueberries, or fried apples. My favorite were his fried corn cakes with lots of butter and syrup. He made these for me and my partner on a recent visit to Houston and I nearly fell out because after 30+ years they taste exactly the same. Fluffy center, lacy crispy edges. His chicken and dumplings is a memory that has the ability to make me emotional. After the divorce my Dad stopped cooking as much as he was working more and moved to an apartment with a small kitchen not conducive to his fantastic meals. Also the separation was sudden and as an adult who has also gone through a divorce, I understand. Instead he’d pick me up from school and we’d indulged in frozen dinners which was a huge treat for me because my mom wasn’t a fan of them. My favorite frozen meal was called Kid’s Cuisine and it came with a dessert that was always too hot but didn’t stop me from risking the roof of my mouth (my favorite was the brownie). We’d eat our tv dinners in front of an episode of Ghostwriter or Power Rangers. McDonalds and a Twinkie were my Friday treat. There was something in the consistency of fast food, while the rest of my life felt unstable, that felt deeply comforting .
My mother’s dishes have always been a patchwork of foods from the various cultures she’s interacted with over the years, her own heritage being the anchor point. Her most treasured recipes speak to where she has been. When she moved to Colorado and lived on an army base she befriended a Filipino woman who taught her how to make lumpia, a deep-fried roll filled with ground pork and spring onions. In an attempt to assimilate into Western American culture, she entered the world of Superbowl party snacks (my father being a former high-school football star and an NFL fan) and discovered southwestern cheesecake, a savory dip baked with cream cheese, salsa, and a whole lot of sharp cheddar. You top it with sour cream and olives, which I would ceremoniously pick off before diving into a slice with tortilla chips. From Mexican friends she learned to make sopapillas and posole and from Indigenous friends fry-bread tacos. I ate up the world in her kitchen and her treasured recipes became mine.
While I enjoyed the diversity of the dishes I was raised on, it was my mother’s Liberian food that was the true connective tissue to my heritage. I struggled to eat it for a long time because my mother couldn’t bring herself to cook her food without a healthy amount of pepper. For most Liberians, pepper is considered a pleasurable challenge. The hotter the food (and we’re talking near-intolerable, sweat-inducing, sucking in air to cool the mouth heat) the more enjoyable it is. I could never compete with that and so the narrative that I didn’t like African food began. My inability to eat pepper like the rest of my family was a constant reminder I wasn’t really completely African. I often times felt like a burden at family gatherings. “Oh, Denisio can’t eat this, she doesn’t eat pepper.”
Something shifted for my mother when I went off to college. Perhaps she just missed me but when she’d visit she would oblige me and cook Liberian dishes without so much pepper. And more than the lumpia rolls or the fry bread tacos, those became my most prized dishes. A particular favorite was a seafood gravy made with codfish and shrimp. It felt decadent because of the way she fried the onions and tomatoes on high heat in vegetable oil until they turned into a thick sauce. She’d throw in habanero peppers for flavor but never mash them up. Habaneros have a pungent fruity smell that remind me of my mother.
In thinking of a recipe to share with this post I settled on Liberian Style Collard Greens, a dish I love though is not my absolute favorite. It made the most sense for this post however in that it is an amalgamation of my southern and African heritage. Collard Greens is synonymous with Black American Soul Food, but it is also a dish that has been eaten throughout the diaspora for thousands of years. There’s this weird chicken-or-the-egg thing that exists where no one knows (at least the people I have talked to) for sure what the true origin of this style of greens is in Liberia. It’s likely a combination of influence from what the indigenous people of Liberia historically ate and the traditional southern-style dish that the freed Blacks from America and the Caribbean brought back.
This dish is also the first Liberian thing my mom taught me to cook. And while there are a billion ways to cook greens, this is the closest to my family’s version. In my opinion it goes best with a jasmine or basmati rice. These are definitely not traditional though my family prefers them I believe because the floral accents and lighter grains complement the heavy smokiness of the sauce. A good side dish for this sauce is fried plantains. Alternatively, you can eat this with fufu instead of rice. My preferred fufu is made with plantain or gari, the latter of which is called “Eba” in Yoruba (My family judges me for this so don’t do this around Liberians!). You can easily make this vegetarian by using a vegetable stock instead of meat stock and veggie bouillon cubes instead of maggi. Omit the meat completely or use a vegan protein of your choosing.
Liberian-Style Collard Greens
1 to 1 1/2 pounds collard greens finely shredded
1 large onion, finely sliced
1 pound preferred protein (my family usually makes it with fish, shrimp, and smoked catfish OR chicken and smoked turkey and ham hocks can also be used. For any of the smoked items and ham hocks you’ll need to chop them into smaller pieces and boil them ahead of time, then reserve about a cup or two of their boiling liquid)
2 teaspoons baking soda (optional)
maggi cubes to taste
1/3 cup oil of choice
Pinch of MSG
2 tablespoon dried shrimp or crayfish powder (Amazon is your friend if you can’t find an African/Caribbean/Latin/Asian store)
few drops of Akabanga pepper oil (again, amazon and don’t skip this important ingredient!)
Prep the Greens
Begin by washing and shredding the greens. Rinse of the greens with cool water to remove any sand or soil. Pat dry with a clean towel. For larger leaves remove the thick woody stems that run down the middle. Stack the leaves together then roll up into a fist-sized bundle and slice with a very sharp knife into very thin shreds (this can be achieved if you have a good food processor with a shredding attachment).
Pile the shredded greens into a very large bowl. Once they are all shredded run clean water into the bowl and swish the greens around to wash a second time. The sand should have settled to the bottom of the bowl so you’ll want to lift the shredded greens out by the fistful and place in another large bowl. If there was a lot of sand on the bottom of the bowl you’ll want to repeat this process once. Drain.
Slice the onion and place on top of your pile of greens. Now that the greens are ready, you can proceed with cooking the meat.
Cook the Meat and Greens
Turn the heat to medium and melt two tablespoons oil in the bottom of a large pot. Add the meat and sprinkle with seasoned salt. Cook, stirring occasionally until the meat is cooked through and starting to brown. Remove from the pot and keep warm in a bowl.
For the smoked items and/or ham hocks boil them in a large pot of water until tender. Reserve some of the boiling liquid for later. This is your stock.
Dump the bowl of greens and onions into the oil in the bottom of your hot pan. You may need to do it in two batches after the first batch wilts a bit. Sprinkle the baking soda over the greens for a softer, silkier texture to the sauce. Put a lid on the pot and stir every few minutes to mix the greens down and make sure they cook evenly.
Stir in the maggi cubes, crayfish, MSG, and half of the reserved water from boiling. Continue to cook on medium/high heat until liquid begins to evaporate and sauce becomes smooth and incorporated. Taste to see if it needs more seasoning. Add the meat and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until the greens turn very dark green, do not overcook or it will turn brown.
Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering children of the African diaspora