Stacy Hardy is a writer and senior editor at Chimurenga. She is also founding member of Black Ghost Books. Her collection of short fiction, Because the Night, was published by Pocko in 2015.
In an era where we should all be feminists, as Adichie tells us, or bad feminists, according to Roxane Gay, and where Yemisi Aribisala has revealed the alchemy of how food becomes a love potion (“fish soup are the mediums and aphrodisiacs, the juju and fetishes of our sexual bewitchment”), Calixthe Beyala’s How To Cook Your Husband The African Way, first published in France at the beginning of the millennium, and recently reissued in translation, might seem slightly old fashioned. Herein lies its charm. The story reads like Emmanuelle meets Onitsha Market Literature mixed with the family cookbook, so, part sex romp, part morality tale. From porcupine with the nuts of wild mangoes to a boa in banana leaves, the devoted narrator, Aissatou, is hell-bent on cooking her way to the heart of her love object, one Mr Bolobolo, a Malian immigrant to Paris. She starts cooking him meals. At first, he hesitates, but soon finds himself unable to resist and digs in: “The porcupine is delicious. We forget civilisation so-called and dive into African savageries. We eat with our fingers like in the tropics. Sauce trickles down our fingers.”
The cliché that the way to a man’s heart is his stomach however soon proves as flimsy as the myth that “a beautiful woman is flat as a pancake, thin as a rake or a slice of Melba toast”. As Aissatou realises, Melba toast snaps easily: “What can a man eat of you? Bones, fish bones. Your bones are so scrawny a white guy’s dog wouldn’t gnaw them”. Fish becomes something fishy – “You mean to say your guy likes fish and you make him all kinds of fish and he still goes to restaurants to eat fish.” And cooking is neither magic nor science, “it is the stuff of life, the same as life”.
Forget Beyala’s over-zealous attempt to overturn already well-worn myths and cliché regarding gender, race and sexuality, and sink into the food, the sex, the sweet humour and delicious language that freight each line of this playful Parisian rom-com with a surfeit of taste, smell and texture. There may well be, as the author tells us, “problems in life that even a porcupine cooked with wild mango nuts will not resolve”, but why bother with them when Beyala has given us a catalogue of all 24 recipes Aissatou uses to “cook” Mr Bolobolo into a husband, to get our fingers and our tongues dirty on?
This review appears in Chronic
Books Foods, a supplement to the Chronic (April 2017). An edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently.
Food is largely presented as scarcity, lack, loss – Africa’s always desperate exceptionalism or exceptional desperation or whatever. In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.
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