There’s a sensuous gravitational tug to Bonnie Lee Black’s memoir/cookbook How to Cook A Crocodile: A Memoir With Recipes. Her vivid prose draws you into a world that is rife with humidity and sweat, sharp aromas, the lively voices of children, exotic birds, swarming insects, trash and flowers and diesel exhaust.
It’s the world of Gabon, Africa, as she experienced it in the mid-1990s after making a life-changing decision to leave her career as a Manhattan caterer and join the U.S. Peace Corps. She ended up in a village called Lastoursville, where she served as a health educator for women and children. She immersed herself in the local culture, learning not only the language and customs but food preparation practices that she riffs on and records here as recipes.
To readers who engage it fully, the book brings this tiny slice of Africa into both mind and body. The narrative, masterfully wrought across more than 400 pages, stimulates the intellect as much as the palate. An assemblage of recipes serves as the loom through which Black weaves the threads of her narrative. In addition to providing the culinarily-inclined with savory possibilities, they link us to the female milieu that barely registered for Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, and other twentieth century American writers whose portraits of Africa reduced the continent to one big safari hunt. Black taps into other dimensions: “I wanted to think,” she tells us early on, “beneath the wildly disparate surface differences, there was one Mother Earth Africa, with one universal soul, one drumming heartbeat.”
The vital force which is Africa emanates from the many Gabonese women she encounters. The elderly Leora, who reminds Black of her own long-suffering mother, is conveyed through our sense of smell mixed with touch and taste:
I sat close to her, close enough to take in the elemental odors of her threadbare clothing and leather-like skin. She smelled to me like fire and earth, wood smoke and loam. She smelled of Africa, and I drank it in.
Black’s idealism is always in tension with the stark reality that is Gabon, where women like Leora are marginalized by an ideology that greatly privileges men. As both a woman and Peace Corps volunteer, Black must negotiate this conservative social system that is complicated by AIDS, widespread teen pregnancy, and a male population largely disengaged from the families they produce.
For me, near the heart of this book is a story about coping, dealing not only with your immediate experience but with the cards you’ve been dealt in life. In recounting the many events of her two years in Gabon, Black conjures painful memories of growing up with an abusive father, of struggling with teenage eating disorders, of having her only child kidnapped by her estranged ex-husband (which Black writes about in her 1981 book Somewhere Child. As these stories unravel, and in some ways tell themselves, you get the sense that Black is placing them into a perspective which eases the pain occasioned by their telling. This perspective is cultivated and reinforced as she copes with the very different culture of Gabon.
She adjusts to her new life in various ways: by decorating her house, writing letters, keeping a journal, and by cooking. Sometimes her coping mechanism is shaped by the customs of the people she lives among. In recounting her biannual trips to the capitol Libreville, Black envisions the melee that would ensue if commuters traveling out of New York City’s Penn Station were to experience the stultifying conditions of Gabon’s only railway. “Traveling like an African in Africa, I gradually learned, is an exercise in tolerance and patience.” By becoming African, in a sense, Black checks her American proclivity to teeth-grinding and seething impatience with an eye to the simple things she has brought on her journey: “my favorite Uni-ball pens, a hearty homemade sandwich, a liter bottle of clean drinking water, and a good supply of Wash ‘n Dry’s (sent in care packages from friends in the States).”
Like the recipe tradition carried on by women across generations, the things we often take for granted are a source of sustenance in times of challenge. I learned this as well during my own stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji. A hearty homemade sandwich, a bottle of clean water, items sent in care packages from friends — it’s not the items themselves but their qualities that we learn to appreciate when living outside of our comfort zones.
So what about that provocative title? Black learns how to cook a crocodile from a woman who, like the author, experienced the anguish of losing a child. The loss was permanent: her daughter was murdered. How did this woman, Madame Nimba, cope? Perhaps in part by doing what Black does so well: “Cooking is healing. Cooking is life.”
Clearly, cooking matters. But at the level of activity, it’s a stage in a longer process that leads to what many of us hold even dearer: eating. Crocodile cooked, we’re told, is like a cross between chicken and fish. But it’s that special local ingredient — the madadoomba leaves — which gives mystery to its piquant sauce and lets Black value her eating experience in ways she otherwise wouldn’t. Writ large, when we recognize the role played in our lives by those small ingredients we are inclined to take for granted, our perspective broadens. We learn to cope, to grow, and our experience of the world, of others, and of ourselves is enriched in the process.