When I was a child, I had terrible eating habits. I was the pickiest eater imaginable. I refused to eat any type of vegetable, wouldn’t eat any meats with textures I didn’t like, and would gag any time I was forced to eat something new. As a result, my diet consisted of little other than plain rice or buttered pasta, with maybe the additional carrot. Needless to say, I wasn’t the healthiest of kids.
But over the last couple years I’ve tried my best to keep an open mind about food. I began to try new things, and in an effort to not offend whoever had prepared the meal, I started eating anything that anyone put in front of me. After so many years of purposely avoiding anything I thought I wouldn’t like (or perhaps remembered not liking a young boy), I realized that I had been harbouring feelings towards most foods that weren’t even applicable to me anymore. Vegetables that I used to vomit up when I was younger, like spinach, I now eat as often as I possibly can; and I am slowly starting to realize that it’s not that I don’t like food at all, but that I like almost everything I put in my mouth.
One type of food in particular that was always very difficult for me to eat was anything with any degree of spiciness. In fact, even the most lightly spiced thing would bring tears to my eyes, and as such I would avoid them at all costs. But when I found out that I would be spending my summer months in Sierra Leone, a place where peppers and spices are a staple part of the average person’s diet, I began to eat as many spicy foods as I could. If I saw a friend eating something hot, I would try to match what they ate and play through whatever pain was coming to my mouth. And within a few months, anything without spices had begun to just taste bland to me. I was finally ready for Africa.
I am so happy that I took the preparations that I did, because otherwise I never would have been able to try the life changing foods that I’ve already eaten here in just a single month. From my first day I fell in love with leafy vegetables like cassava leaf, potato leaf and krain krain; and had my mind blown by such incredibly good snacks as cucumber soup, groundnut soup, and Bo gari. In fact, it’s all so good that I never want to go back to eating American food ever again.
On my second night in town, a friend took me to a street vendor for a late night meal he called bean salad. Now, when I heard that phrase I was expecting something like a collection of typical Western salad ingredients like lettuce and tomatoes, with maybe some cooked beans sprinkled among the vegetables. It was night time so when our food was brought to us, I couldn’t see what exactly I was spooning onto my slice of bread before it entered my mouth. When my tongue touched the mixture of baked beans, cheese, spaghetti noodles, hard-boiled eggs, ketchup and seasonings, I felt as if I had discovered the Holy Grail. All of these things are commonly eaten in my home country, albeit separately. After that delicious meal, I can say with upmost confidence that I will never eat those things independently of each other ever again. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s bean salad from here on out for this guy.
But it isn’t just bean salad. Since I got here, there has literally not been a single thing that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. From Okra to foo-foo and Kanda (not kaindar) to country fowl, I have virtually inhaled everything put in front of me. One of the people I’m staying with told me the other day, “Cooper, you just love everything.” But that’s not true; I just love everything in Sierra Leone.
I don’t want to go back to a life of eating food without maggi or other Salonean staples. After three months of eating what I can easily call my favourite foods I’ve ever eaten, there’s just no way I can go back to my boring, salted-pasta-ridden eating habits. And so I’ve begun to take notes every time someone prepares food for me, asking to help whenever I can in the hope that I can go back to America with a book of wonderful recipes to share with my friends and family. There aren’t any Sierra Leonean restaurants where I come from, and the only African food available is mostly Ethiopian. I won’t be able to fully convey the goodness of local food here without having those back home try it for themselves something they absolutely must do.
So keep up the great work, Sierra Leone. If things keep up as they have been, I will leave this country a very happy, and very fat, man indeed.
Friday July 25, 2014