Monday, April 30, 2012

African Potluck Dinner: Dining with Those Who Truly Enjoy Food

What're you to say when your man comes home and tells you you've been invited to an African themed potluck dinner, hosted by people you know only by brief acquaintance? Hell yes, you say! Especially when you've hardly tasted African food, let alone cooked it or cooked anything like it. God I hope I don't screw this up. I'm going to look like a real ass if I can't pull anything out of the Google archives to pretend like I know how to make.

Moroccan food? No, that just seems like a cop out to me. Ethiopian food? This city is littered with semi-adequate renditions of the cuisine. I wanted to attempt something a bit more unique, something the other guests were unlikely to have experienced. After plenty of research I stumbled upon a South African recipe for something called Bobotie. The dish sounded perfect. Minced lamb, ground beef, and an entire myriad of spices I couldn't wait to experiment with. Tumeric, curry powder, ground ginger, mustard seeds, ground coriander: a veritable pantheon of flavor inducing giants (yes I stole that from Iron Chef)! Although I am still uncertain of how exactly to pronounce the title of the dish, I would manage to slowly transform the ingredients before me into an enormous, gastronomically evolutionary meatloaf. With, of course, an oddly delicious vinegar based sauce. 

After the long drag that was my 10 hour work day, I brought myself to purchase and carefully prepare each of the components that were to come together the following day to rock my world. Granny smith apple, toasted slivered almonds, dried apricots, sultanas, yellow onion, minced garlic, shaved lemon rind. Running my knife gently across my cutting board time and again, smiling at the prospect of the stunning amalgamation to come, was all slightly arousing. The sights, the smells, the knowledge that I was about to create a meal like I'd never cooked before. I was up for a couple of hours, chopping, slicing, sautéing onions with curry powder and tumeric. Oh the smell! That bright, alarming yellow. This was going to be good. Sleep came easily once I'd thrown all of the meat into the pot with the onions, mixed in the fruits and veggies, and smiled widely at my stained and fragrant fingers. I couldn't wait for the day to come. 

This was to be mind-blowing.

There were exactly 2 hours from the time I would get home from work to the time I had to leave. I would butter the pan, shape the loaf, throw it in the oven, and start the pot of red wine and balsamic vinegars (infused with dried fruits, mustard seeds, garlic, onions, almonds, and tumeric) on the stove. Time to jump in the shower and pray that nothing exploded while I tried to beautify myself. Stepping out, I could smell nothing but vinegar. I added countless cups of sugar in a desperate attempt to sweeten the sauce I wouldn't have the time to reduce as much as I'd liked. Take the dog out, come back and spin the loaf. Rummage through the piles of wrinkled clothing to find something suitable to wear, and then whisk together the mixture of milk, salt and egg that was to bake atop the Bobotie. Coat the loaf for a final bake, run to apply my minimal make-up and pour the Blatjang into a large container to cool rapidly in the freezer. Finally I had a moment to breathe and relish in the aromas that had conquered my apartment. My mouth watered in anticipation. I was confident, and good thing because this was the first meal I would ever serve without sampling. 

Looks well enough, doesn't it?

Running out with a thin towel that I'd hoped would protect my leather seats from the staining liquid that would inevitably destroy them, I was ready. And I was excited. And my car was filled with a scent that I can only describe as happiness. 

I wish I'd taken photos of the atmosphere I was about to walk into. It was perfection. A cozy, meagerly decorated home that was so engaging and welcoming. A comfortable kitchen full of good food, irresistible smells, and new people who were the furthest thing from shy in the most beautiful way. I made my way slowly to the backyard where the feast would be held and nearly lost my mind. A giant tree stood in the middle of the yard, surrounded by tables set with modest candles and quaint tableware. New friends stood around chatting comfortably and preparing themselves for the culinary enlightenment to come. 

A gorgeous scene.

We filled the table slowly, bringing out one dish at a time. This was food created by people who didn't necessarily live to cook, but just loved food and appreciated good people. We all wanted nothing more than to contribute to this unique event. Peanut stew, raw carrot salad, some little cookies that looked like dog treats but enriched my palate with a delicate spice that I'd never before experienced, a meaty, orange dish that was spicy in a way I never knew was possible, my Bobotie with Blatjang, and a spongy tangy bread called injera with which to soak it all up. 

I mean would you look at that?

This was a culinary awakening for me. Look at that plate. These people, people I'd never met and who weren't generally concerned with cooking, would craft one of the best meals I have ever experienced. The secret? Improvisation. The lack of concern with technique or perfection. The love of the gathering and the joys of commiserating with others over a plate of good food that would silence our woes and foster enjoyment. Our ability to live in the moment as the food from the plate hit our lips was something I had never experienced. We drank, we ate, we talked openly about things I haven't mentioned to even my closest of friends. I was stimulated. Gastronomically, intellectually, emotionally. This is what I'd wanted from my culinary expeditions. For those around me to enjoy what I'd prepared and for me to enjoy all they had to offer. We must have more of these indescribable potlucks. The challenge, the invigoration, the intrigue. These are the things that appeal to me most, and for now, I live for the hope that these experiences will continue to be plentiful in my future. And yours.

1 comment:

  1. I think you might have created a new paperback novel genre. There's nothing missing in addressing all senses here. Your love and appreciation for intertwining with new people after revealing your very descriptive personal challenges in the hours leading up to this all intertwined with how food is alive and coming out wanting more. Continue journeying