USIA Fulbright Scholar in Ghana

"The Chickens of Reality"

Ghana Journal 1-1-99

I had the flu over Christmas, but I managed to drop off some very small presents for my teacher Joseph and his wife and kids at the bronze casting village before I got too sick. When I got better and saw them again, I asked them what they usually did for the holiday. "Nothing," they said, "We don't have money this time of year." (The tourist season, May through August, is their prosperous time.) So I decided they needed one small party, just for Joseph and his friends and family. (This had gotten a little complicated since I found out later that Joseph has 2 wives and 9 children, not just the 6 I have met. And, of course, there is some kind of tension between the two wives, so the father-in-law and other family members have taken sides, some people are not speaking to each other, and I am left totally confused. The only thing I am certain of is that none of this is any business of mine, so I'm letting Joseph decide who should come to his party. I'm just buying the food. That is difficult enough.)

I asked Joseph and Julie, his (first) wife, what to get for a traditional New Year's party. I was thinking of beer, sodas, and some liquor, the usual New Year's stuff. But they eat real food for New Year's. They asked for rice, canned tomatoes (the fresh ones here are incredible-they always taste like our home grown ones in August-but they have to be mixed with canned tomato paste so that the sauce looks deep red, another subtlety in Ghanaian cooking that I was totally oblivious to), a half gallon of palm oil (of course), spices, beef bouillon, and a chicken. A live chicken. They told me I could get a frozen one, but I know what they really want is one of those huge brown squawking birds I see women carrying on their heads (about a dozen to a wash tub, with a net over it) in the Kumasi market. So I'm going to be brave and face a chicken. I have to go to the market tomorrow, buy one of the noisy birds, and carry it -- along with the other groceries -- on the tro-tro that goes to the village. (A tro-tro is a minivan, a lot like the Ford Windstar that my sister drives her two small children around in, except that it's filled with 16 adult passengers, all sitting shoulder to shoulder, the women with kids on their laps.) So try to imagine me holding a chicken upside down by the feet, hoping it won't escape or shit all over me, with groceries on my lap, riding to a village with no electricity or running water where we will cook the bird over a charcoal stove the size of a small hat box.

Don't even ask me about killing the chicken -- I'm hoping they will do that for me. I am not excited about plucking it, either. And I refuse to eat grilled chicken feet like the ones I have seen in the market. Ever wonder what they do with all the chicken parts we don't use in the U.S.? Well, I will find out. They use everything here. One of their staples is fish head soup, a food that even I have said "no" to. (And I will pull the furry hide off grilled goat meat and then eat it. But fish heads? No.)

The reason why I am writing about all this is that I have found a new term for the unexpected expectations of life. I call them "the chickens of reality." I don't really resent a chicken as if it were an unavoidable obligation. Joseph and Julie would have let me get away with just bringing a frozen bird, and they would have been very polite about it. But I want to get the chicken for them, even though it's a bit more than I thought I was getting into at first and a little intimidating. But I can do it. I'm just glad I don't have to catch the chicken -- I just don't have that much competence. I tried to catch a chicken once so I could draw feathers, and I just ended up chasing them clumsily and looking foolish. And they were very contented and mellow birds, not any wild, untamed, foaming-at-the-mouth market chickens. So the "chickens of reality" are a challenge. But at least now I have a name for them.

Ghana Journal 1-2-99

How to Prepare a Red Hen for Cooking

Kill chicken by plucking feathers from its throat and then slitting it slowly with a dull knife. (A 13 year-old boy using a blade as dull as a putty knife can do this.) Do not completely sever its head. Place chicken in metal wash tub and pluck small feathers from breast and back first. (Best done by 5 small children all pulling fistfuls of feathers out of the chicken at once.) Allow older children to pluck wing feathers; their hands are stronger. Sever head and drain blood flowing from neck arteries into wash tub.

Clean washtub by throwing plucked feathers into it and wiping the tub clean. Remove bloody feathers. Replace chicken in washtub and pour 4 cups boiling water over it, scrubbing gently with hands to clean it. Get 13 year-old boy to hold chicken over fire to singe pin feathers for easy removal. Feathers will not come out easily, so he will drop chicken directly into fire and play with it for a while until they do. Wash chicken again. It's filthy. Singe severed neck to finally stop all blood flow. Pull scales off chicken feet.

Butcher chicken carefully. (Best done by Bano, the 13 year-old boy.) Using the same dull knife, slit muscles connecting legs to body. Pop out hip joints and pull. Hack vigorously. When both legs are separated from body, chop off toenails from each foot. Do not forget back toe or claw on upper leg. Hack off feet, allowing 4-6 inches of foot and leg. Chop neck from chicken's body and slide feet into loose skin around vertebrae so that feet stick out decoratively from either end. Chop the rest of the legs into 2 inch sections for stew. Cut body in half along breastbone. If hen was a layer, remove fully formed egg from abdominal cavity, along with 4 other partially formed eggs. Watch as Bano slices off egg-laying orifice and slips it on his finger as a ring. Crack ribcage open and remove organs. (Toss spleen into pile of bloody feathers. It tastes bad.)

Chop up organs and throw into stew pot. Maul the rest of the chicken with reckless abandon. Randomly chop all body parts into 2 inch bits and throw into 1 gallon stew pot. Cover chicken parts with water and boil for 15-20 min. At this point, you may think the chicken is cooked, but it is not. Pour palm oil into a small frying pan until it is half full. (No skimping.) Fry all boiled chicken parts until they are crispy brown. Set fried chicken aside in covered pot. Save oil in a second pot; later you will combine it with the rest of the liter of palm oil to make the sauce.

Recipe for authentic Ghanaian Sauce with Chicken
(feeds 6 adults and about a dozen small running children)

1 live red hen (about 3-4 lbs., 10,000 cedis)
1 liter palm oil for cooking (Frytol or Dinor brand)
9 small tomatoes
6 small cans tomato paste (approx. 4 oz. each)
2 medium onions
10 very small Ghanaian red peppers
2 cups green beans
2 beef bouillon cubes
1-2 Tablespoons curry powder
1-2 Tablespoons Ghanaian 'mixed spices' (includes ginger, black pepper, anise)
1 Tablespoon salt, or to taste

To prepare the sauce, wash and remove the stems from 10 small Ghanaian red peppers. Crush them in an opotoyuah, an unglazed red earthenware bowl about as big around as a large dinner plate and slightly deeper than the saucer for a flowerpot. The tool for crushing is called a tapoli, a small wooden tool shaped like an hourglass, approximately 3 x 3 x 5 inches, that fits neatly into the palm of the hand. Crush the peppers by rhythmically rocking the tapoli over them in the opotoyuah.

At this point you may heard the laughter of small children who have been doing this since they were three and can't believe a grown white woman has never crushed peppers before. Eleven-year-old Sylvia shows how to crush the pepper. She is her mother's cooking assistant just as Bano is her butchering assistant. Julia, their mother, supervises from her little stool next to the stove, which is a squat, steel thing welded into an odd shape about the size of a hat box. From here she directs, orders, encourages, scolds, stirs, fries, and stokes the fire. Small children buzz around her like bees around clover. "You will always have kids around you," I said. "Thank you," she beamed, as if I had blessed her. (I was actually wondering how she could take so much chaos all day. I was wearing out after an hour and a half.) Julia pours half of a 15-pound bag of rice into a pot and cooks it. She sets it aside and covers it with a black 'polythene' shopping bag which shrinks and curls into a frightening shape when it hits the heat of the rice. The fried chicken parts are in a pan lid.

It is now time to make the sauce. Traditional Ghanaian food is a high fat, high cholesterol affair, as most visitors find out quickly. It's not quite polite, then, to stare dumbfounded as the cook pours all of the leftover frying oil along with the rest of the liter of oil into the stew pot. This is the base for the sauce. You next add the chopped onions and bouillon, allowing them to fry and crackle noisily as you contemplate an early death from heart failure. Dice the tomatoes. Fresh tomatoes, ripened in the sun like American tomatoes in August, are the basis for the most beautiful flavors in Ghanaian food. But they do not make the sauce look 'red' enough, so you must add 3 to 6 cans of tomato paste made from pale pink tomatoes raised in a British green house in mid-October. Ghanaian cooking has certain rules you simply cannot violate.

Sylvia does not need a can opener for the tomato paste. She perches on a tiny stool, nearly sitting on the ground, slips off her plastic flip-flops, and braces the can between her two big toes. Crouching intently, she attacks the 2 inch can using both hands and both feet. She takes a chef's knife, about 10 inches long, and jams it into the top of the can, just along the rim, the way a mechanical can opener does. She does this with precision, no blinking, wobbling, or worrying that she will slice open her foot, maybe hit an artery and bleed all over the place. At an age when most American kids are not allowed to touch a grapefruit spoon, she handles this knife like a Samurai. Add the chopped tomatoes and tomato paste to the sauce.

Now is the time when most Ghanaians use curry powder, heaping handfuls of it, but I hadn't brought any so Julie uses the 'Ghanaian mixed spices' I found at the grocery -- a combination of curry, ginger, anise and other things I've never heard of -- and pronounces them "good." (She measured them with her hand so I am guessing at the tablespoons.) Finally she piles in the chicken and allows everything to simmer for 30 minutes. While the sauce simmers Julia arranges the tables in the same sunny area that the kids are playing in, just in front of Joseph's house. She uses the same small tables that he and I use in working on the foundry waxes, each about 1 by 2 by 2 feet, for the dinner and lines them up in a row, with little work stools on either side.

Meanwhile, I am trying to make conversation with the men of the group, Joseph, Maxwell, Ajare, and Paul, as if I'm at some kind of dinner party in the U.S. "You have completely neglected them!" my little hostess voice calls out. This turns out to be a dumb idea. When Julia sees me standing with the men in the "men's area," the foundry work area, she assumes that I'd rather eat there (amid all the charcoal, clay, and dust we work in every day) instead of the sunny, clean area that she and the children have just prepared. So she starts moving all the tables and chairs into the charcoal dust. By the time I realize what's happening, things have gone too far to stop without extremely complicated explanations, so we just eat there. We all have such good intentions that we're trying much too hard to please each other. Everyone sits down to huge mounds of rice topped with a couple unidentifiable chicken parts on top and a coca-cola or beer. This is a Ghanaian feast. We all eat "plenty, plenty."


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