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A dish fit for Christmas

Petina Gappah finds that food, like history, never stands still

Petina Gappah | November/December 2013

No celebration in Zimbabwe is complete without rice and chicken. It is the favoured dish at weddings, at graduations, at birthday parties and at Christmas. For the over-35s, who were born when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia, rice and chicken is a dish with a particular resonance. At Christmas last year, Tryson, my regular cab-driver when I visit Harare, told me how disheartened he was that his children would never appreciate Christmas in the same way as he and his brothers. 

"You see," he said, "they eat rice and chicken almost every day now." 

Tryson, like me, is an over-35. Racial segregation and inadequate education for black people in Rhodesia defined the type of employment our parents could get: they tended to work in low-paid jobs. Segregation also meant that we lived in the townships of Salisbury (now Harare), in matchbox houses with gardens too miniscule to run around in after school. In the daytime, we played instead on the unpaved streets outside our homes, leaping to the side when cars came our way. In the evening, we chased flying ants under the towering street lamps while our parents inside fiddled with their radio sets. 

As for all people who have very little, food had a symbolic quality. It was not just fuel; it was a treat, a reward for good behaviour, for coming first in class. In the category of very top treats were sweets, ice-cream, Coca-Cola, Fanta and Cherry Plum, a sweet purple drink that seems to be unknown outside Zimbabwe. But the best, and most predictable, treat was rice and chicken. 

It was the same out in the villages, where the rice came straight from the field, dried, pounded and winnowed to blow out the chaff. When my father drove us to his village in Gutu in 1977 to show his mother and sisters his brand-new Peugeot 404, they ululated and danced around the bonnet. They recited from memory our totem poem—the poem that identified our family as belonging to one blood—and they called him by his totem names, the names he had inherited from his ancestors and had passed down to all his children.

"Maita Shoko!" they whooped. "Zvaitwa Mukanya, Vhudzijena, Makwiramiti! Modzoka makasunika. Vambire!" And they served rice and chicken. But this was an occasion that called for all the grandeur that their home afforded. Mere chicken was not enough to express the magnitude of my father's accomplishment, the pride that his mother and sisters felt in him. They slaughtered the rooster.

My family left the township in 1980, just after Zimbabwe became independent. We moved to a suburb with tarred roads and a public swimming pool. We had a fridge full of good things to eat. And at Christmas, we ate rice and chicken. 

My mother's rice was special. In most families, it would be fluffy, white, plain; but my mother made peanut-butter rice. She boiled the rice, making sure to add an extra cup of water along with the seasoning so that it would be slightly stodgy. She mixed through dollops of peanut butter until the whole thing was brown and firm. Then she dished out round scoops like ice-cream. The chicken she cut into pieces and roasted in the oven. She made an onion and tomato gravy, and completed the meal with a coleslaw salad. 

She then packed it all up in a picnic basket, added a Christmas cake and scones, and put four large bottles of Fanta, Coke and Cherry Plum in the cooler box. My father loaded everything into the Peugeot and we drove out to explore Zimbabwe. 

It was always somewhere different: Rusape or Mutoko, Masvingo or Kwekwe. We ate our rice and chicken at lay-bys with round tables and half-moon benches, my mother pressing more and more food on us. In the car on the way back, my brothers, sisters and I counted telegraph poles. 

I live now with my nine-year-old son, Kush, close to the Jura mountains on the Swiss-French border. Peanut-butter rice and roast chicken is still my favourite dish. But it's not one that I can share with Kush. Not because, like my taxi-driver's children, he doesn't appreciate the Christmases of old. It is for a more prosaic reason. Kush is allergic to peanuts.

Pictured The author (seated), with her baby brother and her three other siblings, in Zimbabwe, 1984. On the menu? Rice and chicken

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