In 2001, over the course of the summer, my godmother taught me to cook. I’d just graduated phi beta kappa from Yale. My mother was thrilled. My godmother, less. My education, however prestigious, was patently incomplete. I could write in Yoruba, translate Latin, pick a horse hoof, play piano, spot a Botticelli—but, for shame, I couldn’t cook. The solution was simple: I would go to Ghana for a culinary apprenticeship, living in my godmother’s house while studying in her kitchen.
My godmother, like my mother, is an extraordinary cook. One of those rare human beings who, in the words of a friend, “seem to put air” into food. I’d long since marvelled at the magic she produced out of Ghana’s culinary canon, transforming into gourmet meals the fare of farmers and fishermen. There was her famously velvety garden-egg soup—an eggplant dish like caponata; her gingery “red-red”, a tomato-based stew of onions and black-eyed peas; her palava sauce, a delicious mix of leafy greens and fresh smoked fish; but above all there was her groundnut soup, that creamy dream of a stew.
Groundnut soup is held to be a national dish of Ghana, though our Senegalese neighbours claim the same of mafé, an identical stew. The titular groundnuts—what Americans call peanuts—are roasted and ground into butter, then blended with the standard west African tomato-and-onion base. It was an ambitious dish with which to start my course in domestication. But my godmother, unlike my mother, is a wonderful teacher.
If I’d come to Accra an ignorant cook, I was an educated eater, raised on my mother’s dazzling brand of international cuisine. My mother is the type of cook who never needs a recipe, whose units of measurement are “handful”, “pinch”, and “until it just tastes right”. But between her roles as single mother, doctor and gourmet chef, she simply never had the chance to give lessons. To study under my godmother was another thing entirely, as much to do with being in Ghana as with being instructed. For the groundnut soup we used ripe tomatoes plucked from her lush garden. We bought peanuts from the women who harvested them, grinding them ourselves. We knew the names of the market vendors and chatted with each about what was in season, buying enough to last for the week. In short, we gave food time. The onions in Ghana, small and red, were incredible to begin with; my godmother’s painstakingly slow sweating method turned them into candy. Blended with fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers, ginger and tomato, the onions gave the groundnut soup a sweetly smoky taste. We let the pot simmer, for eternity it seemed, until oil from the peanut butter rose to the top, breaking out in little puddles like oil spills on a lake.
I must have mastered 30 different dishes that one summer. My godmother, having lived across Europe and Africa, cooked everything—and everything well. We made chana masala, Yorkshire pudding, marmalade, ratatouille. But my favourite dish, which became my best, is still her groundnut soup. Learning to cook Ghana’s national dish was an object lesson in Ghanaian living: in seasons, farming, respect for nature, family values, patience.
Ten years later when I moved to Rome I’d re-encounter those lessons, discovering a culinary culture very similar to Ghana’s. In Italy people still shop at markets, know their vendors, grow their herbs. And whenever I entertain in Rome I make my favourite soup.
The tradition began in September 2012 when a friend and I hosted dinner. As happens on weeknights only in Rome, our guest list numbered 40. I went to Piazza Vittorio to buy the rice and pepper. My friend ground the pounds of peanuts at home. We picked tomatoes from the terrace. The soup was a success; it has become an annual tradition. Every autumn I make a pot, and tell my friends to bring friends. Patiently waiting for the oil to surface, as if the peanut butter were releasing its ghost, I think about my education in my godmother’s kitchen. To cook for others is not, as I thought when I went to her that summer, an exercise in anachronism, in notions of female duty. To cook is to connect. With nature, with land, with history, with culture. With people. This was my godmother’s lesson—indeed, her lasting gift—to me.