Thursday, March 16, 2006

Taxi driver confessions

March 13

The rest of my stay in Houston was punctuated with tension as I tried to find time to finish the 1,800-word article on West African food that I was writing for NRN’s special section in the March 27 issue, for which we’re highlighting four lesser-known cuisines. Keep an eye out for it, I think you’ll like it.
But a person has to eat, so I gladly accepted an invitation from a representative of New Zealand lamb to dine at Hugo’s. I had some of Hugo’s shrimp last weekend, when I was in Houston for the rodeo etc. We went out to a ranch to sample Texas wine and were treated to lunch by Houstonian chefs. But I hadn’t actually been to Hugo’s, the restaurant, and was grateful for the opportunity to do so with Mr. New Zealand Lamb.
The next day, between sessions at the Research Chefs Association conference, I had a bowl of chili in my room for lunch as I worked on my story, but dinner found me in the Houston neighborhood of Rice Village, which is just known as The Village, where I had dinner at benjy’s in the Village, which is just known as benjy’s, with people from the Peanut Advisory Board and the Mushroom Council, and a local Houstonian who’s friends with the Peanut Advisory Board representative. I had interviewed benjy’s chef, Dylan Murray, awhile back when I was writing a feature about cherries. At the time he was making his own brandied cherries and using them in a souped-up Manhattan. I was planning to order that, but it wasn’t on the menu anymore, so I had a gingery cocktail instead, and we sampled, oh, pretty much all of the restaurant’s appetizers and a number of entrees that we passed around with reckless abandon (except for the woman from the Peanut Advisory Board, who doesn't do that). The whole menu’s at
The next day, after checking out of my room at The Inn at the Ballpark and then furiously typing away in the lobby, reference books strewn about me, until my stupid article was finished, I took the hotel’s free shuttle to Mama Ninfa’s for a self-congratulatory meal of down-home Mexican food.
Where do you suppose my driver was from but West Africa? Nigeria, to be precise. I wanted to talk to him about food, but he seemed more interested in politics. In fact, to him, saying he was from Nigeria was imprecise. He said he was from the western part of Nigeria, which, he said, shouldn’t be part of Nigeria at all.
Ah, Biafra, I thought. I asked him the name of the region he was from, and it turns out I was right. So we discussed light politics, light for Biafrans, and Mexican food during the five-minute drive to Mama Ninfa’s.
I loved the food there, but loved the crowd even more. At one table was apparently an extended, middle-class southern white family — one of the kids was wearing a Denver Broncos jersey, of all things. Next to them was a four-top of young gay men. Next to them was an elderly couple, black man and white woman, both with plenty of obvious battle scars from life’s tribulations. In fact, elderly’s not the right word; they were old.
A multigenerational six-top of Hispanics and Anglos was between them and my corner table, from which I watched the proceedings.
I called my new Biafran friend to pick me up and then, back in the hotel lobby, I crunched some numbers for the tables in the March 27 special food section until it was time to go to the airport.
My taxi driver to the airport was from Ethiopia. That’s not West Africa, but I still like the country’s food. So I sang the praises of injera, the spongy flat bread that its detractors say tastes like sour foam rubber, but that I really have developed a taste for.
But the conversation moved to politics again. My driver fled Ethiopia during the last years of the reign of Mengistu Haile Mariam, a nasty guy who had a tendency to kill intellectuals. “If I hadn’t left, I would be dead,” my driver said. And he described how he sneaked across the border into Sudan and then up to Egypt, where Christians at the U.S. Embassy managed to secure him, also a Christian, as many Ethiopians are, sponsorship to the United States. He has been here ever since, enjoying the spicy Mexican food that’s available in such abundance in Texas.
I asked him if he’d ever returned home. He said that although he would like to see his family there, his memories of Ethiopia are quite painful, and although Mengistu is long-gone, he doesn’t have particular confidence in the current administration either. I didn’t argue with him.
Several hours later I landed in Newark and got a taxi. My agitated driver was from Ghana, in West Africa. He had just gotten off the phone with his brother there and was nearly in a tizzy. He said he’s been married 27 years and now has a girlfriend.
“You must be wondering why, if I’m married 27 years, do I need a girlfriend,’ he said.
“Not at all,“ I said.
“But it’s very important!” he insisted, and went on to tell his tale of woe.
His wife gives him no compassion, he said. She doesn’t appreciate the long hours he works. She doesn’t even smile at him. His girlfriend — who, incidentally, is in Ghana, so they don’t get much of a chance to hang out together — is good company and gives him companionship.
I agreed that it was very good to have companionship and that it was unfortunate his wife didn’t give it to him. I asked if she at least cooks for him, and he said that, indeed, that was one thing she did for him.
I asked if she made Nkatenkwan, the peanut stew that some people say is Ghana’s national dish. And thus I tried to stear the conversation to food because, although I was sorry to hear that his oldest son, 22, didn’t have the good sense to wait until he finished college to join the National Guard and so now is in Afghanistan, that his oldest and second oldest son, 17, physically attacked him once and so the second son will be cut off once he turns 18, all I can really say about it is that it’s a shame, and that he can take comfort in the fact that his tactic of sending his 15-year-old son to live in Ghana seems to be straightening him out.
So I asked him more about Ghana. It turns out he’s a member of the Ga ethnic group, who live in Accra, the capital.
“Ah, so you eat shitor,” I said. That’s a chile sauce made from dried shrimp or fish that comes from Accra.
Indeed he does.
“Ghanaian food is the best of all African food,” he said. I’d like to think I cheered him up briefly, but I don’t think I did.

What I had at Hugo’s:
Ceviche of oysters, octopus, crab, shrimp and red snapper, as well as assorted gorditas. My main course was cabrito -- roasted, pulled goat served in a banana leaf with a side of nopales salad, guacamole, and habanero salsa. Very Yucatecan, from what I understand.
I drank a couple of margaritas and finished off the meal with premium tequila.

What I had at Mama Ninfa’s:
Two margaritas, a shrimp-stuffed, battered and fried jalapeno pepper with ranch dressing and then the Cuernevaca Combo, which is a chicken enchilada, a beef taco and a pork tamale. I finished it off with a whip-cream-topped Mexican coffee.

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