From Wielding a Chef's Knife to Swinging a Machete
"How to Cook a Crocodile": a memoir with recipes
Bonnie Lee Black's long and productive careers can be traced back, from respected writer, to New York caterer, to Peace Corps volunteer, to creative writing instructor at UNM-TaosÔÇªto acclaimed writer, again. Her first memoir, Somewhere Child (Viking Press, 1981), documented the loss of her daughter and Black's search for her in Zimbabwe and the United States. The book also played an important role in the creation of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Published on LatinoLA: January 11, 2011
How to Cook a Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers, 2010), written more than twenty five years later, delves into a different aspect of Black's life: her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon. This back-to-Africa memoir contains recipes, delicious and easy to follow (try her green papaya pie!) and documents her life in Lastoursville, the small town where she taught nutrition and healthy cooking to the local women and children, often helped by her handmade hand puppet theater troupe. Black's unique ability to connect with people at a profound and human level is clearly seen in her stories about friendship ("Vanilla Sister," "Henriette") and love ("Youssef").
Each chapter is like a savory treat, a well-prepared and beautifully presented dish of Black's adventures and misadventures at her post. In a revealing chapter, appropriately entitled "Sans Frigo," the reader learns about the importance of a household item we tend to take for granted: "I soon began to realize that for most people in the 'developing' world, a refrigerator is a luxury item not even near the top of their wish list," (page 53).
There are excerpts from her journal that describe funny, interesting and sometimes terrifying events: "That's it, I'm dead. The house was just struck by lightning," (page 107). Other chapters are devoted to her fellow Peace Corps members, like "Motorcycle Mamma of Mana-Mana," about a volunteer who taught villagers to built fish ponds. All the chapters are spiced with quotes from Albert Schweitzer, Isak Dinesen and M.F.K. Fisher.
Black shares her own, innovative methods to teach people nutrition and health , which range from talks about the importance of grainy, nutrition-rich bread ("Pain Americain") to a puppet show where Chantal Chanson and Mick Robe, her puppets, gently instilled in kids the importance of keeping their hands clean.
The book also contains Black's theories about life, "I think life is a very difficult, a constant struggle--not a struggle to be 'happy' but a struggle to stay on your own footpath and keep hiking," (page 247).
That sums up Black's philosophy. This brilliant memoir is a testimony to a life spent hiking and helping others find their own path.
How to Cook a Crocodile includes beautiful pictures taken in Gabon--women carrying machetes, her own home, and the outstanding "Boys in pirogues" that graces the front cover.
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Teresa Dovalpage is the author of the English-language novel novels A Girl like Che Guevara (Soho Press, 2004) and Habanera, A Portrait of a Cuban Family (Floricanto Press, 2010). She has also written and published three Spanish language novels.
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