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Review of How to Cook a Crocodile: a memoir with recipes

Posted May 18, 2012 by sonia in
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If you haven’t met Bonnie yet, you should know this: Bonnie takes work very seriously and takes pride in her work. So, when Bonnie told me she wrote a book about her Peace Corps experience in Gabon, I knew it wasn’t going to be some ho-hum, stream-of-consciousness dribble riddled with dangling modifiers. She was going to render a labor of love. In her forward, Bonnie mentions that Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa and M.L.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf provided inspiration for this memoir. Having read Bonnie’s book, I can affirm that she has done another “toughest job [she’ll] ever love” by writing this book. It is a writer’s task to show others the outside and often insides of an experience. Bonnie fulfills her responsibility as a writer by showing the range of emotions when one is asked to represent one’s country, work with the host country where volunteers are assigned and teach fellow Americans about that experience.

How do you explain what you are experiencing in Peace Corps and other similar experiences? Share the amazing feeling that there are people you can understand even though you have zero languages in common. Hope that sparks of change will come and spread, like a controlled burn of tall grass. Explain the fear of being alone in a place you can’t always figure out. Relay the burden of intermittent discomfort-a roach on your toothbrush, a burn on your leg, a rash you’ve never seen before. Show the dance the kids and you do whenever you see each other. Describe the heat absent the whirring ease of electricity.  Convey (or keep to yourself) how your eyes become wide open and how you process emotional pain from observing a new crop of sad things in society. Bonnie takes the time to explain all of these feelings. Cooking a crocodile seems daunting and far-fetched, just like Bonnie’s and over two hundred thousand others’ decision to serve in Peace Corps. But she did both.

In order for you to understand more about Bonnie and How to Cook a Crocodile, let me tell you how and when we met. Perhaps like many others, I knew of Bonnie before I met her in 1999. This was immediately after the time frame of her memoir. I was in Ségou, Mali, in the sunset of my Peace Corps Mali experience. Without easy access to phones, let alone cell phones, capricious mail delivery and sometimes isolated posts, the whole country, including us volunteers, spent a great deal of time updating one another. Some may say gossiping, but it seemed borne of necessity. That’s how we learned about how to request free seeds from the U.S., find where to buy little bags of homemade yogurt or nono kumu from a neighbor and scout the commerçantselling waxi cotton fabric at fair prices with very little bargaining to foreigners and new toubabus, or white people. 
 The grapevine informed me that a woman of a certain age had just moved in fifteen minutes’ bike distance from the hostel, or stage house. She had just completed a tour of Peace Corps Gabon, hails from New York and likes Africa so much that she would leave a place where they flew in French chefs to head up real restaurants to come to Ségou (and not even Bamako, added the grapevine). What did they TELL her? I wondered? Someone must have talked up Mali’s second largest city at the time, a sprawling town of 100,000 people really, to bring her here. Well, get this: she’s not alone. Yeah, she has a , a Malian guy, who is with her. Oh, that makes sense. Hmm, she’s older? And rolled in after Peace Corps with a Malian on her own bidding, not extending her Peace Corps service? I need to see this for myself.
After biking to Bonnie’s house one afternoon, I began recording with my mental video cam. The first thing I noticed about meeting Bonnie, besides her chirpy voice and sinewy arms that I guessed (rightly) came from gardening, was her floor. Her spotless floor in such a dusty place. “Neurotic with high standards. Channels them well.” “Thrives in comfort and beauty and beauty. Creative, doesn’t relax much,” I tacked on, while also eyeballing some fabric covering that looks hand-stitched. “I want you to meet Youssef, who has told me so many wonderful things about Segou.” “Optimistic, courageous, instinctively trusting,” my mind assessed. The perceptive part of my personality was intaking data like a mobile forensic lab.
I remember books and magazines in Bonnie’s home, specifically Nowhere Childand Gourmet magazine. I noticed Nowhere Child, since Bonnie penned it herself. Eager to ask about this, I sensed a sad complicated story beyond even the words said. Someone kidnapped her child? “Who does that? How did she get trough that?” I wondered if it was easier to leave the world that did that to you, compared to mine, which seemed only to hold promise. And then, that beacon of light: Gourmetmagazine. I learned of Bonnie’s connections and guessed at how fast-paced and glamorous her life must have been. But New Yorkers seemed the complete opposite of Bonnie. Maybe that made it easier to find her “people” somewhere else in the world instead of the tribe she was born into.
Bonnie and I chatted some more, and then I continued to stop by when I could. Heck, I was just trying to figure out this chica, who, by now, could have been drinking free margaritas at ubiquitous ladies’ nites, going to beaches with swimming advisories instead of to slow-moving rivers with schistosomiasis, watching movies the day they come out with real fake buttery popcorn, reconnecting with friends and family, going to grad school and living mosquito-free, was checking out (yet another) place in Africa she has never seen before on her own dime. Not only that, she was asking about women’s craft groups—super-cool—and was growing enough basil (she says “bah-sil”) to start a pesto business but gave away this green gold and was never, ever sitting down when I paid surprise visits (quite common as there were no phones at our places.) 
At the time, I don’t think I really understood what Bonnie had set out to accomplish, especially in Mali. Looking back, she must have had to make some decisions in order to leave New York and to see the various ways people lived. Bonnie, I imagine, sometimes had to turn away from her tribe-presumably white expatriates-to stay true to her adopted global tribe, other sweet singular people in the world trying to uphold a standard of discovery, creative energy, perseverance and humility. 
Writers do seem to need to shape parts of the world through their eyes and hands to pen and paper. We readers are rewarded with a memoir, 41 recipes and the knowledge of how Bonnie did her utmost to change others’ lives as well as her own. 
Enjoy these recipes from Bonnie’s book:
Porcupine Meatballs
1-1/2  pounds ground sirloin beef
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
1 large egg
½  teaspoon salt, or to taste
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup uncooked long-grain white rice
½ cup finely chopped onion
1 large clove garlic, minced
¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley (optional)
1 quart tomato juice (or V8)
 

Combine all ingredients (except juice).  Roll into 2-inch diameter meatballs.  Place in heavy pot or pressure cooker.  Cover with tomato juice or V8.  Cover pot and simmer 45 minutes (or cook 10 minutes in pressure cooker).  Correct seasoning and serve.  Makes about 4 servings.   

Easy, Low-Fat Risotto
(adapted from Barbara Kafka’s Microwave Gourmet Healthstyle Cookbook)
½ cup finely chopped onion
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup Arborio (Italian short-grain) rice
3 cups homemade chicken stock
       or canned chicken broth
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh herbs (optional)
In a 3-quart microwaveable casserole, combine the chopped onion and butter.  Cover loosely and cook on high 2 to 3 minutes, until the onions are tender.  Add rice and stir well.
Stir in broth.  Cook, uncovered, for 9 minutes.  Stir and cook for 9 to 11 minutes more, or until rice is al dente.  Remove from oven.  Add cheese and herbs, if desired. 
Cover with a kitchen towel and let stand for 5 minutes, or until rice absorbs excess liquid.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Serves 4 as a first course, 6 as a side dish.
For more recipes and many excerpts from Crocodile memoir: http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/cooking-crocodiles/

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sonia