Whenever we went back to Ghana to visit, my mother’s favorite thing to say to me was a warning: “Don’t eat food from the street, because you’ll get sick.”
I’m not sure if she actually thought that saying this was going to deter me, her most gluttonous child, from eating food from street vendors. But she always uttered these words the moment we touched down in Accra, the capital.
And as soon as I could escape from her watchful gaze, my grandfather — who gleefully ignored my mother’s wishes — would take me to buy rice and beans (waakye) with goat-meat stew and a spicy pepper sauce called shito (pronounced SHEE-toe) from one of the dozens of cooks who made a living selling cheap food on the side of busy streets.
Like me, my grandfather had an unrepentant love of cheap food that had the potential to give you a communicable disease.
As my forehead beaded with sweat and my mouth burned because of the spicy shito, I felt happy and content in a way I hadn’t been since my family had moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where no one sold food from the back of their car or from a giant pot that was carefully nestled on an open pit.
Every year when we returned, the ritual would be for my grandfather to put me in his old Mercedes and drive us on bumpy, uneven streets to find his favorite “chop bars” (food stalls) in the city. Then he would buy me fried plantain (kelewele) with roasted peanuts or kenkey, a tamale-like dish made with fermented corn meal and cooked in banana leaves.
As we sat on a table outside, stuffing our faces with the contraband food, I always sat close to my grandfather so I could feel his body shake as he laughed whenever I would ask why food never tasted this good in America.
His favorite answer? “Everything tastes better when it’s forbidden.”
One of my favorite memories as a child is this: I’m sitting on my grandfather’s lap as he carefully balances himself on a decrepit stool on a street behind his house. We’re eating tatale — plantain fritters made with fresh pepper and ginger — while my mother sits at her dad‘s house less than 100 yards away. Sharing this secret culinary adventure with my grandfather, while knowing that we could get caught at any moment by my mother, did make the food taste better.
But as the years passed, I became more assimilated into American culture. I turned into a sullen preteen who refused to sit on rickety chairs and eat outside while exhaust fumes from old Peugeots spat smoke in our faces. I broke with tradition and insisted that my grandfather take me to restaurants to eat.
Because he was sweet and indulgent, he started taking me to places that served American fare like hamburgers and French fries. In the month that we were in Ghana, I didn’t eat any street food, and I made loud, annoyed sounds every time my grandfather tried to kiss me or mess with the fringed bangs that jutted several inches over my forehead due to half a can of hairspray.
Two weeks after my 13th birthday, and four months after we returned from our trip to Ghana, my grandfather died of a heart attack. As I sat crying in my room, it occurred to me that the last meal my grandfather and I had shared together was a chicken sandwich in a hotel restaurant. The idea that I would never again get to eat food with my grandfather that was purchased on the corners of dangerously busy intersections filled me with even more grief, and I cried until I fell asleep.
The following year, when we returned to Ghana, I tried to revive the tradition by getting one of my uncles to take me to get waakye or tatale from a street vendor. But none of them was willing to incur my mother’s wrath. Instead, I was taken to a restaurant that served Ghanaian food in a sanitized and colorless setting.
As I sat picking at the tatale on my plate, I wondered if my grandfather had ever known how much I used to enjoy our clandestine meals together and how much I loved the fact that we had a shared love of street food. And most important: Had he forgiven me for discarding a tradition that meant so much to him?
Naa Ako-Adjei is a Maryland-based writer, recipe developer, and classically trained chef who’s worked in many restaurants. Find more of her work on her blog.
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