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Comment Cuisiner Son Mari a L’africaine: How-to Manual or Cautionary Tale

De tous les arts, l’art culinaire est celui qui nourrit le mieux son homme. – Pierre Dac Calixthe Beyala was born in Cameroon in 1961. She was very disturbed by the extreme poverty of her surroundings.

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She went to school in Douala, and she excelled in Mathematics. Calixthe Beyala traveled widely in Africa and Europe before settling in Paris, where she now lives with her daughter. Beyala has published prolifically, and her most recent novel, which came out earlier this year, is called La Plantation.Beyala’s novel Comment cuisiner son mari a l’africaine appeared in the year 2000, published by Albin Michel. It is similar in structure to Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, where the narrative is interrupted by the recipes which figure in the plot line. In her book, Beyala includes twenty-four of the recipes which her heroine Aissatou prepares to attract her neighbor and compatriot, Souleymane Bolobolo. In this way the book serves as a how-to manual, as its title suggests, on how to seduce, marry and keep a husband by cooking for him.The book begins with a prologue in the form of a legend where a woman arrives at the remote home of the recluse, Biloa. She announces that she has dreamed of him since she was a little girl, and that she has always known that they would marry. Biloa protests that he isn’t the one she is seeking, repeating “Ce n’est pas moi”, but the woman tempts him with food so Biloa admits his identity, “C’est peut-etre moi,” and takes the woman and the basket of food into his house. This, according to the legend, is how Biloa came to be a member of the society of men.This prologue does, indeed, prefigure the struggles of Aissatou, our novel’s heroine, who is a une dame-pipi28 caught between her identity as a Parisian and as an African. Fed up with romantic disappointments, she has chosen her neighbor Bolobolo to be her husband, though she hasn’t really even met him. Aissatou, who habitually eats only three grated carrots for her dinner, and always takes her tea without sugar in order to maintain her slim figure goes to a marabout for advice on how to seduce Bolobolo, and is provoked by the other women that are also waiting there for advice.According to them, Aissatou’s problem is that she is too skinny, and they lament the fact that “ces filles d’aujourd’hui ne savent meme pas cuisiner….. et ca se veut des femmes. “29 Aissatou takes this all to heart and armed with the recipes she learned from her mother and grandmother, she attacks her neighbor on the culinary front. She begins by bringing “beignets aux haricots rouges” to Bolobolo’s elderly mother who is suffering from a mental illness, and then continues tempting her neighbor with other exotic and spicy dishes.Aissatou is not unopposed, however, and deals with her rival, Bijou, by again eclipsing her performance in the kitchen. Eventually, Aissatou does seduce Bolobolo, and after his mother’s death, they do marry. But the story doesn’t end here. In an epilogue, the reader gets a glimpse of Aissatou and Bolobolo’s marriage twenty years later. Aissatou admits that she cooks to save her marriage, which is constantly imperiled by her husband’s infidelity.But, as her mother had told her, “There comes a time when one must prefer one’s marriage to one’s husband,” and so Aissatou sacrifices her pride and tends her relationship in the kitchen even though she realizes that her husband is an adulterous coward. The epilogue leaves a bitter taste at the end of such a delicious novel, but it keeps it honest, and doesn’t allow it to seem like the simple re-telling of the legend of Biloa. Whereas the themes of food and cooking often serve as expressions of nostalgia in other novels, in Beyala’s book, food is a language spoken by the different characters.Aissatou hears her mother’s voice prescribing certain dishes to mend a broken heart and other dishes to soothe herself and her family, for as she says, “Ventre plein n’a point de conscience. “30Her daughter, however, doesn’t initially have the same reaction when feeling low and instead she makes herself a bowl of ‘veritable soupe chinoise en sachet. ‘ This means that prior to her decision to seduce Bolobolo by cooking for him, the only cooking that Aissatou undertakes is nothing more than adding water to a dried powder and heating it up.The fact that the dried powder is identified as ‘real’ and ‘Chinese’ point to the fact that it is really neither. Aissatou is not concerned with her food’s quality or ethnicity, and cares only about its convenience and calorie count. In the course of the novel, Aissatou will give up her proclivity for these ‘inauthentic’ foods and begin to enjoy the foods of West Africa prescribed by her mother and other African characters. In Beyala’s book, African food is imbued with nearly magical qualities. Yes, it does put meat on the bones of those who enjoy it, but it also excites the senses, and inflames the passions of those who eat it.Moreover, the true connoisseurs and sages of African food are all women. Even when Aissatou goes to consult a marabout about her love life, it is the women who actually reveal her ‘diagnosis. ’ Maimouna, who is known as ‘la cheftaine-reine des cuisines” amongst the women at the marabout’s apartment says that Aissatou’s problem is that she is too thin, and that a certain spicy shrimp dish will always attract a man. Once Aissatou decides to begin cooking African food in order to achieve her goal of seducing Bolobolo, she is also able to influence other situations through her cooking.She decides to provoke a macho response in her passive male best friend and prepares a jus de gingembre, a drink formulated to send him into a frenzy of desire, just to see what will happen. When confronted by her angry rival, mademoiselle Bijou, she cooks a bouillie de mil for her to show that she is civilized and in control of the situation. Later, angered by Bijou’s assessment of her relationship with Bolobolo, she also takes revenge on him by putting a laxative in a favorite dish of his. And of course, Aissatou’s prime objective, clinched by her pepe-soupe aux poissons, is to arouse an appetite for passion within Bolobolo.Aissatou is speaking through her cooking, revealing her desires and fears, using food to express those things which she cannot explicitly state. In addition to its function as a way to provoke a physical response in the eater, food acts as an important cultural identifier in this novel. Through it we see the transformation of Aissatou from Parisian, back to African and from white, back to black. In other words, she effectuates a reverse migration, and food and cooking are the vehicle that she uses to bring herself back to her roots.Though this migration is easy to track, as she embraces her mother’s attitudes toward food, cooking and even marriage, it is more difficult to find Aissatou’s point of departure. In the beginning, Aissatou’s very racial and ethnic identity is called into question by Beyala’s own publisher’s blurb on the back of the novel itself. It describes her as « une Parisienne pure black en proie au tourments de l’amour. »31 But Aissatou claims that her self-imposed exile in France has made her forget the fact that she is black and that she doesn’t know when she became white.She admits that she has become white by imitating the thin, white Parisian women who are, as she is, completely caught up in the constant pursuit of beauty that is calculated to please men. She realizes that she has adopted a foreign mentality when it comes to her own body image and describes herself thus: “Moi, je suis une negresse blanche et la nourriture est un poison mortel pour la seduction. Je fais chanter mon corps en epluchant mes fesses, en rapant mes seins, convaincue qu’en martyrisant mon estomac, les divinites de la sensualite s’echapperont de mes pores. 32It is interesting to note the use of the kitchen techniques, which indicate how previously her only cooking projects served to keep her thin. She combines these techniques where she literally scrapes her body until it is thin with words like martyr and divinity, playing into the idea that the denial of food in order to remain thin is a somehow sacred task. This is a long-standing dialectic, where women align divinity and asceticism when that same asceticism really represents a societal imperative to conform to ideals of beauty.This statement is a declaration of success; she has martyred her body in order to be desirable, and therefore white. Though Aissatou admits that she diets constantly and obsessively, like other Parisian women, she also lies about what she eats, just for the sake of being cruel. When asked about her diet by an apparently jealous overweight woman, Aissatou joyfully tells her that she has, since her birth, eaten, “le coq au vin, arrose d’un bon beaujolais nouveau; les epaules d’agneau aux champignon noirs, le ris de veau a la creme fraiche et le couscous mouton a la tunisienne. 33Of course, it is completely untrue that she ever indulges in such rich food, and certainly doubtful that she ate these traditional French dishes as a child in Cameroon. It is worth noting the inclusion of Tunisian couscous with the list of very traditional French food. Couscous has entered the repertory of French foods and is a common dish, despite its colonial origins. Though one may argue about the ‘authenticity’ of a Parisian “couscous a la Tunisienne” and how it plays on French ideas of exoticism, it is undeniably a part of French cuisine.This is in contrast to sub-Saharan African cuisine, which is much more difficult to find in the capital. Though you can eat couscous in every arrondissement, you would be hard pressed to find many restaurants that serve food from West Africa or the provisions necessary to make them at home. With this book, Beyala presents a fictionalized cookbook, and if the intrepid home cook should retrace the steps of the heroine, it could even serve as a guide for shopping for the ingredients in the recipes.As mentioned previously, this book’s structure is similar to other popular novels where recipes for the dishes prepared by characters are included, like Frances Mayes’, Under the Tuscan Sun, and Laura Esquivel’s, Like Water for Chocolate. But in these novels, the recipes are most often a part of the narration itself and sometimes are even recounted by one character to another, mimicking the traditional way that cooking recipes are transmitted, orally, from one cook to another, most often mother to daughter.In Beyala’s book, which features African characters who themselves benefited from the oral tradition of passing down culinary knowledge, Beyala’s chooses to completely disconnect the recipes from the text, placing them on a separate page at the end of the chapter, and printing them like a traditional recipe that could be found in any cookbook or magazine article. Also, Beyala’s book differs from Mayes’ and Esquivel’s because their novels are both set in a time or place that is foreign to the reader.Esquivel’s novel is set during the Mexican revolution, and Mayes’ is set in Italy, and their settings automatically place them in a foreign and/or exotic locale. Despite this fact, the reader can easily recreate the recipes that their characters make, thereby exoticising themselves by their appropriation of the foreign meal. In contrast, Beyala’s book is both more accessible in its setting, and less accessible to the home cook. Comment cuisiner son mari a l’africaine is set in the present-day French capital and is completely recognizable in terms of its location and lifestyle.But re-creating the recipes that Aissatou makes is nearly impossible, because many of the ingredients listed in these recipes are not translated or even described. Though it would seem that this cookbook is intended for other immigrant women to use in re-creating dishes from West Africa, the lack of information about ingredients or possible substitutions runs counter to other cookbooks with similar propositions. Therefore, the status of the book as a manual is questionable, since it is not clear that one can even follow the recipes.Beyala’s book may just be using the recipes as other novels use illustrations. They are glimpses of a foreign culture provided by the author in order to pique the interest of the reader, just as an illustration does. Beyala’s location of the text in Paris is key in the novel, because it allows her to set up a cultural dialectic between France and Cameroon. Her heroine must navigate the multicultural space of the post-colonial capital to assess the compromises and concessions that white and black women make.Aissatou is caught between her Parisian reality where sexual value is based on how thin a woman is, and her memories of her mother’s advice which promoted the importance of domesticity and especially culinary satisfaction in the life of a couple. “Un homme qui vous fait ressentir de telles emotions….. merite le paradis,”34 she would say as she seasoned a dish to please her man. Aissatou imagines the questions that her mother would have asked her if her daughter had come to her after a failed love affair.Her mother would have asked if first, she had satisfied him sexually, second, if she had kept the house well, and third if she had prepared nice dishes for him. As Aissatou begins cooking savory dishes for herself her thin figure fills in with more womanly curves, eliciting pitying looks from some who think that she has let herself go, and approval from others. Race, beauty, food and sex are all locked into an uneasy correlation that she cannot accept. She gives up on the idea of maintaining a French, i. e. thin, ideal of beauty and trades it for the African ideal of sensual pleasure of food as a means to attract men.Interestingly, she does not trade her French beauty regimen for an African one. She even cites the methods that she is unwilling to follow and decides that braiding her hair, massaging herself with shea butter and pretending to be fragile is not for her: “Rien qu’a y penser, je m’epuise comme si c’etait deja a l’ouvrage. ”35 This return to her roots is unquestionably problematical for Aissatou. She is torn between the two worlds constantly. For example, when she sees Bolobolo leaving the apartment building, she is struck by her sudden ‘African’ reaction: “Si j’etais sa femme, je serais restee a la maison a l’attendre. But just as quickly she asks herself, “Mais pourquoi dans le partage des roles les femmes doivent-elles garder le foyer, cuisiner, allumer les lampes…. jusqu’a ce que mort s’ensuive? ”36This is the same reaction that she has when she asks herself if she is capable of using African methods of seduction. Aissatou’s onerous task is to reconcile her African mother’s advice on how to seduce and hold on to a man with her French post-feminist questions about that role. She knows that her mother is right, and that she will be able to seduce this African man by appealing to his sensual desires and African identity.So, she picks at Bolobolo’s sensibilities as an African man and critiques him for doing the marketing himself, saying: “Vous vous etes finalement bien adapte a l’Occident qui voudrait que l’homme soit une femme et l’inverse. ”37In this way, she calls attention to the cultural difference in the French and African views on the traditional division of labor and highlights the fact that she and Bolobolo share a common culture, though they may be forced to adapt to French practices.Aissatou also seeks to call attention to their shared culture when she uses Bolobolo’s mother’s condition as an excuse to get involved, which she does with ulterior motives: “J’ai l’impression que mon discours est en decalage, espace et temps. Je sais que j’ai eu une reaction africaine ou tout le monde se mele des casseroles etrangeres. “38 This statement is telling because it shows that Aissatou knows that she is acting in bad faith.She knows that she has rejected certain aspects of African seduction and that she is not being honest about her intentions, but she nevertheless goes forward with her culinary seduction of Bolobolo and his mother. When Aissatou brings the beignets to Bolobolo’s mother he mentions that she mustn’t have anything better to do if she is cooking for others, but Aissatou reminds him: “Oui, parce que dans ce pays il faut etre vieux ou au chomage pour se rendre compte qu’il est important que l’on s’occupe des autres,” again setting herself apart from the French and reminding him that they are compatriots.She finally gains access to his house with this plate of food. Once inside, she professes that she loves to cook and he answers that he loves to do dishes, seeming indicating that they are ideally suited for each other, but also indicating that he may be an African man, but he has adapted to a non-African setting. And this is the prime reason that Aissatou cooks, and especially why she cooks African food, to spark Bolobolo’s passion for her. Aissatou cooks constantly, and she cooks the most exotic dishes and uses ingredients that she must search for in all the African boutiques of the capital.Her apartment building is infused with the heady aromas of African cuisine, which causes different reactions among her French neighbors. The concierge battles the smells of cooking with the Airwick spray, but the old lady who lives on the first floor creeps up the steps to hover on the landing while Aissatou is cooking. Aissatou’s cooking, because it is foreign and strange smelling, makes her black in the eyes of the racist concierge and Bolobolo’s metisse girlfriend, Bijou.Aissatou decides to invite Bolobolo and his mother to dinner at her apartment, where she intends to win him over with her prowess in the kitchen, but when she goes downstairs to invite him, another woman is in the apartment with him. Unfazed, she announces that she would be happy to bring dinner down to them to enjoy together. The dinner is a success with Bolobolo but his girlfriend, a lovely metissse named Bijou, doesn’t enjoy herself at all: “Je n’ai jamais aime la cuisine africaine…… Parait qu’ils mangent des singes, ces Negres! ” To which Aissatou responds: “Du serpent boa egalement…….C’est excellent, n’est-ce pas”39Again, the food has served to bring together the Africans and place them in opposition to a separate group because they share a taste for a dish that others find objectionable. Aissatou even goes further in invoking their taste for boa constrictor, because she knows that Bijou will be disgusted by this prospect. Since Bijou is mulatto and not just French, Aissatou and Bolobolo’s shared food preference places emphasis on the fact that they are from the same country in Africa and therefore share a distinct culture, and should not be lumped in with other ‘people of color. But Aissatou’s main goal for her fabulous dinner is achieved after Bijou’s departure when Bolobolo starts kissing and caressing Aissatou while she is cleaning up the kitchen. This woman, who previously denied herself any sensual pleasure at all from food, is altered by her dinner with Bolobolo. With her seduction of Bolobolo she acquires a new language, where food metaphors dominate the description of sex and the body. Nicki Hitchcott sees the narrator’s almost over the top references to food to be a demonstration of cliches on which Western advertising depends. 0But at the same time, this dinner is evocative of the traditional polygamous African family dynamic, where the wife who cooks for the husband is the one who sleeps with him that night. Although Aissatou must still deal with her more powerful rival, Bolobolo’s mother, she is eventually successful in seducing and keeping him with her culinary talents. By the end of the novel, Aissatou’s transformation is complete. She does experience uneasiness when it comes to her own motives and doubts regarding her role in what Hitchcott calls ‘postnational’ France, but Aissatou settles on using cooking in order to maintain her relationships.She has gone from being a self-described white woman who viewed food as a ‘fatal poison’ in the matter of seduction, to using food as a tool to accomplish her goal of seducing Bolobolo. She now sees food as a positive, unifying force: “La nourriture est synonyme de la vie. Aujourd’hui elle constitue une unite plus homogene que la justice. Elle est peut-etre l’unique source de paix et de reconciliation entre les hommes. »41And in this novel, cooking can also reflect passion, love, comfort, anger and civility.Food and Aissatou’s deft manipulation of people through her cooking give her power that she doesn’t have otherwise in French society. As Bolobolo’s mother says in the novel, cooking is indeed becoming a rare skill especially in large capital cities like Paris because women are increasingly working outside the home, and don’t have the time or even talent to cook, since they never really learned the skills from their mothers. Even though France may be a center for haute cuisine technique, it suffers the same problems of all modern countries where there has been a redistribution of domestic tasks from inside to outside the home.Women don’t cook as much as they used to, and more and more people eat outside the home. Therefore, we must ask ourselves for whom the didactic element of this book is intended. As stated above, it is not descriptive enough to satisfy a food adventurer in search of the exotic and by virtue of the fact that it is written and published in France, it is clearly not intended to be used by African women. Perhaps the reader who would find Beyala’s recipes to be the most accessible are women like herself, immigrant women who might need to be tempted back to the kitchen.When this is considered along with Beyala’s problematical portrayal of marriage, the book appears as an invitation to take up cooking, not as a way to experience the exotic, but as a way to reject the Western ideal of beauty and to appropriate some power within the community. Aissatou returned to this aspect of her African heritage, because she had a specific goal in mind and felt that this would allow her to achieve it. She questions herself, her methods and her motives all along the way, and ultimately accepts the limitations of “un bon pepe-soupe” and her husband’s monogamy.Just as she advises her neighbor whose husband has begun to stray from the conjugal bed, she doesn’t reproach Bolobolo and accepts his infidelity, knowing that eventually, he will return to her. She rejected the literal and figurative hunger that she experienced as a ‘negresse blanche” and chose the culinary tools that allow her to make her husband happy, even though she knows that he will sometimes hurt her. Beyala’s heroine fully understands the limitations that she faces in a Paris, and negotiates an identity through her cooking that she can live with.