SWEET RELIEF Finally eating the right stuff.
The cassava flour was light beige, slightly more fine than corn meal. I'd bought it by mistake. Three pounds of it. I had no idea what to do with it. The package said it was from Nigeria so I went to ask an African friend, but she wasn't home. Walking back to my car I noticed an African store. "Why not?" I thought, and swung in there with the big smile on my face that happens for some reason when I'm facing a long shot. "Hi," I said to the woman at the cash register, her bright eyes and incredibly beautiful smile pouring out of lots of fabrics around her face. "Do you know what to do with this?"
"Yes!" She said. "You make fou fou."
"I know this is strange," I said, "But could you show me how to do it? I write a column for the paper about learning how to cook immigrant food."
She plugged it in a little portable stove and showed me right there how to make fou fou, a dish that's as popular in parts of Africa as hamburgers and fries are here. She put cassava flour and corn flour into a pot of water, heated it, and stirred vigorously for some time. I asked how she ended up here and she told me a heart-wrenching story that made me feel ashamed for every time in my life I'd thought I'd struggled. The contents in the pot balled up into a firm but malleable ball. She went in the back of the store and brought me a bowl of hot, curried beef soup. Like gnocci, polenta, or al dente noodles, you eat fou fou with sauce.
At home, my fou fou came out wrong. I went back to the store to ask why, but the lady had changed. She was as sullen now as she had been radiant before. She said she couldn't talk anymore. She was very adamant. She was sorry. I apologized, feeling quite atrocious for having put her in such a position, and left. Down the street, I pressed my friend Constance's number in the apartment directory. It rang and rang and then her daughter answered. Constance, she said, was gone for two weeks. "Do you know," I asked awkwardly, "how to cook fou fou?"
Forget the cassava flour, she told me in her apartment. You have to beat the cassava so hard your body hurts. And you really need this special wooden stirring stick, called a Nzete ya foufou (that's Lingala language), to do it right. If I was interested, she got her stick at a store called the Tropical Foods, in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The handle was long and thick. The end was not a spoon, but shaped like a giant almond. Start with masango, she said, which is finely ground corn flour. You can use any kind of flour eventually — rice, potato, semolina, cassava — for different flavors.
At home, my arms and shoulders were burning. Boiling corn lava was splattering uncontrollably and burning my hands. I put on oven mitts like the wimpy, beginner fou-fou maker that I was, and kept going. Stir, stir, stir! Thicker, thicker, THICKER! And it worked! We'll see how I do with the semolina. We'll see how I do with Roxbury. Wish me luck. Actually, as the first lady brought to my attention, I've had plenty of that. Wish me toughness. That I could use.