“Is this crocodile stew?” one of the guests asked, pointing to the saucy golden mélange in one of the two chafing dishes on my friend’s dining room table.  The other chafing dish contained mountains of steamy, clumpy white rice, done the way Africans like it.


I could not tell a lie.


“No, it’s chicken.  But crocodile does taste a lot like chicken!”


Last night my friend Barb Scott hosted a celebratory party at her home here in Taos for my newly published memoir-with-recipes, How to Cook a Crocodile.  Naturally, the guests, knowing I would be preparing an African-themed menu (“Rice and sauce,” I’d warned them.  “Don’t expect any fancy hors d’oeuvres or ‘first-world’ desserts!”), had their curiosity piqued:  Could she… would she … serve crocodile?


Well, no. 


What I did make – and in quantities sufficient to feed a small African village – was a chicken and gumbo (okra) stew with sweet potatoes in a peanut sauce.  The thirty-or-so guests, mostly writers who have only read about Africa but have never been, were pleasantly surprised.  “Africans eat like this? was the general response, as they went for second helpings.


Ah, yes.


One of the reasons I included recipes in my new book was to try, even in a bite-size way, to dispel some negative stereotypes among people who only know the bad news we Americans too often get about Africa. 


In her 2006 book, New News Out of Africa:  Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance, former PBS correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who now lives in South Africa, comments on this bad-news problem:  “On my annual trips home to the United States from South Africa, I am constantly amazed at how little of the good news – or what I prefer to call the ‘new news’ – about Africa is getting through to most Americans” (ix).  Her hope, she says, is that “a new generation” of journalists will rise up to help those beyond the continent’s borders to understand Africa “in a way that will help them to embrace it as the mother of us all” (142).


That “mother of us all,” who embraced me for a total of seven years, has a lot to teach us all.  And, she might even surprise a number of us with her good cooking.


As a writer I felt that all I could do, in an effort to provide an antidote to the bad news, was to bring some of the good news about Africa and its people to American readers in the form of my own true stories and recipes.  My reasoning was, if people can’t go to Africa to see – and taste – for themselves, then maybe some of my recipes could allow them to at least taste Africa at their own dining room tables.  Africa’s food might open their eyes.


Here is the recipe I made for last night’s party (which appears on page 320 of my book).  I hope you enjoy it as much as my guests did.  I do, also, have a recipe for Crocodile Stew in the book (but I’m not giving that one away :-). 


Chicken Stew with Okra


1 (14- to 15-ounce) can whole tomatoes in juice

¼ cup water

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 (3- to 3-1/2 pound) chicken, cut into serving pieces

¼ cup peanut oil

1 medium onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced and mashed to a paste with 1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cayenne (or more, to taste)

½ cup peanut butter, at room temp.

1-3/4 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth (14 fluid ounces)

1 pound sweet potato

1 (10-ounce) box frozen small okra, thawed

Accompaniment:  cooked white rice


Place tomatoes with their juice, water and tomato paste in a food processor and pulse until tomatoes are finely chopped.


Heat oil in a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat and brown the chicken, without crowding, in three or four batches, until golden on both sides.  Transfer with tongs to a 6- to 7-quart covered pot. 


Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the skillet, then add chopped onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, abut 2 to 3 minutes.


Add sautéed onion, chopped tomato mixture, garlic paste, and cayenne to chicken pieces.  Whisk together peanut butter and 1 cup broth in a bowl until smooth, then add to chicken with remaining broth, stirring to combine well.


Bring to a boil, uncovered, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally (to prevent sticking), until chicken is very tender, about 30 minutes.


Peel sweet potato and cut into 1-inch chunks.  Stir into stew along with okra, then simmer, covered, until potato is tender but not falling apart, about 12 to 15 minutes.


Makes 6 servings.