When, in the mid-‘90s, my Peace Corps recruiter in New York learned I wanted to trade in my ten-year-old culinary career for a two-year stint teaching community health in Africa, he looked at me long and hard.  “You won’t be able to cook or eat the same way, Bonnie,” he said.  The food will be very … ahh … different.”

 

No problemmo, I thought at the time, waving the warning away.  “With enough onions and garlic, I can make anything taste good,” I told him.

 

What I didn’t consider then, though, was the fridge factor.  Such a simple, common, everyday appliance.  Every kitchen I’d ever known had had one.  A refrigerator – like a sink, stove, and oven – is what makes a kitchen a kitchen, after all.  Why, a refrigerator is part of the very definition of a kitchen.  At least that’s what I used to think.

 

My Peace Corps reality was that my small, cinderblock home at my post in Lastoursville, Gabon, didn’t have a fridge.  And, even if there had been any refrigerators for sale in town, I wouldn’t have had enough money to buy one.

 

No question about it, living without a fridge became a challenge.  It certainly put a crimp in my impulse to be hospitable.  When hungry young PCVs dropped by at mealtime, as they usually did — empty-handed and expecting to be fed a free, real meal — I could not open a refrigerator door and perform instantaneous culinary magic, like pulling rabbits from a hat.  Instead, all I could offer them was homemade soup, still simmering on the stove, and freshly baked bread.

 

The trick of living without a fridge, I discovered in time, was to shop for fresh foods daily and cook only as much as I needed that day, the culinary equivalent of carpe diem:  Cook for Today.  For me, this meant walking every morning, after giving my health lecture at the hospital, the mile down hill from my house to the open-air marché in town to see what the women vendors there had to offer.

 

Then every day, after enjoying long visits with my African women friends at the marché, as I walked in the late-morning hundred-degree heat up the steep hill to my home, I began to see more and more clearly that not having a fridge was far from the hardship I’d at first imagined.  In fact, it was a blessing, which, like so many of life’s blessings, had arrived disguised.

 

When I arrived home, sweaty but happy, I would empty my net bag on the kitchen counter and proceed to create my “Soup du Jour” – a hearty mélange of familiar and unfamiliar ingredients.  Like life in Lastoursville in general, my soup each day was different from the one the day before.  But the procedure I followed in making it was, a lot like me, pretty predictable:  First, I chopped onions and garlic…

 

[The above (abbreviated) story and the simple, PCV-style recipes that follow are excerpted from How to Cook a Crocodile: A Memoir with Recipes, “Sans Frigo” chapter.]

 

Lentil and Couscous Soup

3 tablespoons oil

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

1 large clove garlic, minced

2 cups chicken stock (or 2 cups water with chicken bouillon cube)

1 small piment (fresh hot pepper), minced

1 can whole, peeled tomatoes, chopped

1 can cooked lentils

1 cup cooked (or ½ cup uncooked) couscous

1 bunch gumbo leaves (optional), cut in chiffonade

 

Saute onion and garlic in oil until soft.  Add chicken stock, piment, tomatoes, lentils, and couscous and cook until married, about 15 to 20 minutes.  Add (optional) gumbo leaves a few minutes before serving.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Makes about 4 servings.

 

Gabonese Gumbo Soup

3 tablespoons oil

½ onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 piment (fresh hot pepper), minced

6 gumbo (okra), trimmed and sliced into coins

1 chicken bouillon cube

2-1/2 cups water

½ cup cooked rice

½ cup cooked lentils

½ teaspoon ground gumbo, for flavor and thickening (optional)

6 cherry tomatoes, quartered

 

Saute onion and garlic in oil until soft.  Add piment, gumbo, water and bouillon cube and cook until gumbo is soft.  Add remaining ingredients and cook 10 to 15 more minutes to marry flavors.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Makes about 2 servings.

 

Potato-Corn Chowder

3 tablespoons oil

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ piment (fresh hot pepper), minced

2-1/2 cups water (or chicken stock)

1 chicken bouillon cube (if using water)

2 small potatoes, peeled and diced

1 ear fresh corn kernels (or about 1 cup frozen)

¼ teaspoon dried thyme

2 tablespoons NIDO (or any powdered milk)

2 tablespoons Moussline (or any brand of potato flakes)

1 tablespoon  minced fresh parsley

 

Saute onion, garlic, and piment in oil until soft.  Add 2 cups chicken stock (or water and bouillon cube), potatoes, corn and thyme.  Cook 10 to15 minutes.  Add NIDO, Moussline, and ½ cup water (or stock), and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes.  Add parsley, salt and pepper.  Thin with more water if desired.  Makes about 2 servings.

 

Easy Eggplant Soup

2 cups water (or chicken stock)

1 chicken bouillon cube (if using water)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup Moussline (or any brand of potato flakes)

2-3 small eggplants, roasted, peeled, and chopped

 

Combine all and cook until thickened.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Makes about 2 servings.