How to Cook a Crocodile: A Memoir with Recipes
(Peace Corps memoir)
by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98)
Peace Corps Writers
Review by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968)
I BEGAN How To Cook A Crocodile, an account of Bonnie Lee Black’s service as a Peace Corps health and nutrition volunteer in Gabon, expecting a literary and culinary homage to one of her heroes, and mine, the elegant essayist and early foodie M.F.K. Fisher, whose 1942 How To Cook A Wolf offered a bracing mixture of recipes promising appetizing meals despite the constraints of wartime rationing, peppered with commonsense wisdom for living a full and satisfying life. Black’s book turned out to be all of this, and much more.
Fisher’s approach to food and life is best encapsulated by her statement, as she wrote in Wolf,“Since we must eat to live, we might as well do it with grace and gusto.” Black makes this the guiding principle of her two-year posting in the provincial town of Lastoursville. Not content simply to cook with grace and gusto, she also approaches her work and personal life in the same spirit. She demonstrates great grace while coping with horrific burns from a freak kitchen accident, a calamity that might have persuaded a less strong-willed volunteer to request home leave. She teaches health, nutrition and culinary arts to Gabonese women and children, falls in love with one of the kindest and most patient men in the world, instructs fellow volunteers how to concoct delicious meals out of some of the least promising ingredients in the world, and does it all with splendid gusto and an admirable grace.
Black was no culinary neophyte when she arrived in Gabon. She had left behind a career as a successful caterer in New York City that had taught her how to cook under difficult conditions, tinker with recipes, and please demanding customers. This meant that her goal of duplicating recipes lifted from the magazine Gourmetin Gabon was somewhat less of a challenge for her than for most volunteers. Still, she faced obstacles that might have defeated a less determined and creative chef. She was ten hours by train from Gabon’s capital, Libreville, where the hypermarches are filled with pricey foodstuffs and imported produce. Instead, she had to rely on Lebanese merchants whose tins and boxes cost more than they would have at a Manhattan Gristede’s, and on whatever turned up the market stalls in a nation where less than one percent of the land was under cultivation.
She had no refrigerator, and daytime temperatures frequently rose to 100 degrees, making it impossible to stock up on perishables or keep leftovers, forcing her to shop daily and never make more than she could consume in a day. Despite constraints like these — ones far more trying than those confronting an American housewife during World War II — she not only succeeded in turning out back-country Gabonese versions of Gourmet’s recipes, such as Pineapple Papaya Salsa, Coconut-Lemongrass Rice, and Mexican Spiced Sweet Bread, she also taught her fellow volunteers how to make them, and somehow managed to bake the first multi-tiered western-style wedding cake in Lastoursville history.
I am in awe. I once traveled by train along the Oogue River into the Gabonese interior, getting as far as Boue, a few hours west of Lastoursville, and I can attest that Black’s description of the temperature as “unhuman heat, immobilizing, demoralizing, deadening,” is, if anything, understated. Most of the days there are indeed, as she says, punctuated by violent thunderstorms and a wind that arrives, to quote one of the many evocative images in this well-written narrative, “with the force and swoosh of a samurai’s sword.”
Black makes a good point about how a climate like this can impede economic development, asking how those living in such enervating conditions can be expected to compete in the world, and answering that they simply cannot. Although she concludes that “human beings simply cannot function efficiently under these climactic conditions,” her own story is clearly an exception. In How To Cook A Crocodile she has not only channeled the spirit of M.F.K. Fisher with style and wit, she has provided an entertaining account of the trials and tribulations of her Peace Corps service in Gabon and a collection of inventive recipes. She has also succeeded in writing a guide to living with grace and gusto, wherever you are, and whatever you happen to be doing.
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Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968) has written ten widely acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, including three New York Times notable books. His Pearl Harbor Ghosts was the basis of a CBS documentary, and his bestselling Lost Hero, a biography of Raoul Wallenberg, was made into an award-winning NBC miniseries. His “ASK NOT: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America is being republished in January 2011 by Penguin. He is curring writing “JFK: The Last Hundred Days.” His articles have appeared in Variety Fair, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and other awards and lives with his wife in upstate New York. They are the parents of three daughters.