Juxtaposition. Compare and Contrast.
It’s what I love about being Deeply Southern Fried American and a Pilgrim in East Africa.
Both places have red dirt, rural hospitality, “tribal problems”, and soul food.
The story below is my latest attempt to explain, connect, and understand two cultures.
Sukuma Wiki, Ugali, Polk Salad Annie, and other culinary thoughts
A special thanks to two new Kenyan friends at Elite Computers:
Thanks Silas for repairing my computer so this story could be finished.
Asante sana, Faith for serving as my Kiswahili editor!
Down in Louisiana
Where the alligators grow so mean
There lived a girl
I’d swear to the world
Made the alligators look tame.
-“Polk Salad Annie”
Tony Joe White’s song from the 70’s came to mind last week in Africa.
The spark that brought it back was the Swahili term, Sukuma Wiki.
It’s what they call greens here.
And it means “Pushing the Week.”
Like when you’ve got several days to eat, and little or no money,
you resort to eating “Sukuma Wiki.”
Wild greens or even grasses boiled over an outside fire.
Tony Joe White’s** Louisiana song of a poor neighbor girl who picked “Polk Salad” for the family’s meals was a classic among my generation.
*Question for our readers: Is it Poke Salad or Polk Salad?
His deep bass voice explaining,
“Some of you ain’t never been down South,
But we got a plant that grows in the swamps
Called Polk Salad. That’s Polk . . . Salad.
I used to know an old girl who lived out there.
She’d go out in the evenings and pick a little bit of it
And cook it for supper ‘cause that’s all they had,
But they done all right.
It may have been a long time since you heard “Polk Salad Annie.” Here’s your chance to see Tony Joe performing it.
This You Tube video actually shows two performances, the first about 1969 and the second on Austin City Limits in 1980. The newer one is really cool. Tony Joe jams out on guitar and tells what Annie did with the leftover greens. Enjoy!
Question: Tony twice mentions his “truck patch.” What is that?
African’s have their own Polk Salad.
They just call it Sukuma Wiki.
Greens to push the week.
Sukuma “To push”
It seems every roadside ditch/right of way has a patch of broccoli, corn, and greens.
They eat it (as they do everything) with ugali, the East African dish. I’m not quite sure how to describe it. It’s kind of like cold grits, mashed potatoes with no salt or seasoning.
It’s cheap, easy to fix, and a fixture in African diets.
In East Africa, it’s usually called ugali.
In South Africa, it’s called Stiff Pap.
I’ve come to learn so much about Africans.
Daily I watch them walking to their respective jobs. Many carry backbreaking loads to and from market. Like the woman at the top of this blog.
Like many Americans, they pray over their food. “Lord, give us this day our daily bread.”
But Africans understand the immediacy of this prayer. Many days they begin the day with an empty cupboard as well as empty stomach. If they are going to eat that day, the Lord will have to provide. They’ll scrap, bargain, and work hard, but they know eventually it’s going to come down to God’s provision.
Give us this day . . .
Not tomorrow or next week. Today.
I read today that (in Nairobi’s “The Daily Nation”) that many rural Kenyans could never buy goods in the size packages that factories send out.
They must find a vendor (or duka, the small shops found everywhere) who buys the package, then repackages it in affordable sizes.
Another fascinating part of African culture is that you never keep too much of a food item because your neighbors or family will come borrow it. It’s part of their culture of community: you never turn down a friend in need. Next time, it may be you needing something.
Give us this day our daily bread . . .
Words I’ve repeated for a lifetime and never had a day I doubted I might actually get to eat.
Thank you Lord for your bountiful harvest I’ve enjoyed for fifty-six years.
Thank you for what You’re teaching me about being grateful.
Grateful for our daily bread and much more.
** Tony Joe White hailed from the outskirts of Oak Grove, Louisiana in West Carroll Parish. He performed at the first rock concert I ever attended: Creedence Clearwater Revival at Shreveport’s Hirsch Coliseum on the bill with Freddie King and Tony Joe.
Question: anyone know the name of the hamlet he grew up in?
Question: what song did Tony Joe write that was a huge hit for other artists?
I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I loved Creedence (still do).
It was the first time I ever smelled marijuana. I was with one of my DC Camp friends, so I asked, “What’s that smell?”
She rolled her eyes. “You’ve never smelled marijuana? Where are you from—Dry Creek?”
They could’ve been smoking polk salad for all I knew.
This same Shreveport trip is celebrated in this snippet of a story from my second book, The Old House.
This story on my Aunt Margie is one of my favorites:
When I was fifteen, my parents temporarily lost their minds and allowed me to ride a greyhound bus to Shreveport to see my favorite group, Creedence Clearwater Revival. I had learned to play the drums by listening to their songs over and over on scratchy albums. Daddy always said that if their drummer got sick, I could set in and play for them. He meant it in jest, but I took it as a great compliment.
During the 1970’s, Aunt Margie and Uncle Mark lived in Belcher, a small community north of Shreveport. When I arrived in Shreveport for the concert I called her to let her know I was in town. When she inquired as to why I was there, I told her I’d come to see Creedence Clearwater Revival.
You could hear the pleasure in her voice as she replied, “That’s just wonderful how you’ve come this far to go to a revival.” I didn’t have the heart to correct her.
Later, she told my mom how proud she was of my one hundred-sixty mile trip to attend a revival.
- If you’re not full yet, enjoy another helping on polk salad from my novel, A Good Place. Mayo Moore, recounting his Louisiana boyhood, tells a story of a winter during the Civil War, when they ate anything they could find.
- From my book, A Good Place, Mayo Moore tells about a tough winter during the Civil War, “With winter, food continued to be in short supply, but Uncle Nathan continued to take care of our needs. Whether it was a woods hog, ducks from the creek, or a bag of flour or corn meal, he provided for us.
That winter he taught me how to pick poke salad, a plant that grows wild in the open fields. A type of green, it can be cooked and eaten like turnip greens. Unk showed me where a large patch of it grew and soon I was picking a mess of it every few days.
He showed me how to carefully wash it three times, saying, “Poke salad’s got poison in it if you don’t wash it good. Don’t forget that.”
So in spite of the hard times, we had enough to eat. However, there was still a problem—my mother wouldn’t eat. She said even the smell of food made her sick and would go sit on the porch during mealtime.
I told you two angels saved us. The second angel came from an unusual place—the Merkle household.
The first day Sarah Merkle showed up, I was surprised. She’d never been inside our house—other than the time she was stealing from us.
If you haven’t read A Good Place, I invite you to take a look. It’s the favorite of many readers and one of my personal ones also.