On Shabbat, cooking for grief

People grieve in different ways.

Black people across America have been grieving. Grieving George Floyd. Grieving Breonna Taylor. Grieving Ahmad Aubrey. Grieving the loss of life from COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected black people.

In my house, we grieve these losses as our own. They are our own. They are us. Just as those lost at Tree of Life, or Poway, or Monsey, or Jersey City were. This is a house full of black people. This is a house full of Jews. For two of the three of us, we are both. We mourn all of these losses as family. My house is a house in the throes of deep grief this Shabbat.

Everyone grieves differently.

I respond by tweeting and voraciously consuming news and writing and organizing and weeding the garden. I talk about my feelings, venting to friends and family while pacing our back porch, out of earshot, so my very young black Jewish daughter can stay a kid at least a little longer. This gives me hope, this gives me purpose. This gives me a mission. I don’t stop. I don’t sleep.

My husband is very quiet. He enjoys stillness. He doesn’t want to talk about it, go to panels on it, write articles about it. It isn’t intellectually interesting. It isn’t something to be dissected and railed against. It’s merely very very distressing. It is anguish. It is raw open pain.

Our house is tense right now. We are mixed-race Jewish family, Black Jewish Dad, White presenting Jewish Ashkenazi Mom, and a beautiful little girl who loves Peppa Pig and Tot Shabbat and will eventually have “The Talk” about police with her Mom and Dad. We are just 3 miles away from the White House, where protestors confronted the Secret Service and the American military. We are the same distance from 14th and U, where the riots in 1968 raged, just a few blocks from our daughter’s preschool. Once, when she was a baby, DC police showed up at our door demanding my husband produce a deed to the house. I had been nursing. I threw on a shirt, grabbed the baby, and ran downstairs. They looked disappointed to see me and left. They didn’t ask to see anything once they saw a white looking lady with a baby.

I can push policy. I can be an activist. I can write and lobby and fight. I can be a good wife and a good mother. What I can never do, unfortunately, is take the pain away for the person I love. The person I sleep beside. The person who I have consecrated my life to. I can’t take his pain away, but I feel it as my own. There is a story of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, known as the Tzadik of Jerusalem, where he enters a hospital with his wife and says, “Doctor, my wife’s foot is hurting us.” He felt that her pain was his because they were one unit. I may never understand what it means to inhabit blackness, but I feel real pain, my husband’s pain, the pain of grief and love and terror and racism.

I can never take the pain of living with racism away. Sometimes all you can do for the people you love is cook the food they love.

My husband is Ghanaian, the son of Ghanaian immigrants. I learned to cook Ghanaian food for him. Because I LOVE HIM. The world may paint him all the god awful racist ways it paints black men, but in our house, he is a king. Someone to be adored. Someone to be nurtured. Someone to be catered to. Someone to be TREASURED. In a world that paints him as not fully human, in my house, he is everything. Our house stands in stark contrast to anyone who may treat him as less than. What can you say when the person you love is in so much pain, and you know, try as you might, you will never fully understand that pain?

So I learned to cook Ghanaian food - or at least I’ve tried. We have known each other for 18 years. When we met, there were no cookbooks. Ghanaian matriarchs shared secrets and I took copious notes. I watched his mother cook because there were no recipes. In 2015, Fran Osseo Asare and Barbara Baeta published, The Ghana Cookbook and it became a dear friend in my kitchen. Just as my husband met me and fell in love with Judaism, I met him and fell in love with Ghanaian food. I cook it to celebrate when he is happy. I cook it when he is sad. I cook it without being asked. If he asks for it, like he did this week, I know it is because he is need of comfort, and I will do anything to comfort him, because he is my comfort in this world. When I asked if there was anything in the world I could do for him, he asked for a big bowl of rice. Cooking Ghanaian is my love letter to him. My husband is sad. He is grieving. So this week, Shabbat is all about him.

When he sits down at the Shabbat table, and it is overflowing with spicy Ghanaian fried rice, Ghanaian suya kabobs, and fried plantains, he will feel love. He will feel comfort. His eyes will get wet with love and he will rest his head on my shoulder for a minute and say thank you.

Cooking the food that celebrates who we are, black, Ghanaian, Jewish, American, and proud, is an act of resistance against racism and an act of love. I believe we are what makes America great.

I love you, Papa-Kwesi Coleman. Shabbat Shalom.

Ghanaian Fried Rice with Chicken Kabobs

I will never claim to be an expert on Ghanaian food. Ghanaians have a beautiful and very deep food tradition. This is how my house cooks it. This is an attempt to replicate chop bar-style food my husband loves and ate in Ghanaian boarding school as a child. It is spicy, gingery, and deeply comforting. While this is my recipe, credit is due to Fran Osseo Asare and Barbara Baeta for their instructive text on Ghanian flavors and cooking methods.

Ingredients:


4 inches of fresh ginger root
6 large peeled garlic cloves
3 scallions
1 to 2 scotch bonnet pepper (habanero is a good substitute. No jalapeno or Fresno. If you must, use crushed red pepper flakes.)
2 cups of Long grain rice
Tumeric
Curry powder
Red bell pepper
Frozen carrots and peas (if you want to cook this from scratch God bless, but school is closed and this mom needs short cuts!
2 pounds of chicken thighs
Garlic powder
Onion powder
Black pepper
White pepper
Bamboo for kabobs
Peanut oil or vegetable oil.

Breath. Put on John Legend’s “Hang in There.” Pour a drink. Cook the Rice. I like a rice cooker, but a regular pot will suffice. Season the cooking rice with salt, garlic and turmeric. Just add those seasonings to the water for rice before you begin cooking. About a teaspoon of the garlic powder, about a tablespoon of turmeric, and salt to taste.

Start chopping. We like a rough cut of ginger about a quarter-inch sized, not Microplane, nothing dried. These peppers are not a joke, it’d be a good idea to throw on some gloves. Chop up the garlic, onions, and two types of peppers. Add about a half a cup of oil to a pan and heat over medium till sizzling. Open the window. You’ll see why when you add the hot pepper.

Fry the aromatics. You don’t want them to be crunchy crispy, but textured and rich with a bit of crunch and a bit of bite left. Add approximately 3 tablespoons of turmeric and one tablespoon of curry powder. Keep a close eye. If cooking too quickly take off of heat. Think golden brown - not dark brown. If you’re feeling existentially tired and full of dread, you could just chop up a pound of seasoned chicken into bite sizes and added it now to toss with rice, but I am trying to make my husband feel special right now.

Once the aromatics are cooked, add about 1.5 cups of frozen carrots and peas. Stir regularly. Fluff the rice with a fork. Add the rice and fry with the aromatics and vegetables until fully integrated and tastes like spicey gingery love.

Cut chicken thighs into bite-sized pieces. Season with equal parts (about two teaspoons each) white pepper, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder salt to taste, and turmeric. Skewer and grill (or broil if you are without a grill). Cook on high heat to get a good golden brown.

Plate the kabobs over the fried rice. Serve with ginger beer or hibiscus tea. Donate to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Western States Center, or the Urban League.

Turn off your phone. Hug your loved ones extra tight. Shabbat Shalom.

On Shabbat, cooking for grief

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