Sunday, June 29, 2008

Babula Cooking

A few months ago, my friend Ruth (yes, the Ruth of rooibos chocolate cake and buamba fame), handed me a small, square, well-worn booklet, stored in a protective Ziploc bag. “The cookbook I was telling you about – the one compiled by missionaries where I grew up in central Zaire. I think you will like it.”

Like it I do. The recipes in Babula Cooking III (named after the
Tshiluba word for a small charcoal stove) come from the kitchens of about two dozen women, and bear cozy, homespun names such as “My Best Gingerbread,” “Crazy Cake”, “Company Pudding,” “2-Minute Mayonnaise,” “Eggplant Supreme,” and “Mother Merle’s Corn Soup.” But Babula Cooking is more than an Africanized Garden Club cookbook – it is also a survival guide for wives and mothers far from supermarkets and reliable refrigeration. It contains handy tips for improving the taste of powdered milk (add vanilla and a pinch of salt), keeping (or getting) bugs out of dry goods like flour, rice and beans, and preserving meat through canning and corning. And the recipes themselves speak to these women’s amazing flexibility to devise substitutions and re-create the smells and tastes of home.

Lack ketchup? Try puréed tomatoes with sugar and vinegar. Don’t have garlic? “From the forest come leaves and bark with a very pungent odor quite like garlic. [The locals] mix crushed leaves or powdered bark with red pepper and salt.” Here, in the jungle of Zaire, missionary women prepare gravy with palm oil, employ dioshe, a common squash, in “pumpkin” bread, and use papayas to make jam “almost like peach jam.” Meri-meri (a local berry) are the sweetly tart secret in muffins, cobblers and jelly, while mangoes fill in for apples in cobbler, pie, sauce and butter. In a display of thrift, leftover oatmeal and rice get transformed into muffins, and eggplant is grated, browed and mixed with ground meat as a “meat stretcher.” “Philadelphia cream cheese” is concocted with drained yogurt.

Babula Cooking is not all Mid-West-cum-central-Africa. The women also incorporate local recipes into their personal repertoires. Aurie Miller, one of the editors, provides this introduction to her recipe for bidia, a stiff porridge made from cornmeal and manioc (cassava) flour:

African women do not measure but know how many handfuls to put in from long practice. They laugh hilariously when they hear there is a recipe! It would be well for you to watch someone whose bidia you like to figure out your own proportions….” Marcia Murray adds that bidia can then be cubed and fried: “Eaten with salt and catsup,” she notes, “They are like hush puppies.”

This, the third edition of Babula Cooking, was published in 1985. In the foreword, the editors write: “Our hope is that we become less dependent on the expensive imported foods and simplify our lives as we live among those who have so much less than we.” In the era of food miles and food riots, it is a message for us all.

So, instead of having my mom send me a care package of graham crackers, I tried out Janette Fulton’s homemade version. I found it hard to roll the dough thin enough, so they didn’t have the right crunch, and the texture was a bit too crumbly…but the taste? Well, I’ll be darned if they didn’t taste like the real deal.

Honey Graham Crackers
From Babula Cooking III
Makes 24 crackers

2 cups / 240 grams flour
½ cup / 60 grams whole wheat flour
1/3 cup / 57 grams brown sugar
½ cup / 113 grams shortening (I used butter)
¼ cup / 60 milliliters honey
¼ cup / 60 milliliters oil
3 tablespoons / 45 milliliters cold water
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters salt
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters baking soda

Preheat oven to 425°F / 220°C. Stir all ingredients together until well-blended. Roll out on two lightly oiled cookie sheets. Score, prick, and bake for 8-10 minutes. Cut apart while hot. Cool and store in tin with tight top.


Miss T said...

Really interesting! How does one find a copy?

ExAfrica said...

Welcome Back! Was a bit worried, if I must admit. :)

And what a perfect recipe - 4th of July being the pinnacle of Graham Cracker eating - what with S'Mores and all. I will try this one day - to be sure. It's a bit like Marsh mellows and 'Nilla Wafers - one never really thinks they can be made outside of a factory.


Jeanne said...

What a find this book is! And you are right - in an era of rampant food prices and tightening of belts, it's time we learned to make some stuff ourselves instead of buying everything ready-made. I'll bet these tasted great :)

Anonymous said...

Carolyn - You do the missionaries proud! Thanks. Maybe I should take some of that birthday money and make copies of "Babula Cooking" to spread the fun. "Aunt Aurie" Miller (we kids called all the missionary women "Aunt" and the men "Uncle" -- I think I have about 8 Aunt Nancys!) would be pleased you liked her "recipe" for bidia. Twasakidila! Ruth

Rob Reinhold said...

What memories! I have a copy of what I think is titled "The Babula Cuisine" at home, from when I grew up in what was then Zaire. The "Crazy Cake" that Carolyn mentioned is one of my sister's favorites, and is amazingly made with no eggs (eggs were sometimes hard to find).

I've been meaning to find some way to reproduce the book, but never got around to it. Thanks for the great post, Carolyn.

Chef JP said...

First time visitor to your blog-- wonderful! chefjp

Discount Espresso Makers said...

Nice blog.
I like your that Honey Graham Recipe.
Thanks for sharing this wonderful recipe and your moments.

Alyss said...

I would kill for a copy of that cookbook. Sounds like its full of wonderful history, and great recipes.
Did you tweak the graham cracker recipe to get something more to your liking? :)

Margaret said...

I'm working on putting it on line. It really is a fabulous cookbook. I'll post back when I get somewhere. I do have 2 kids under 3 so it will take a while!