‘We’ll have a driver, cook, maid, laundry-boy and even a gardener’, said Pi in order to entice me into following him to Lagos, Nigeria. What he didn’t mention was there was also a pool-boy for the private pool in the backyard for the bungalow. Fume away, fretter all you want, you lesser beings in Western countries who clean your own bathrooms. I was dying to be waited on by my own Men Friday.
Our pot-bellied chef, Ignatius, walked in majestically with a white coat and a chef’s hat. Mentioned he went to chef school. My gastronomic cells jumped in glee. I learnt very soon that Ignatius couldn’t cook. In fact, Ignatius and the word ‘cook’ should never be in the same sentence. But he cooked nevertheless. He had all the signs of a person who wanted to do the right thing – as in cook a decent meal. But he failed every time he tried. His food tasted like something, but we are yet to ascertain what. Some say donkey tastes like that. Even his fried items tasted like cardboard soaked in oil. What he was adept at was making something terrible out of perfectly good ingredients (oil and flour. How? How?). He mixed up coffee and tea; salt and baking powder. After he cooked, the kitchen would look worse than the garbage truck filled with road kill. On top of that, he was a little slow for a human being. It took him three days to comprehend that we were vegetarian.
‘No chicken madam?’
‘Oh. I understand madam- o. I know one lady vegetarian. She dey eat no chicken.’ He said in perfect Pidgin English.
‘I am glad you have encountered such species.’
‘Tomorrow I dey make pork chops madam with white sauce.’
What ensued was an hour class on vegetarianism filled with drawings and actions. I gave him a cue cards and cheat sheets. ‘Nothing with eyes.’ He nodded his bulky head. He went shopping muttering 'no eyes..no eyes' and came home with Carp.
‘Ignatius, we don’t eat fish. I told you no eyes.’
‘They cut the head off. See.’
‘Oh, madam! You say no chicken, I dey understand. No pork, I dey understand. No beef or mutton, it is very hard. What I dey cook if I dey no cook fish. You come to Nigeria to starve?’
I spend the next two hours showing him how to cook dal and cabbage with whatever I could scrap from the kitchen. Everyday after that, we had decent food except for the fact that dal and cabbage started seeping out of our nostrils every time we breathed. ‘Ignatius, please put a stop to this. If I have one more meal of dal and cabbage, I will combust in my own fart. Ask Alpha madam to give you some recipes. ’ Pi warned and left to work.
So while I was busy working on some project and looking more important than I needed to be, Ignatius waddled up to me, sweating and breathless (he always managed that look even if he was watching TV on the couch),’Madam, Pi sir told me to ask you for recipes.’
Patience wearing thin, I wrote down good Indian recipes and even showed him how to make a few things. Considering he was being paid, I had no intentions of doing the job for him. No one finished my design report for me when I taught chefs how to cook. ‘Ignatius, you better improve, or else!’ He had signs of panic in his eyes and stuttered something about making a decent meal for dinner after he is done grocery shopping. Palak paneer was laid out.
Relishing it, Pi commended my training and said he would congratulate Ignatius the next day. I beamed with pride for my new ward.
That is when I saw empty packets of MTR ready-made palak paneer in the garbage.
[Part of my 4 month stint in Africa after taking a break from work. Now I'm back in Pittsburgh]