Saturday, May 16, 2009

Jantsen's Gift (book review)

I knew right away that there was some fufu in our family's future. After all, how else could I interpret the uncanny coincidence: almost immediately after I reminisced about my introduction to Ghanaian cuisine, I picked up a memoir that takes place partly in Ghana! But I'll get to the fufu later. First, the book.

Jantsen's Gift had me hooked almost from page one. Pam Cope's memories of the grief that followed the death of her son, and her slow climb back to life, combined seamlessly with journalist Aimee Molloy's beautiful prose.

The pair capture the pain of losing a child almost too well--the first section is a hard read, emotionally. This makes the relief almost palpable when Cope first travels to Viet Nam and begins to embrace life again. The pace really picks up when she's inspired to get involved in helping orphaned Vietnamese children, and then later to help rescue children in Ghana who have been sold as fishermen's slaves by their impoverished families. When I reached the photos in the middle of the book, I was wondering where I could sign up to adopt my own. (Don't worry, it passed.)

The only trouble, for me, comes near the end of the book, when Cope describes choosing which picture to show at a presentation: she bypasses the shining faces of the kids they had rescued from slavery in Ghana, and the orphans in Cambodia or Vietnam. Instead, she chooses the picture of the boy with empty eyes who hasn't been rescued. Then she launches into how much work is yet to be done, and how even little girls have raised enough money to rescue Ghanaian slave children, and there's this undercurrent of "how can you just sit there and do nothing when I sold my 5000 square foot house to help these kids?" that makes me squirm just a little. Is that why she wrote the book, to convince people to head over to Touch a Life and donate enough money to quiet the discomfort in their hearts?

Yeah, probably not. I'm just so cynical sometimes. It's a good book, I'm glad I read it. I should just leave it at that. Let's talk about fufu.

Ben came home from his Sunday School class saying "I'm supposed to try a new food this week," so I told him and Evan the story of Andy's Ghanaian meal. They immediately wanted to try fufu. I looked up some recipes for Ghanaian food online, rejecting the ones that called for beef tripe and cow's feet or pounding cassava by hand. I ended up combining a recipe for Chicken Peanut Stew from the U. Penn African Studies dept. with one from Family Fun magazine and a few additions of my own. It turned out to be really easy to make.

Ali's Quasi-Ghanaian Meal

The Chicken Peanut Stew

1 chicken, cut up (I skinned it, too)
1 onion, chopped
1 1-inch piece of ginger
2 cups water
1 Tbs. oil
2 Tbs. tomato paste
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes
2/3 cup peanut butter (I used fresh ground)
1 yellow pepper cut in bite-sized pieces (you could use any veggie--one recipe called for okra and eggplant)

Throw chicken in a big pot with the water, ginger, and half the onion, bring to a boil and simmer till the other stuff is ready, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking and adding more water if necessary. In 1 Tbs. oil in a deep frying pan, fry the rest of the onion and the tomato paste until the onion's cooked (about 5 minutes), then add the diced tomatoes and peanut butter. Stir to combine, then add to the stuff in the big pot along with the veggies and cook until the chicken is tender and you're done dealing with the fufu. This would also be good with rice or potatoes.

The Fufu

U. Penn said to use instant mashed potatoes and Bisquick, so that's what we did. We followed their instructions exactly and came out with a giant plop of stuff that looked sort of like really thick mashed potatoes.
Here it is on a plate, posing with the chicken. It looked better in person but I'm not a very good photographer. Ben contemplates the meal before going to wash his hands thoroughly. Those are bottles of root beer on the table, by the way.
And at last, the guys dig in, while Mom takes one last photo. They're evaluation? Evan: It burns me! (Tip: let food cool a bit before digging in with your hands). Ben: It tastes like potatoes, but not. I like it. Chris: Not quite as good as Andy's fufu. Me: Eating with your hands makes clean-up a breeze!
The soundtrack: When I sent Andy the link to my other post, he suggested listening to Amadou Et Mariam from Mali. So, here they are!


  1. Any excuse to listen to Amadou and Mariam is a good one.

  2. Great post! I love that you included a recipe for your "quasi-Ghanaian" meal. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

  3. Amateur Reader, Wow! That definitely wouldn't have been my first guess for which type of music would inspire a comment out of you! I've been enjoying listening to them, too.

    BermudaOnion, thanks! I think you will like this one.

  4. Your meal looks really authentic. Delicious and nutritious as they say in Ghana!

  5. I saw a review of this book somewhere, but your review is awesome! I have this on my list to read. I love that you included a recipe and pictures of cooking it. I have had many different cuisines, but I can't say I have tried Ghanaian. Now I can try this one! Thanks, Ali!

  6. Thanks, Andy! My current read is set on the east coast of the U.S., so I promise to stop writing about you now. :-)

    Rebecca, you'll have to let me know if you try the recipe. We had the leftovers with rice and it was awesome.

  7. Great post. The recipe looks yummy :-) thanks for including it with your review!