This series aims to explore the plethora of cultures that live in Charlotte by dining with families inside their homes on the food of their culture.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I scheduled myself to have dinner with a woman from Sierra Leone. This was a first for me, dining in the home of a complete stranger. I left the husband at home, unsure of whether it would be an imposition to bring him along.
When I reached the home of Theresa Macon in Southwest Charlotte, I was welcomed by a beaming and jovial host, outfitted in traditional African dress, a lapa, tie-dyed in earth tones and embroidered with gold thread. Her hair was pulled into a tight bun and we hugged immediately. She ushered me into the living room to meet the house full of friends and family that awaited me.
“I knew this [dinner] was either going to be really big or really small, “ said Kathryn Abernethy, the wonderful woman who connected me to Theresa Macon and fellow dinner guest.
In the living room, I met family and friends including Theresa’s mother, Fatu Bangura who was dressed traditionally in a beautiful black and white lapa with her head wrapped and covered, feet bare. Macon’s sister Marionette Cole was there too, along with her brother, aunts, uncles, nieces, children and a few friends sprinkled into the mix representing three other cultures- Trinidad & Tobago, Haiti, and Nigeria. It was a festive occasion, a norm of African culture I soon learned.
Macon hails from Freetown, Sierra Leone, the capital of the small country on the northeast coast of West Africa. Sierra Leone is just a hair smaller than the state of South Carolina and staples of the country include rice, cassava, sweet potatoes, okra, seafood and peppers.
Macon learned how to cook from her mother who involved her with the cooking early on, as most mothers do with their girls in Africa. When Macon arrived in Charlotte in 1986, at 19, she began working in the food industry and has made a living sharing her food with others. Her friends tell me she loves to entertain and Macon herself tells me she loves to “cook everything!”
African masks line the brick red walls of Macon’s kitchen and an assortment of traditional West African food fills the center island. There was sweet potato leaf soup, Crain Crain (a sauce with a distinct gel-like texture made with jute leaves), fish stew, parboiled jasmine rice and what would be my favorite of the evening, a sauce made with sorrel leaves called sour sour, for its tangy and savory flavor.
Macon waited until I arrived to make the fufu and cassava leaf sauce, two of the most central dishes to Sierra Leonian cuisine. Fufu is a gelatinous and starchy accompaniment to the flavorful sauces of West Africa, usually made from cassava or plantains. The fufu in Sierra Leone is made with fermented cassava which is pounded into a fine flour and mixed with water to create the mashed potato-like side.
Macon tells me, “When you eat the fufu, it puts you to sleep.” She says many Africans prepare it as a porridge to give to their fussy children and “honey, they go to sleep.”
On the adjacent burner, Macon builds the cassava leaf sauce. The many-layered dish is a compliment from the chef to her guests, a real delicacy. In a large steel pot, beef, turkey and chicken bones are boiled to create the flavorful base.
The West African trio of blended bell pepper, hot peppers and onion are added to the pot. Next comes the palm oil. A gallon jug of the red oil is tipped generously into the pot before the shredded cassava leaves are added. The leaves enter the pot bright green but later turn the color of a deep forest after being cooked.
Next, an unexpected ingredient for me, but a traditional one with many African dishes. Macon pulls out the peanut butter and begins adding it to the sauce. It will later impart a key mouthfeel to the dish. In Sierra Leone, groundnuts are typically toasted, pounded and then rolled with a glass bottle until a creamy butter is formed. Here, of course, peanut butter comes in a jar, ready for use. Smoked fish, butter beans and okra finally top the brimming, bubbling pot. Macon smiles and stirs.
Every so often, she lets out a string of happy utterances, “Oh yeah, uh-huh, mmhmm, yes, honey,” obviously at home in her kitchen.
Leaving the cassava leaf sauce to simmer, Macon tends to the fufu. A long wooden spoon helps her to muscle through the glutinous formation. As it comes together, she begins to “pull” it, using her entire body.
Says Macon, “When you see people pulling in Africa, you know they cooking fufu.” The long wooden spoon finally sticks in the center, standing straight up. The fufu is ready.
I sip on sweet, homemade ginger beer and watch people flit in and out of the kitchen. Marionette, the resident taste tester, comes in every so often stirring a sauce or two and sneaking a taste. Macon’s adorable 10-year old son, Timothy, comes down and whispers in his mother’s ear. He is looking for the akara, sweet fried dough that will be our dessert. He will ask for it a second time before it is ready.
Once the fufu is ready, Marionette grabs a bowl and adds the sour sour or, as it sounds coming from her, “sawa sawa”. She dips her finger into the bowl, scooping a little fufu and sauce together. She urges me to try too. I dip my fingers in and taste the fufu, soft and comforting with the pungent and savory sorrel sauce.
Everyone grabs a plate and digs in. People are spread out in the living room and adjacent dining room. I sit in the kitchen with a plate full of food and a glass of Vimto.
“Every African knows the Vimto,” says Macon. Similar to grenadine, Vimto is a concentrated syrup made of raspberries and currants. It is present at all occasions-birthdays, weddings, parties.
Timothy puts on the music, driving, rhythmic beats which Trinidadian Jennifer Crowder likens to the “zouk music” of the Caribbean.
While everyone eats, Macon makes the akara, dough made of mashed banana, rice flour, sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon which is then fried in vegetable oil.
She begins frying the dough and as fast as she makes them, they are plucked out of the kitchen. Children and adults fill their bowls with the sweet dough and I find myself falling victim to the lightning fast rate at which I can pop them into my mouth.
Macon’s mother steps in to fry the akara and Theresa begins packing to-go bags for her guests. She grabs gallon jugs of ginger beer to send home and freely heaps food into styrofoam containers.
"Africans really know how to throw a pah-tee," says Crowder in her island accent. “They always have plenty food, plenty drink.”
Inside the home of Theresa Macon, there is no want for food or hospitality. I leave well fed from all the good company, the flavors of West Africa lingering on my tongue, to-go bag in hand. Plenty food, indeed.