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The Fridge Factor

Bonnie Black
Gabon

If you live in Equatorial Africa and you can't afford a refrigerator, you might as well kiss butter good-bye. And fresh milk and cheese and ice cream and cold drinks and last night's leftovers, too, just to name a few.

This is the latest lesson I'm learning here at my new post: how to live without a fridge, or, as one might put it in the lingua franca of this francophone Central African Country, "sans frigo."

I can't say I wasn't warned. When my Peace Corps recruiter in New York learned I wanted to trade in my ten-year-old culinary career for a two-year stint teaching community health in Africa, he looked at me long and hard. "You won't be able to cook or eat the same way," he said. "The food will be very . . . ahh . . . different."

"No problem," I thought at the time. I waved the warning off. "With enough onions and garlic I can make anything taste good," I bragged.

What I didn't consider then, though, was the fridge factor. Such a simple, common, everyday appliance. Every kitchen I've ever known in my whole life has had one. A refrigerator, like a sink, stove, and oven is what makes a kitchen a kitchen. First you wash, then cook, then keep the food from spoiling by refrigerating or freezing it. Why, a refrigerator is part of the very definition of a kitchen! Or at least that's what I used to think.

Now I can realize that for most of the people in the developing world, a refrigerator is a luxury item not even at the top of the list. There are four-wheel-drive cars and pickup trucks here in Lastoursville, a small town on the train line about two degrees south of the Equator. And I see glimpses of television sets blaring in mud-wattle huts as I walk by. But refrigerators? Most people here - including me - cannot afford one.

How does this affect the way people shop, cook, and eat, I wondered when I first came face to face with the problem last month. What impact does it have on their overall diet and their health? If you can't keep food from spoiling here in the rain forest, where bacteria, and all sorts of insect life thrive, what foods do you choose?

I'm in the process of finding out. This is what I've learned so far:

Forget leftovers. Some claim you can leave soups and stews, covered, on the kitchen counter overnight and boil them well the next day.

Forget dairy products. I've actually come to like the full-cream tinned powdered milk here; and besides, I've always wanted to cut down on my consumption of butter and ice cream anyway.

Forget ice cubes, and cold drinks, and cold anything, for that matter. The sensation of having something cold in the mouth is now, at least chez moi, only a memory. The trick, I've found, is to shop for fresh foods every day and cook only as much as you'll consume that day. For me this means walking about a mile to the market every morning to see what the ladies there have to offer.

What is this, mama?" I ask an elderly African woman who has piles of leafy greens in front of her on a rough wooden table.

"Epinards," she tells me. But it doesn't look at all like the spinach I've always known and loved.

"How much?" I ask her.

"Cent francs," she says. I offer her the coin and we smile at each other as I struggle to scrunch the leaves into my net shoulder bag.

Every day I try to say a little something to each of the women there: "What do you call this?" "How do you cook it?" "For how long?" "What does it taste like?" As well as, "How are you feeling today?" "What is your baby's name?" "Where were you yesterday? I missed you!"

The ladies at the market have become my friends. Their warmth, their smiles, their greetings brighten my day in a way that no refrigerator ever could.

Just the other day, one of the mamas commented on the skirt I was wearing. It was a long, blue denim A-line skirt my daughter had given me for my birthday several years ago. The old woman said, half-jokingly, half teasingly, "You could dance the tango in that skirt."

"Well, then, let's dance," I said. So she gamely got up from her wooden bench and we danced a little mock-tango -- for everyone's enjoyment -- right there, beside the piles of chili peppers and plantains.

Not having a fridge forces me to go to the market every day, but this is far from the hardship one might imagine. Every day I learn from these marchandes de legumes and enjoy experimenting with the produce I've brought back.

As soon as I get home I empty my net bag on the kitchen counter and proceed to create my "Soup du Jour" - a hearty melange of familiar and unfamiliar ingredients. Like life here in general, my soup each day is different from the one before. But the procedure I follow in making it is, like me, predictable: first I take onions and garlic . . .

Bonnie Black (Gabon)

Bonnie was a Community Health Volunteer in Gabon. For many years prior to joining the Peace Corps, she was a chef and had her own catering business in New York City. She has a B.A. in Literature and Writing from Columbia University. Bonnie is from New York, NY.

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