The next entry in our summer blog series “Perspectives from Anthropology of Food” is by Gastronomy student Sydney Manning. This series presents work written by the students in the summer Anthropology of Food class (ML 641) in which they reflect on current issues, discuss assignments they have worked on, or address topics of particular interest to them.
Benin is a small francophone country in West Africa that shares borders with fellow French-speaking Togo, and Nigeria. The population of Benin is close to 11 million, with eight ethnic groups represented, and the two major religions observed in the country are Islam and Roman Catholicism. In writing this blog for my Anthropology of Food class, I knew very little about Benin culture, so I contacted a childhood friend for more information. Andrea*, who graduated with a master’s degree in business with additional studies in anthropology, was born and raised in the midwestern United States, and is now a community economic development specialist in the Peace Corps stationed in Benin. She was initially assigned to service in Mali but due to an uptick in terrorism, she was offered a position in Benin, where she has been living and working since January 2016. Because Andrea is American and comes from an anthropological background, I was curious to learn about her observations as a contributing member of Benin society as they relate to food.
Going into this interview, I first wanted to know Andrea’s food expectations about Benin. What was she expecting? Was she worried there would be no comforts of home? “I didn’t
come expecting to eat American food, whatever ‘American food’ is,” she said. “I was expecting [the food] to be like Mali, but [Benin] is a little better off, so you see more variety.” Since her arrival, Andrea has had the opportunity to try many different traditional Benin dishes such as Piron, made from garri which is dried, shredded cassava, usually eaten with grilled pork, onion, and a hot pepper sauce, and Pate Blanche, a staple in the Benin diet which is made from corn flour, usually served with some type of sauce and sometimes meat. And while she was not expecting to find western comfort foods, she was pleased to learn that she wouldn’t have to travel far if ever she had a craving for American-style burgers, lasagna, or hotdogs, all of which are available. “That was a nice surprise,” she said.
I was curious to know what a typical Benin breakfast for Andrea is like. Her answer? It depends. Sometimes she will opt for an egg on a baguette (“There is a large French influence here, so you see a lot of baguettes and pastries around.”). Alternatively, she will have Atassi, a rice and bean dish that is usually eaten with either cheese or sodja (soy cheese).
As in many African countries, open-air markets are not only vital for commerce in Benin, but for social interaction as well. When Andrea is at her work site, she visits the markets twice a week, and has seen firsthand how serious these markets can be. “I live in Parakou, the second largest city in Benin; it has over 250,000 residents so there is no way for me to even start to describe how busy and hectic it is,” she said. “There are over 100 venders at the market selling a variety of items ranging from fresh produce, cheese, and meats, to scarves and fabric. On Saturday, the big market day, people come from as far as Nigeria to sell.” Also interesting to note is how gender is represented at the market: “Food venders are for the most part women, unless they’re selling street meat, which is cooked meat sold usually with a pepper seasoning. I’ve never seen a woman selling [street meat],” Andrea said.
When it comes to the preparation of food, women primarily take care of all of the cooking. While some men do know how to prepare dishes, Andrea said, for the most part, it is the job of the woman to nourish her household. There is a difference made between men, women, and children when it comes to commensality as well. Men eat from a large communal bowl or plate, while the women and children are given separate plates. There is also a specific order in which each member of the household receives their food. “For the most part,” Andrea said, “the oldest and head of the household is served and eats first, and the father or male of the household usually eats separate from the rest of the household. After that, the order depends on the household. Many people serve the children last after all of the adults have eaten. The domestic worker, or whoever is serving the food, would eat after the children.”
Although Benin is not a predominately Muslim country, one aspect of eating that is widely practiced is that of using the right hand to gather food, while never using the left hand, which in the days of Mohammad was considered unclean. Andrea also noted the emphasis on hospitality, which is deemed a duty to uphold in the Islamic faith. In Benin, if you are eating and a person passes you, you are obligated to invite that person to share your meal.
Andrea’s time in Benin will be ending in a few months. As a person who has known her for most of her life, I can tell how impactful working in Benin has been for Andrea. She has travelled and experienced so much of what Africa has to offer. When asked what she would miss the most about her time in Benin specifically, it was without a doubt the food. “I will miss everything about the food,” she said. “I have literally made friends in this country because of food. It’s such a big part of the culture, and it brings people together. I’ve fallen in love with the food here, [and] I’ve gained like, 20 pounds, so you know it’s a serious problem!”
Andrea’s descriptions of her observations and experiences in Benin highlighted several key themes that have been discussed in class. The first theme is the importance of familial hierarchy as it relates to food, as well as food rules observed in the home. Her descriptions also highlighted the importance of hospitality, a cultural phenomenon that is practiced in the west as well as the east. After speaking with Andrea, my interest in visiting Benin and experiencing both the cuisine as well as a different dialect of French, has been piqued. Perhaps for now I will have to settle for trusted recipes found in a Benin-focused cookbook or two.
*name has been changed