The Smoke of Many Fires: A Meditation on Cooking Fires in Africa*

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Twins Mask and Granary Door, Burkina Faso (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

I still smell the smoke of many fires, its pungency hauling up memories, deep from that hidden place where forgotten things wait until the right atoms collide. With each of my slow short breaths, a picture of West Africa emerges, behind my eyes where I can see the past scrolling like a Technicolor movie. The old granary door, a treasure from Burkina Faso, carved with chisel and finished with fire, gleams against the white wall, in half-hearted chiaroscuro.

With summer’s persistent humidity, even after all these years, the odor of smoke lingers around the door, creating a mental image of the hundreds of cooking fires that greet the mornings in the Africa I once knew. Cooking breakfast or smoking fish, always the fire, forever the smoke.

On the other hand, for many of us with roots in the West, the idea of cooking with fire likely conjures up visions of soft flickering light, the door barred against wolves howling in tune with the wind, and the looming darkness of the forests, thick with wood for cooking, good it seemed until far-off Judgement Day. Cooking with fire seems romantic indeed, for we believe it brings us closer to the natural world, fraught as the so-called real world is with artificiality and a reality divorced from the nature we yearn for.

There’s something about the aroma and taste of smoke, prodding the prefrontal cortex and unleashing a torrent of memories, maybe even cellular memory. Perhaps that’s why smoked paprika or chipotles taste so marvelous.

Stories weave in and out of our mythological history, one suggesting that women died fiery deaths from cooking fires. Their long skirts caught in the embers, so the legends go. But many historians scoff and dismiss these stories as no better than old wives’ tales. Perhaps. But certainly many women and children suffered burns, just like the ones we see in parts of Africa, where women wear nylons or other types of stockings to cover unsightly scars on their legs, in spite of the unearthly heat. Or where very small children, playing and oblivious, brush into the cooking fire, often with horrendous consequences, written in the withered flesh of beggars who cluster in the streets of many cities.

Burns, like signs, show us outwardly the hazards of cooking fires. Coughs do the same, and coughs appear often in people who cook over open fires. Air quality inside and outside suffers when smoke competes with fresh air. “ ‘Having an open fire in your kitchen is like burning 400 cigarettes an hour in your kitchen,’ says Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California at Berkeley.”

The enigma of smoke – it feeds, it preserves, and it kills.

I rub my fingers over the smooth carved surfaces of the granary door and the odor seems to stick to them. For a moment, like a fish in a lake, another memory surfaces. Enormous burlap sacks of charcoal line the roads of cities like of Ouagadougou. Deforestation, for the sake of eating today, that’s the way to understand it. Eat today, with the fuel provided by the few trees remaining. As for tomorrow, who knows? Vast, barren areas scoured and picked clean by little girls and old women searching for firewood, walking for miles with heavy loads of branches and twigs strapped to their backs, this is the reality of cooking, as well.

Smoke, and fire, both made us human. But what else have they done?

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Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

*And not just in Africa; the problem encompasses the entire world.

For more:

BRINGING EFFICIENCY TO THE COOKING FIRE THROUGH ENHANCED COOKSTOVESplus another link to issues surrounding traditional cooking methods.

Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked, by Mary Theobald and The Colonial Williamsburg Fundation (2012)

Indoor Air Pollution and Health, by World Health Organization

Olfaction and Memory

© 2013 C. Bertelsen

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