George Walker III talks to Myra Maimoh about food, music, and storytelling to share culture

Aug 7, 2020


 


  You're listening to shaping narratives, a collection of voices from West Michigan's communities of color, brought to you by WGVU, NPR and PBS in West Michigan. In the partnership with the WK Kellogg foundation, the voice of this podcast is George Walker The Third. Host of WGVU's cultural ingredients, a TV show that explores stories of migration, culture, and agricultural history one person, one dish, one ingredient at a time. He's a sommelier and a small business owner. And for this podcast, he talks to chefs about simple cooking and kitchen management during the pandemic.

 

Hey, Myra, how are you?

 Good. Thank you. And you

Good.  I'm doing really well. Doing really well. Let's just jump right into it Is that okay

That's fine. Thank you so much for having me. 

Oh, of course, of course. So what are some of the best ways we can stretch out ingredients for multiple uses and dishes in the kitchen? 

Um, what comes to mind for me is what I do at home. I normally would start off with something simple, take for example, uh, dried beans. I cook them. Uh, I will do a stew  and then I would flip it I would change it to add some meat to it later on, and then it slowly becomes maybe refried beans. It's just. You know, giving it another dimension by adding a few more ingredients to the, to the dish to make it different. Um, we, we do that a lot around here and growing up in Africa that's yeah, that's basically what he was all about. You start the song thing and then it morphs into something the next day, too. It's all gone because you have the, the, the. This seam on the lines of the oval should be thrown away. That's pretty much how we handle it. It's that simple and then add things to it. 

Wow. That sounds, that sounds amazing. What, so what kind of things would you, would you add to it?

 

Um, I would add maybe some fish to it, smoked fish. I would add maybe some ground beef to leave some ground meats. And then sometimes, uh, we would just go in and add salt corn, some, uh, uh, sweet corn, some carrots, green beans. It just adds another depth of flavor to the whole thing and makes it, um, It tastes really good too. I must say that. And it can morph into rice and beans and, or just rice and beans mixed together. You can do it separately or together so that there are a lot of ways that we can do this. At home here. We do a, we normally would add smoke Turkey, home, smoked Turkey. Um, sometimes we would add throw in some kale. So there's a lot that you can do with that simple dish. 

Oh, wow. Well, thank you so much for that. I really appreciate that. I'd never really thought to, um, use beans in such a way and make it so that it's so versatile, you know, but, but, so how did you originally find the culinary world?

 Oh, my God. I said it, this whole thing started with, um, just sharing, uh, our African culture, sharing our heritage. Um, and all of that is not you'd get out food. We started with music. The plan was to go into food later on, but, uh, when we started, so. House concerts and people it asking for food immediately. And we decided they were going to go with what everybody else wants. So we went in and we started introducing our cooking, uh, our food part of the experience. And we started, we just catering. We would, um, bring some local caterers from Africa in And they would showcase their food. And then after that people said it once you know how to prepare some of the things, the we’re eating and bone that's where we, we, we started the motherland cooking experience, but then it was it. Wasn't just gonna be people watching your house, how watching, how to cook. They were in there. So holding the ingredients, uh, learning about the ingredients, how they come together, the flavor profiles, the learning about the countries, the ingredients come from, and they are cooking at the same time. And after that you have live music usually from where the food comes from. So it's a cultural package that, um, just showcases everything surrounding that particular ingredients. 

That's that's so much to impact. That's so brilliant. I mean, so, I mean, so I guess we can, I can start with where in Africa are you from? 

I am from Cameroon. Cameroon is falling in the central Western part of Africa. Um, a lot of the times people think we're Western Africa only, but we are mostly central Africa with smack in the middle, but, uh, we share a border in Nigeria and, uh, Kongo and Chad. And what makes, uh, Cameroon stand out where I come from is because of where we are. We have, uh, four different, um, climates, I will say up North, you have like, it's really dry all the way to the East fork. You have the thick rain forest to the West. You have the grasslands and, uh, um, And we have the sea as well. So all of these regions come with a lot of different, uh, ingredients, different plants, different kind of foods. And, uh, normally Cameroon is also very diverse, uh, ethnically. We have about 273 different tribes and each one comes with their own specialty. So there's just a lot that you can tap into. 

Oh man. Wow. 

Makes me so proud to come from covered because he is also called African nature. They usually mean for cameroon and you must have visited everything because all the regions, when it comes to claim it and what they bring to the table, I mean, in food and everything, you find them represented in cameroon.

I never knew that Cameroon was such a, um, so diversely, um, uh, uh, populated and it was so many different tribes and such, uh, event with that with so many different ingredients. What particular tribe are you from within Cameroon? 

I am from salt tribe. We are, um, found in the Northwest region. So a Colombo is one of the second largest town in the Northwest region of Cameron. So that's where I come from. Uh, but I grew up in Birmingham, which is the capital of the Northwest region.

 So how did you even find yourself coming to America? Let alone, let alone, coming to West Michigan of all places.

 It's it's a long story. I've been a traveler. I left Cameroon in 2001. And I lived in Germany. I went to Germany. I was there for about eight and a half years, nine years. And then I moved here. Um, I was studying in Germany and so I did my bachelor's and master's there. And I moved to the U.S. to do, um, a second masters. So I was when I was done there. Uh, so happy that my, um, Boyfriend had been hired to come work in the U.S. and, uh, yeah, we, we got engaged and we got married and he was working in grand Rapids. So that's how I found myself here. And we've been here ever since.

What was, what was that like coming from, I mean, first Cameroon to then Germany, and then kind of coming to West Michigan, which is, um, with some, say, seem to be, um, culturally, uh, lacking for lack of better terms. 

Yeah, it was, it was hard, but, um, what made it easier for me was the fact that I lived in Europe and I traveled to several countries in Europe while I was there. And that initial shock, you know, After you've done it a couple of times and leave there. It's easier because you know what to expect, uh, you know how to manage your expectations about what is there and how people welcome you. So, Oh, it was still hard. It was still hard. We came here. Well, he was here longer before I came. Um, And it was really hard. Cause grandma, I find grand Rapids sort of like, Oh, this area generally a little bit cliquey. You need to know people to know where resources are, what to even do, you know? And it is, it could be hard for people who are just starting off. First of all, we're not of the same culture. Secondly, they probably don't even know anybody around. So it's hard. And I found it a little hard because I wasn't just leaving. I was starting a business, so it was hard to know where to go to who to talk to. And, um, Even muster up the courage to do that. Right. Because I kept on throwing this question to myself, like back and forth, like in grand Rapids, he was ready for it because there, I wasn't really seeing much happening culturally, especially on the African front, there was nothing. So there was a question whether this is something that people would actually want to do. If Grand Rapids is even that open to  such an idea. So it was, it was really lovely to see people jump on it and be all about the experience. Be all about learning. You know, they want to be there because they want to learn. And as they’re learning. They're eating really good food because African food is good food. It's tasty and it's healthy.

 It is. Did you initially, did you find it, uh, traveling or to find any troubles and finding the particular ingredients that you were looking for? Or what was that experience like? It was, it was, um, we do have a couple of ethnic stores around in grand Rapids that made it easier. So most of the more important things you will be able to find. And, uh, that's because, uh, surprisingly too, to me, because I never really saw any of these before out there, that's like a, there's a huge African community here. And, um, it gets to know that after like going to the stores a couple of times and maybe. Really seeing, um, country leaders based. Yeah. But yeah, most of the ingredients, I could find them, the things like plantains, like, um, Bita leaves, uh, um, huckleberry leaves, and stuff like that, they are seasonal, but I could find them. Um, it gets creepier when you start talking about spices because. Of Africa's diversity. Um, you know, not everybody, the store owners don't really know that all of the spices that I use most of the spices, I use Cameron, because probably come from Liberia and they have a completely different going on over there. So it's really hard to find, um, um, those really rare, uh, spices that make our food, what it is. So we normally have to. Buy them from home or have someone bring them along. So that's how I've been, you know, we have somebody going back home. We just give them an order. Yes, please. On your way back, you know, just, can you, can you give us rice spices? Yeah. That's how we work or you buy them online.

I love that so much. I love that so much, but even to like hit back on how you, um, kind of immersed your, your experience with so many different things. I mean, when you, when you have. These motherland experiences. You're, you're introducing music, but you're also introducing food and you're also introducing a lifestyle that most people who aren't from, um, uh, Africa can get a little taste of how did you initially, um, even get into music or the idea of creating an experience around that solely around that?

Yeah. Um, I'm all for painting the right picture, painting the full picture. It doesn't make any sense to talk about African culture. And you're focusing on only one of maybe a hundred items. And especially when you're, you're introducing it to people who've never been there. Who don't know anything about it. A lot of the times people go home with that one thing and then use it to define every other thing. So I wanted this to be different. We were going to touch on the different, uh, as much as we could expose our customers to authentic African experience and an authentic African experience is community it's music and dance. It's food, it's storytelling. So these at least these four had to be a part of it. And, um, how I got into music, I'm a singer. Um, Have albums out there. And, uh, I started singing when I was about three, all the way back in Cameroon, singing, uh, gold bands, and then started my own thing did back up for some popular singers back home as well. And I moved when I moved here while studying I was singing and touring. So I've always had this with me, but then, like I said, if we go right back to the conversation we had about settling in here and how difficult it was being a musician, it was because I couldn't find places where I could perform and showcase my talents. And I found out that a lot of other Africans who come here, um, We're facing the same issues and it's like, you have to abandon everything that you are to be a part of the community. So that's hard because it really deep into your selfesteem as a person. And I wanted for myself, all these other people, the creatives who come here, um, to have something. Why are we all trying to, uh, adapt to a new environment and get to know people, you know, let's have something that we can call ours that can work for us. And this one cues that we bring. So this, the idea of, um, the house concept was one to give jobs to people who don't have anything. Or don't even know where to start or would do, but they are not able to, um, use creative talents. Create jobs, give them money, um, that he can use for their families or on your families. And, and then just bring it up community together because there's nothing that works as much as. Food, good music, storytelling for people to relax and then learn about each other. Cause I, I said, I didn't even know there was like a big African community here when I moved here. And that's because everybody is living in their own corner, you know? And doing their own things.

And that's, and that's really how you build community is the way in which that you're, you're doing it showcasing all of these different pockets of culture, but I want to hit on more specifically, um, the storytelling piece, because storytelling is such a. important and vital or plays such an important vital role role and how community and culture is continued on. How has, how, how has it the storytelling influenced or does even storytelling. Influence, um, dishes and how that could potentially be passed on or, or how can a story be told or can a story even be told, um, through a particular recipe or, or, um, uh, or dish?

Storytelling is very important in the African Culture or different African cultures from the different African countries, because most of the time, uh, information was passed down from one generation to the other, through, uh, stories. And that would be sometimes around the fireplace why's he pulled out cooking, maybe through song, while cooking, they would sing about, uh, things that people did and especially around ingredients. We are sent to work in the kitchen as early as possible. I started cooking while I was, uh, when I was three, I was in the kitchen with my mom and my sisters all the time. And she would talk about all of these things, you know, and this is how this one is done. There was nothing ever written you learn while doing in the kitchen. We learned about different African, the ones that we had available, the, some of the ingredients that are like almost extinct now, you know, we will learn about all of those things and what to do, what they used to use it to cook for. And the cool thing about African cuisine and the culture around it is always community. You know, there's, there's a dish for when Oh, a mother gives birth. You know, the kind of food that is allowed there, that there are positions for when people get married. And so we'll talk about those things, but then not only talk about them, we would experience them. If someone was getting married in the family, you would be in the kitchen with all the women cooking, learning about how, how to make that dish perfect, the different other ways to make it work. And then some of them, you just, you just, um, You just, you know, try own things and find your own personal recipes. And the only one, the way you do that is by doing it often. And now I have the responsibility to pass it down to my children the same way, telling stories. I now write. My recipes down, of course. And I'm writing those from my parents as well and my grandparents, but I. Th that story telling part of it is what makes it real for me as an African. So that was one of the reasons to why I had to do this because it's something that is slowly disappearing, you now telling the story. 

 Is it, can you, can you tell us, uh, a short story? Nothing long, but something that you know, may have, um, yeah, it's a short story.

 Yes, I can. So, um, I will tell you a story about, well, has it be about food or can I tell them, so I will tell you this story that, um, we learned, this is about a tortoise and why the tortoise has, um, scars on its back. We learn. We grew up learning about these round the fireplace, and this is how it would start. So the tortoise  the tortoise, um, had friends with birds and those, this party up in heaven and all the birds were invited. And since he was friends with them, he. Asked to come along and they said, you're such a good friend. We're going to give you our feathers. And you come with us, on the way there. The tortoise changed his name to all of you. He decided he's name was going to be all of you. So if they asked any of them about his name, everybody should call him all of you. So they went to the party and the host brought out food and drinks and said, this is for all of you. And the tortoise took all of that. Like, my name is all of you. So this is me. This all belongs to me. And then they brought some gifts. He took everything he said, this is for, for all of you. And so the churches took everything and said, Oh, well this is for all of, Oh, if you'd asked me and of course you can imagine that the birds would be like really pissed at this moment being invited him to come along. He wasn't even invited and they gave him fetters and, and everything. So this party comes to an end and of course, everyone is pissed. So they come and they take, yeah, set us away from the touches and the last bird comes and this, as he tells the bird, um, can you tell my wife to prepare some cushions and mattresses and everything possible? So I can have a soft landing is everybody has taken away their wings and their their feathers. And this last bird goes down and tells the tortoise's wife, he says, I'm, your husband says you should bring out all the sharp knives. And quirks and everything, and please they're down there. Something is going to happen, but just put them just right. So I can, I can, I can do what I need to do. And so the wives being very dutiful did just that put out all the knives and sharp objects and everything wondering what is going to happen. And so the tortoise. Very confident, decided it was time to go down and just so he, and he said to fall on his back. So he fell on his back, fell on the shop, things, the knives and everything, and crack them. That's how that's, that's why the tortoise has. Yeah. We call them scars on the back.

That is such an amazing, amazing story. Wow. Wasn't the lesson, the lesson, exactly. The life lessons that come out of that.

Never be greedy. Part of community, B B treat everybody the way you want them to treat you personally, those were really nice to you. You know, you have to treat everybody kindly, but then you need to pay attention to those who go all out for you. And that's what Africa is all about. It's all about community sharing, the little thing, the little thing, even if it's just one mango, you know, split it up, you know, so everybody has a share.

That is absolutely brilliant. I, how, how old were you when you first learned about this, when you first were told this story?

Um like, I can't even remember pretty young, pretty young, pretty young because we, we, we grew up maybe two. We grew up listening to these stories. A lot of them, like some of them are favorite songs, some stories, some of them are sad. Some of them are really funny, but all of them come with a lot of, um, wisdom. Pass down. This is like the thing that you can get in books. 

Yes. Yes. So, so Myra, what is one quick and easy? This that our listeners can make at home? 

Okay. So this one, I think I'm going to stew tomato stew, because he goes with a lot of things and, uh, What you would do is you would wash your tomatoes and then if you wanted to blend them, you would blend up, you blend them onion,  ginger garlic, and you can add some herbs in there too, like basil and, um, uh, celery, if you want. It helps with aromatics. And then what you would do is you would fry your using very little oil. You would fry your tomatoes. So put, blend it all and put it in until it is like done and the water is dried out. And then you would add your onions and cookie too. It's like translucent. And then you would add, um, your ginger and garlic and everything else, and then let it simmer you let it simmer for like, uh, 20 minutes. You can also add proteins. And once you do that. And the water depending too on how you want it to be some people like it, a light, some people like it. I generally prefer it very thick. Uh, and you can use this. It tastes amazing. And of course you can add salt to taste and, um, you can add, uh, like a . Like a chicken stock or beef stock, if you wanted, depending on which kind of person he decided you decided to put in there, it tastes amazing. And it's a base I'm using it because it's a base for a lot of other things. You can use that base to make a peanut stew. You can use it to do peanut sauce. Have you ever tried African peanut sauce? 

I have not. That sounds. Your first tomato dish sounds amazing. What is the, what is the sauce that you're talking about though?

So the peanut sauce is made from peanut. Uh, so you, you roast your peanut, uh, grounded into a paste and then you, uh, base for the, for the, for the, uh, to the tomatoes. You just put, let it sit. Uh, put some water in your, uh, peanut paste and then you introduce it into those two and then you stir it. You'd need to add some water because the paste becomes big. Oh, wow. But then that goes so well on my goalie. Right? And it's like, you can do this in 30 minutes, 20 minutes. If you wanted to, and with the peanut sauce, you can actually use peanut butter that makes it even faster. And you have veggies in there, maybe carrots and green beans. It is amazing. I'm so healthy.

Oh, my goodness. That sounds so good. I cannot wait to make this sauce so good, but thank you. I want to thank you. So, so, so, so much Myra, for coming on, um, this has been an absolutely amazing experience. I really appreciate it. You sharing, um, how you got here, um, why you found this passion and why you're passionate about it. But more importantly, um, the story and the stories that you continue to share with, um, your people and, and, and us that are here. Um, uh, I really, really appreciate it.

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

Well, I'll talk to you soon. Myra, take care. All right.

Thank you, you too.

Shaping Narratives a collection of voices from West Michigan's communities of color is brought to you in partnership with the wk Kellogg Foundation, a partner with communities where children come first. Want to hear more Shaping Narratives episodes download and subscribe at WGVU dot org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe if you get a chance, it helps us to know you're listening. Shaping Narratives is produced by WGVU PBS and NPR in West Michigan through the facilities of the Meijer public broadcast center in the service of Grand Valley State University. Matt Gruppen processed all the audio, Joe Bielecki edits each episode, Vance Orr designed our graphics and manages our Web presence, Phil Lanes is our director of content. The views and opinions expressed in this program are those of the hosts and their guests and do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU or Grand Valley State University.