Sunday, 8 July 2012

Dear Chinua Achebe (1930 - ),

So many authors love it when things get ironic. Not Alanis-Morrissette-meeting-the-married-man-of-your-dreams fake ironic, but wink-wink-subverted-expectations real ironic. (Alanis, if you're reading this, please note the below.)

 < Ironic

      Not ironic >

Misunderstanding irony in a song about irony = meta-ironic.

Mr. Achebe, your novel "Things Fall Apart" contains one of the best uses of irony I've seen in fiction. In a book about (among other things) Christian missionaries in Africa and the notion of religion as its own form of imperialism, you based a human sacrifice on a Biblical fable. Things fall apart, as the title says, when Okonkwo, a Nigerian village leader and yam farmer, kills Ikemefuna, his ersatz son, to fulfil an oracle. Pretty much the same thing (but with a softer ending) occurs in Genesis, when Abraham very nearly kills his son Isaac because God told him to, but an angel of God stops him at the last second and he sacrifices a ram instead.

Given that you originally wrote the novel (somewhat controversially) in English, and it has been very widely read in Western countries (possibly more so than any other African novel), this was a smart move. If you had represented human sacrifice in a Nigerian village without that kind of parallel, readers might have seen it as a cultural problem; but by pairing it with a Biblical equivalent, you frame human sacrific as an anthropological problem. There are killings in Okonkwo's village, you tell us, but the traditions and stories of the supposedly 'civilising' missionaries are no less brutal.

(Incidentally, one of the reasons I became a literary scholar is so that I could train my otherwise blankly accepting mind to detect all the secret messages and hidden codes in stories. If I hadn't done that, I would still think that Citizen Kane is about how newspaper work isn't as fun as snowsports.)

Anyway, this is all beside the point. In "Things Fall Apart," there is a New Yam Festival - a time for the old to be swept out, the new to be brought in, and the bounty of yams to be celebrated:

“The pounded yam dish placed in front of the partakers of the festival was as big as a mountain. People had to eat their way through it all night and it was only during the following day when the pounded yam “mountain” had gone down that people on one side recognized and greeted their family members on the other side of the dish for the first time."

The reason I bring up irony, Mr. Achebe, is this. I had the genius thought of pounding grated yams into hash cakes and eating them, fried with tomatoes, for brunch. I did NOT have the attendant genius thought that, in my long history of trying to make hash cakes, they've almost always disintegrated. I forgot the possibility of falling-apart hash cakes because I was contemplating "Things Fall Apart." < IRONY!

Luckily, they didn't (too much), and by the time I piled on tomatoes and an oozing poached egg, it didn't seem to matter. So there we go. Ironically almost-falling apart yam hash cakes from "Things Fall Apart."

Alanis, I hope you've been taking notes.

Yam Hash Cakes with Fried Tomatoes & Oozy Poached Egg

Serves 2

500g yams (oxalis tuberosa - not giant sweet potatoes)
3 eggs
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp dried garlic flakes
2 tomatoes
1/2C baby spinach leaves
1 tbsp oil
1 tbsp white vinegar


Beat one of the eggs in a reasonably roomy bowl, and add the paprika and garlic flakes.

Wash and dry the yams, and remove any fibrous bits (I usually top & tail 'em). Grate them into a big mountain of yam mush. Squeeze the liquid out of the grated yam, and add the solids to the bowl. Chop the spinach leaves into thin strips, and add most of those as well (reserve some to garnish).

Mix the grated yam & chopped spinach through the egg and seasonings until it's all combined.

Heat the oil in a large frypan over medium-high heat. Chop the tomatoes in half and add them, face down, to the pan.

Shape the yam mixture into patties and cook in the oil for about 6 minutes each side, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

Meanwhile, poach the remaining two eggs. Bring a pot of water to a gentle simmer, and add the vinegar. Crack the eggs into small dishes, and slip them into the water. (I realise this sounds like needless creation of dirty dishes, but trust me. It's much easier on your eggs this way, and their whites won't spin out of control like Tom Cruise's marriages.) Simmer for 3 minutes, then remove and dry on the paper towels with the hash cakes.

Stack the yam hash cakes into two piles, and top each pile with two fried tomato halves and a poached egg. Garnish with the leftover spinach strips, some aioli if you have it, and some extra smoked paprika. If you're feeling hedonistic, pierce the egg yolk and watch it ooze.

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