How to Cook a Crocodile:
A Memoir with Recipes
by Bonnie Lee Black
Peace Corps Writers, October 2010
Paperback, 448 pages
When my parents lived in Monrovia, Liberia for two years as humanitarian workers, they’d often compose lengthy emails describing their new eating habits. Food was a safe subject of conversation compared to the aftermath of civil war. Preparing meals also helped them connect with neighbors and a new lifestyle that provided only a few daily hours of electricity, a volunteer’s budget, and indoor markets teeming with unfamiliar ingredients.
While reading How to Cook a Crocodile, which highlights Bonnie Lee Black’s Peace Corps years in the central West African country of Gabon (at nearly 450 pages, a four-course meal in itself!), I wished that my mother and Ms. Black could meet. Anyone who’s watched a loved one serve abroad will connect to Black’s candid account of the emotional cyclone that often accompanies an American humanitarian worker’s overseas assignment. Indeed, the crocodile in the book’s title becomes a metaphor for self-transformation. As Black reminds herself and her readers: change can invite adventure and humility.
What makes Black’s story unique is that she started Peace Corps nearing the age of 50, leaving behind both a celebrated catering career, as well as deep emotional traumas. Yet her past experiences with loss bind Black to many of the women she befriends in Gabon. Mirroring her radically diverse life, How to Cook a Crocodile unfolds in a hybrid form spiced with letters, photographs, and flashbacks that provide focused glimpses into the author’s metamorphosis.
Through it all, food remains the universal language that enables Bonnie Lee Black to thrive. She often fuels her writing with quotes from M.F.K. Fisher (another author with ingenuity and pluck who refused to give up on humanity’s potential—and the meals that sustain both belly and soul). And at the end of each chapter, Black includes recipes, some from cooking lessons with local Gabonese master cooks, others clipped from the glossy pages of Gourmet Magazine and adapted to a refrigerator-less existence: Green Papaya Pie, Kidney Stew, Sautéed Fillets of Fish with Sorrel Sauce. She soon earns the nickname “The Martha Stewart of Gabon” and leads cooking schools for fellow aid workers, teaches English via cooking lessons, and develops bread-making workshops for Gabonese women. She even bakes the town’s first Western-style wedding cake, a not-so-minor miracle.
While How to Cook a Crocodile can be overly ambitious in its attempt to weave together a complicated backstory, it succeeds overall due to Black’s honesty, humor, and astonishingly creative resiliency. If given the chance, I’d travel—and eat a crocodile—with Bonnie Lee Black just about anywhere.
March 5, 2012