WATCH: Maaza Mengiste in Conversation with Chef Evan Hanczor
Live with Tables of Contents
On the first episode of TOC Snacks, a new series of Instagram Live interviews with Tables of Contents, watch Booker Prize Award finalist Maaza Mengiste in conversation with Evan Hanczor. They share snacks and talk spices (the hot kind), writing, and her new book, The Shadow King.
From the episode:
Evan: Hey y’all thanks for coming through. Hope everyone’s having a good Tuesday. Maaza just joined and I’m going to ask her to come on board. Let’s see if it works the way this is supposed to. Otherwise I’ll be drinking by myself. Hey Maaza!
Maaza: Hi! How are you? Good to see you!
Evan: Good to see you!
Maaza: It’s dark, is this okay?
Evan: It looks good to me! I don’t know about everyone else but it looks great…I love that red wall.
Maaza: You know, I’ve realized it’s been red for a while. I was going to paint it and then lock down happened. But now I’ve realized that orange clashes with red (gestures to outfit). So now I’ve realized you have to be careful not to match the wall.
Evan: Totally! Well I dig it. I have fond memories of this one friend’s house in college, every time I see that shade it immediately transports me back. It’s kind of wild, so thank you for that.
Maaza: That’s great! And I think I read somewhere that red is supposed to help with the appetite.
Evan: I read something once, it was either red or yellow that McDonalds had purposefully made part of its color scheme and one was supposed to help with the appetite and the other was supposed to make them feel a little unsettled so they wouldn’t linger too long, so they would get out of there subconsciously. I don’t think it’s the red clearly because you are comfortable.
Maaza: Oh my god! It’s the orange that’s a little unsettling.
Evan: Well, I want to say cheers to start, thank you so much for doing this.
[Both lift glasses in toast]
Evan: What are you drinking?
Maaza: You know, we are officially in winter, but I still have rosé and white wine in the fridge.
Evan: You have to use it!
Maaza: I have to! So why not now—And I just realized I also match. So there we go.
Evan: Perfect! I also have a collar match going on here. I have a beer spritz, which is kind of like an Aperitivo, like a Campari spritz, but with beer instead of sparkling wine or soda water. It’s really good. Really good.
Maaza: I want that recipe! You know the German’s do this thing where they mix, not a seven-up, but some kind of carbonated drink like that with their beer.
Evan: I guess in Spain they do that, they make the Calimocho, where they mix red wine and Coca Cola. A step in a different direction. I love this Aperitivo from, it’s called Forthave Spirits, and they’re based in Brooklyn. They did some cocktails for the dinner we did with Marlon James last year and they were proposing different drinks and one of them is what you call a “Picon Biere”. I guess it’s classic in certain parts of France, and I’d never heard of it, but I like beer and I like spritzes and I haven’t stopped since I got started on that.
Maaza: I love that, I’m going to try that! It sounds really good.
Evan: I guess we should say hi to everyone else who is here. Thanks everyone, for tuning in to part 1 of TOC Snacks, which is sort of our new attempt at doing something on Instagram live. It feels like a way to connect with everyone and share some low-key food and drinks together with amazing authors. If anyone doesn’t know our guest I’m a little jealous because you will get to newly discover her work which has been an amazing process for us, but Maaza Mengiste is the author most recently of The Shadow King, which I have up here. Go check it out, it’s out in paperback most recently and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Huge congratulations Maaza, that’s amazing. How does that feel?
Maaza: It’s surreal. [laughs] It’s unreal. It feels like it’s happened to someone else and then periodically I remind myself that, oh my god it’s my book. In a year full of bad news, it’s cool.
Evan: Yeah! You have to take wins, and this is definitely a win, not just for you but for everyone. It’s so deserving and captivating and epic but personal and intimate. And we will talk a little about some of the scenes through this, especially around food. But, I guess one thing I wanted to ask before we get started, I don’t know if you brought something, but is there anything you are snacking on during this?
Maaza: I am, you know I am participating in an absolutely wonderful festival out of Nigeria called Ake, it’s one of my favorite festivals. And they sent the authors a care package and I decided I would have something here. This is called, maybe Nigerians recognize this, kuli kuli, there was one I told you about that was shredded chicken. But I didn’t want to get my desk completely covered in shredded chicken. This is ground nut chips.
Evan: Oh cool! What do they taste like?
Maaza: I don’t know! We are going to try it and see if it goes with the rosé.
Evan: [laughs] Amazing! I didn’t know we were debuting a new snack here, that’s unreal. I can’t wait to see this.
Maaza: If we have any Nigerians watching they can give us hints.
Evan: It looks like we have someone who says they love kuli kuli in Ghana.
Maaza: It looks a bit like weed, (makes a smoking joint gesture) laughs, or a little tiny cigar, depending on your flavor. It’s really good. Oh my god!
Evan: That was a great snap! A great-sounding crack, nice and crisp.
Maaza: Now I have to chew gracefully but yes! Oh it’s really good. So I don’t know how to describe it, there’s some spice in it, there’s a deep earthy taste to it, it has a somewhat familiar taste, it’s like a ground nut!
Evan: That’s amazing! I love the idea of sending this place-based food care package as a way of bringing some of the place you can’t be, into your home, right? Food is such an amazing way to do that.
Maaza: Yeah, it’s such a wonderful thing. Speaking of food, the food I had at Ake, in Nigeria while I was there…I thought Ethiopians love spicy food, I thought we had the market on that, and it was so good and so rich and so many flavors, and one of my best memories of that night, Evan, it was the closing night, and I’m sorry for all the vegetarians, but there was this big goat that was on this stick, and there were just lines of people and they were cutting off pieces and it was just roasting outside, we had beer and music, and it was amazing.
Evan: That’s one of the main things people miss about literary festivals, the gatherings and the actual party.
Maaza: It’s the gatherings! And Bisi (a guest in the chat) is telling me its ground nuts mixed with corn flour.
Evan: Oh! That must be what gives it that crispness and dries it out a little bit. Yeah, this past weekend, I had had it on my calendar…and I don’t know if anyone else had this experience, but all year I had these things popping up on my calendar that were supposed to happen but didn’t happen, right? And so, I’m reminded of the loss that I had kind of already forgotten about or gotten over. But every year we do a big thing called the “Beast Feast” up in Connecticut at my family’s house. And we’ll roast a whole pig, last year we did two lambs on spits, again sorry to the vegetarians, but it sounds like what you are describing: This amazing gathering. There’s nothing, maybe there is, but there are few things like a huge roasted animal or piece of meat that is so essential, that brings people together. And the sort of awe and respect even around the kind of eating that happens in a setting like that. It’s my favorite time of the year, and of course, this year, it’s not happening. But next year! Next year I hope.
Maaza: Next year!
Evan: I brought some peanuts, I don’t know if you can see, these are peanuts by a guy I know in Brooklyn, his name is Derek Lucci. He makes these tom-yum-seasoned peanuts. And they have Kaffir (Makrut) lime leaf and all these spices and it’s my first time ordering them. But they are amazing.
Maaza: Oh, my God. Evan, I hope that you’re going to keep track of all these things that you’re mentioning right now. So you can send us. Because I would love to know.
Evan: We’ll post all this. We’ll post all this stuff later. And maybe some of these things can one day become part of like a Tables of Contents care package that can go out to everyone. Yeah. I’m supposed to save some of these to send to my wife’s sister who’s chiming in right now down in New Orleans. So I had to set aside a small amount for me and then the rest somewhere that I’m going to forget about so I don’t eat them all.
So I want to get into the book a little bit because I was reading this and there weren’t a huge number of scenes that I marked that had food in them, but the ones that did felt very critical. And so well-written and such a deft use of food in different ways, I was curious how you sort of came to choose food as the vehicle that was going to serve that purpose in that moment in the book. Certainly in the opening, sort of the very opening right after the prologue, we are introduced or brought back, you know, to sort of our chronologically earliest introduction to Hirut. And she’s next to a fire. A pile of onions. There’s meat roasting and it sort of sets this immediate scene that brings everybody into that moment and understanding not just the visual of what’s happening, but the smell and the sound, the crackle of fire and the pungency of the onions and the sort of texture even of the meat. You know, the slipperiness of the meat. I was wondering if that was a conscious choice of a way you wanted to sort of begin that portion of the book.
Maaza: That’s true. Yes. That’s it. No one else has asked me that. And it was a very deliberate choice because I knew that once the war came in, once the Italians invaded, the way that people ate, the way they gathered food, the time that they had to cook, all of that completely changed. And if you can imagine that Ethiopia is a communal society, you know, we eat around a large tray, we eat together, all of those things were going to change. And I wanted to reflect part of how it used to be, to develop how it started to change once the war came in. And the food, I mean to connect to the food was the idea of the cook, who was one of my main characters. You know, this woman who’s full, who cooks. But because everything has been taken away from her, including her history and all of this, she’s an enslaved person. She’s just called the cook.
Evan: Her name has been taken away. It’s just her role, her “purpose”.
Maaza: Yeah. And that idea of cooking and the usefulness of that, you know, you need it to survive, which means you need this woman to survive. It was all connected together. So I was well aware I wanted to establish her. And the maid Hirut very early on. And most of what they would do would be those household chores. And cooking was one of the main things. But Evan, I have to tell you that the biggest challenge for me with those scenes was this is 1935. There is no oven. There’s no stove. I had to think about how did—I know that my grandmother, when I was living with my grandparents in Ethiopia, when I was a kid, there were ways of cooking without electricity—how would I describe that? What was it called in English? So it was a big struggle to get that as accurate as possible in as few words, because the way they cooked was so different.
Evan: I can imagine that. For me, you know, I love cookbooks because they preserve these histories and can share knowledge about how things were done, especially in this country that we’re in in America in particular, the traditions of cookery and the way things are passed down are maybe more frayed even than in many other places. For lots of other reasons that were not going to get into today. But I love seeing that sort of knowledge and those details woven into the stories of that time, to a story in history. So it’s not existing, oftentimes cookbooks you’re sort of imagining the story that existed around when they were written. But to see that food in its context, in fiction in particular, just feels so…I know it makes me feel a lot of things. And I definitely felt that in that opening scene in particular. And we also see the cook. I mean, as a restaurant owner, I guess I can still say that if anyone is unaware, I have a restaurant called Egg in Williamsburg, which is closing on Sunday after 15 years in the neighborhood. So a long time of being a part of the neighborhood. We’re hoping it’s somewhat temporary. But anyway, just to set the stage of where I’m coming from and why I’m drinking on a Tuesday. It’s sort of the character of the cook that made me think a little bit how we failed to name the people who do that kind of work in our society as well. Whereas the chef, “The Chef”, is idolized and has the TV shows and the stories and the cookbooks, but the cook or the cooks who do all the work are rarely named or acknowledged, as critical as they are. And we see here, near the end of the book, just how critical the cook is to Hirut and Aster’s survival, beyond feeding them. Although that’s the moment to moment importance. There is sort of like a long game importance for the cook’s role.
I’m going to skip ahead a little bit to the almost to the heart, truly the center of the book, when the war has begun or is really about to truly begin for Kidane and Hirut. And there’s a scene, a really disturbing, a violent scene, where Kidane rapes Hirut. After that scene, just after Aklilu comes in and offers a deep kindness to Hirut and it comes in the shape of food, in the shape of a sort of recontextualized tradition of gursha, and I would love to hear you talk about how that scene came to be, because it is this moment where Hirut has sort of been cut down to rock bottom, as you would say. And this is a sort of moment of our transformation. It felt like the middle of the book turning over into the next part of its story. And it happened in this moment of food. So I’d just love to hear you talk a little about that.
Maaza: Yeah. It’s you know, I mentioned before how, you know, communal eating is in Ethiopia. Meals, food, it’s really central to the culture, to all the different cultures in Ethiopia. And one of the things that I have grown up with is this act called gursha, which really happens at the end of a meal when the guests have gathered at the host’s house and someone will look at someone else that is honored or is the guest, you know, someone that they care for. It’s a sign of affection. And we’ll have one last handful of food, often a mix of all the best dishes, you know, in this injera. And it can be hilarious because I’ve seen these huge handfuls. So someone’s trying to stuff it in somebody else’s face and they’re, you know, they’re full and they can’t have any more, but they can’t really say no. But that act of feeding is really intimate, because it’s such a gesture of generosity. It’s symbolic of this kindness. You know, like may the world be kind to you when you leave here is the way that I’ve often imagined that to mean. And this scene, where Hirut has just been completely devastated by what Kidane has done, she can’t really move. Aklilu has come. And he’s the one person that she trusts and he wants her to eat so that she can get some strength and she really can’t move. But he thinks and he gives her this gursha in a bite that’s not overpowering, it’s just enough for her to eat. And I think at that moment, she says something about, “it was as if he was feeding her, as if she were a guest and she were loved by somebody.” And when you know, when I was writing that scene, that moment, it started running away from me. Aklilu was doing this before I could catch up in my writing, I would see it. I thought, what a wonderful symbolic act of just saying you will be cared for. You know, somebody is watching over you. And it was with food and it was gursha.
Evan: Yeah, it was so intimate and sensual and measured. I loved how you describe that, that it was just enough for you, that so many times people try to offer us kindnesses or things that we’re not able to accept for one reason or another and knowing what someone needs and what they can accept and sort of finding that perfect balance. I mean, that does seem like the essence of the gursha I was telling you about, my friend who is describing his mother’s version. And how she would make the perfect bite for him because she knew exactly, as he grew, what his mouth could hold. And you know how that changed And what flavors he liked. And it was just so particular and such a powerful moment. And also one that Hirut would be aware of, but may not have been the recipient of, due to her role in the household. So perhaps the first or one of the first times she had received that gesture. And then it’s sort of placed against this next scene, the beginning of the following sort of chapter where Kidane is thinking about what he’s done and is unable to eat his breakfast. And so there’s this moment of receiving food as a way of sort of restoring strength, restoring identity and really life for Hirut. And then this other side where someone who has oppressed, has done something terrible, can’t receive that. Can’t take in the thing that their body still needs. It was just so beautiful, and one of the most well-crafted and sort of, I don’t know, exciting food moments that I had seen in a book. So I was really excited to hear about how it came to be.
Maaza: Thank you. Have you had Ethiopian food before? Just let me ask you quick.
Evan: Yeah. I really like Ethiopian food. I live near a restaurant called Awash, which is in Cobble Hill. They have another restaurant called Ras Plant Based over in Bed Stuy. Both are really, really good. I usually get the—I’m not vegetarian—but I often eat mostly vegetables and have an amazing sort of vegan spread of different lentils and collards and salads and, you know, different tastes and spreads. And I love eating that way too. And that’s something that I miss, not just the Ethiopian manner, but all of that sort of reaching across the table and sharing bites and passing food. And obviously, that’s something that we’re not really able to do as much now. How have you been eating recently? Not to say that you only eat around a shared table, but what has your eating been like in this time or you’re cooking been like in this time?
Maaza: You know, I eat meat, but I don’t know how to cook with meat well so I, I’ve been cooking a lot of vegetables, a lot of vegetable, vegetarian dishes, you know, with rice or with pasta or veggie, meats, fish, things like that. But for a large part of this pandemic, I was on a fellowship in Zurich in Switzerland, and I was there when the lockdown happened. And my flight was canceled and it was just a mess. So my fellowship was still going. So I stayed there for a while longer. But the one thing I understood was that the Swiss understanding of spice was going to be very different from an Ethiopian understanding.
Evan: [laughing] It’s a different language, like a seasoning language.
Maaza: So the only way I survived there is that I brought this jar (shows camera jar). I had packed like a smaller version of this. I don’t know if you can see it, but it’s awaze. It’s crushed red pepper spice. And this awaze is, I can mix it with, let’s say, olive oil or melty Ethiopian butter and mix it and it can be a dip. I can cook it, put it on food. It’s, really interesting because I mean, bear with me here, I have another device. Do you see the difference?
Evan: Yeah. A little bit of a shade difference. I can’t read the labels.
Maaza: This is berbere. But I got this really spicy, like it’s spice forward. And this is something that you would cook with onions and salt, you know, really cook it down, cook it down, cook it down. So when you have the Ethiopian, what, like the red stews that are spicy? It’s what this is! Yeah, it needs to be cooked. But I knew I would not be cooking like that in Switzerland. So I brought this, which has the spices further back. It doesn’t burn your tongue. And so I packed this and I cooked at home because we were in lockdown. I mean, I was in Zurich. Right? Lifesaver.
Evan: Were you having guests at that point, like you could have the spicy version for yourself?
Maaza: Yes. Just because everything was shut down. So I was like, OK, I’m going to start doing different things with this. And let me see, you know, I would go to the store or order delivery and just try to mix it up with different things in different ways. Make pastes, cook, you know, marinade things, and cook. And it saved me because I need my spice. I am one of those people that if the doctor ever told me that I couldn’t handle it for whatever reason, I don’t know what I would do. You know, the people that have had Covid where they lose their sense of taste, when I first heard that, I remember thinking, oh my god, what if you go through life without that? I was really glad to hear those people who lost that sensation were recovered.
Evan: Totally! Do you cook? Is your cooking process similar to your writing process or are you a different kind of cook than you are a writer? Do you follow recipes and also follow outlines?
Maaza: That’s a good question. That is a good question because I was going to make a joke like, you know, god forbid it ever takes me as long to cook a meal as it did to write this book. I think that, right now, I haven’t been following recipes, but I want to because I’d like to learn how to do more than one thing that this lockdown has forced on all of us. I mean, my husband and I really love to go out to eat. It’s just one of the joys of living in the city. And we can’t do that now. And I miss it. But I’d like to learn how to do more things. I can’t. I’m not one of the cooks that can say, well, I have this. I’ll throw it together.
Evan: How about when you’re writing? It seems like this book or actually both your books probably took a lot of research for details, but how did you piece those things together? Is it an outline? Is it just sort of like: write scenes and then swap them around? What do you do?
Maaza: I have to think about that. I think that I didn’t outline the first book. The second one, I knew how the war went. And then I just started writing the events. And, you know, that’s the first draft and then as you go on, as I went on, I would start to outline what I had and what needed to happen. Yeah. So maybe a mix of both, eventually.
Evan: Yeah. Which I think is the right place to be. And it’s sort of like with cooking, you want to be able to look at a recipe and follow it well, because some things require that. But also understand, when you get to a certain point and you taste it and it’s not right that you have the agency to change directions. Actually, this may be sort of like when writing maybe history and fiction. This may be what happened, but it doesn’t feel like what should have happened. So I’m going to just change it a little bit. So it follows the story that I’m telling or the meal that I’m cooking.
Maaza: That sounds like a chef. That’s what I want to learn how to do. I want to cook like that. If I stumble, I’m gone.
Evan: Yeah, you can send me a picture. You know if you’re cooking, you can send me a picture of your spices like, hey, I don’t have this one. What should I do? And I’m happy to consult!
I guess before we go. Maybe one other question. What do you tend to eat when you’re writing and do you change the way you eat, when you’re sort of living your normal life versus when you’re writing or you’re working on a project?
Maaza: Yeah? Maybe? When I’m writing, when I’m snacking, I just have a lot of you know almonds, I have Brazil nuts. I have those, I just have those things I can eat—things that don’t get my hands dirty because I’m going to be typing things that don’t have crumbs everywhere because we’re in New York. When I’m not writing, I’m not at my desk, so I don’t often feel that urge to snack, the way that you do when you’re sitting for five hours or whatever. So I think I eat differently. But frankly, right when I finished the book, I think we basically went into lockdown, so, yeah, I’ve been in snacking a lot.
Evan: Well this has been so great. I know we said, six thirty and I know you have another call seven. But let’s do this again. I’ll check in on you and sort of see what new spices or snacks you’ve developed. Maybe you’ll start snacking on the kuli kuli as a writer, you know, going forward.
Maaza: And yes, send me a recipe, Evan. I’m going to try it.
Evan: I will. And I want to know the names of those spices too! I guess where do you buy Ethiopian spices in New York?
Maaza: Well, in New York, I actually I either get them when I go to D.C. or friends of my relatives bring it from D.C…But, I have these from Ethiopia, from travels. So I will find out where to get it in New York and I will let you know.
Evan: OK. I went to, there’s two like West African markets on Broadway. Sort of Bushwick, Williamsburg, one is called Keita. And I forget the name of the other, but I went there for the Marlon (James) dinner when we were doing this whole, very expansive menu and I needed all sorts of ingredients that I wouldn’t have found, you know, down the street or at the Whole Foods or whatever. But it was really great, all sorts of smoked fishes and different kinds of grains and tef, spices. But I don’t remember if they had particularly Ethiopian ingredients. I’ll check next time.
Maaza: I will check for you. I will let you know. You should really add awaze to your repertoire.
Evan: I need it on the counter. I was going to show you, like my seven different kinds of red pepper flakes. But I’ll wait until I have awaze on there. And then we’ll go through the whole pile.
Maaza: We’ll do that, Evan.
Evan: All right. Well, thank you so much, Maaza, for doing this. Congratulations on the Booker short list. So excited, we’re rooting for you. My thanks to everyone who tuned in tonight. We’ll be doing more of this and hope to see you back, on TOC Snacks.
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Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A Fulbright Scholar and professor in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation programme at Queens College, she is the author of The Shadow King and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, which was named one of the Guardian‘s Ten Best Contemporary African Books. Her work can be found in the New Yorker, Granta, and the New York Times, among other publications. She lives in New York City.