Just Like Obama

I tried to be Kenyan the other day, but it didn't work out.

Commonwealth School had its second annual "diversity" potluck lunch — a festive and delicious event where everyone is asked to bring in something good to eat. Preferably something that's meaningful and ethnic.

I'm short on ethnic.

Hopper's rendition of the lighthouse at the
end of my childhood street

When I was a kid, a lunch like this would have terrified me. On the southern coast of Maine, we didn't have diversity potlucks (or diversity at all for that matter), and if we did I wouldn't have attended. In the early '70s kids spent a lot of time standing around on the playground asking, "What are you?" In Cape Elizabeth it seemed the only acceptable answers were: English, French, Scottish, etc.... Irish, or Italian, perhaps, but, even if I had known where I came from, African certainly wouldn't have flown. As it was, I didn't have anything to say, so I would just slink away, panicked that the group would eventually turn to me, although I think we had a tacit agreement they never would.

I was adopted, and not only did I not look like anyone in my family, I didn't look like anyone in my school or town either. No one else I knew had brown skin (except Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., and the Jeffersons), and my mother couldn't or wouldn't give me any answers.

Where's Janetta?

When I called my birth mother out of the blue at the age of 32, it only took about five minutes to fill in the black hole of my life (pun not intended, but it works). I'm half English and half Kenyan. My mother (the one I grew up without and now the only one I have left) can trace her family back to Henry Sampson, a passenger on the Mayflower. Google says he's Sarah Palin's ancestor too, but it's something I don't like to think about. My father was an international engineering student from Nairobi who my mother met the summer before her freshman year at Tufts.

Having grown up WASP and never known or cooked with any Kenyans, I now have the answers but still no food. No one wants kidney pie at a high school potluck, but I don't really feel the Kenyan connection. I was at loss — what should I make? Guacamole? Deviled eggs? Nothing seemed right.

Then fate stepped in. My new issue of Saveur arrived in the mail just a week before the scheduled lunch, and the magazine ran an article about Kenyan food.

James Fisher's photos for Saveur

I thought it was a sign.

It was not.

I made the Kuku Wa Nazi (chicken stewed in coconut milk) and it looked like vomit and tasted like nothing, so I threw the whole thing away like a week-old portion of fish. Nine pasty-looking chicken thighs swimming in a quart of coconut milk that no amount of turmeric or garlic could penetrate was not something I could share with pride. I really think they mistyped the recipe since I doubled the amount of chicken but kept the coconut milk measurement the same. I don't blame Saveur — it's still my favorite foodie magazine. My ethnic enlightenment just wasn't meant to be.

I arrived at the potluck empty-handed and filled with guilt. But even without a Kenyan contribution, the lunch was a huge success. My favorite dish was Mara's cheese enchiladas, which she'll write about next week.

The night before I had made an Indian curry, which I'll share with you here. I'm not Indian, but cabdrivers always think I am, and it was very tasty, which is all anyone really wants out of a potluck anyway.

Indian-Spiced Cauliflower and Potatoes
adapted from Gourmet TODAY

The original recipe doesn't call for a can of tomatoes, but it turns the dish into a curry; otherwise, it's more of a side dish. If you choose to omit the tomatoes, add 1/2 c water instead.

1 medium head cauliflower, cored and cut into 3/4"- wide florets
1 1/2 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2" cubes
5 T vegetable oil
1/2 t cumin seeds
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopeed
2 t minced jalapeño, including seeds
2 t peeled fresh ginger
1 t ground cumin
1/2 t ground coriander
1/4 t turmeric
1/4 t cayenne
1 14 oz can of whole peeled tomatoes

Accompaniment: thick Greek yougurt mixed with chopped garlic, salt, and cucumber to taste and nan bread, available pre-packaged at Whole Foods

Put a rack in upper third of over and put a baking sheet on rack. Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

Toss cauliflower and potatoes with 3 T oil, cumin seeds, and 1/4 t salt in a bowl. Transfer to hot baking sheet, spread out in one layer and roast, stirring occasionally until potatoes are just tender and cauliflower is tender and browned in spots, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat remaining 2 T oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add onion, garlic, jalapeño, and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, until very soft and beginning to turn golden, 8 – 10 minutes.

Add ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, and ½ t salt to onion and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Drain tomatoes and break up with your hands or a fork into the skillet, breaking up any browned bits from the bottom.

Stir roasted vegetables into tomato mixture and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, until flavors are blended. Serve with yogurt mixture and nan.