Issue 35, Final Fringe

Garbanzo Beans for Breakfast

by Marissa Landrigan Issue 32 10.08.2012


Garbanzo beans for breakfast


The Nutritional Benefits of Animal Protein Consumption in Developing Nations

Some people need to eat meat. Others need to eat less.

My third morning in Ghana, my mother and I emerged from the guest bedroom we were sharing, hair wet from the shower, skin already beginning to bead up with moisture in the heavy July heat of West Africa, and padded across the bare concrete floor of the living room. No one else was yet seated behind the dressing screen folded around the card table that designated the dining area, but we knew that they had been up for hours, waking in the three a.m. dark to begin chores while we huddled beneath our mosquito nets and tried to ignore the five a.m. rooster call. We sat and waited. Egg substitute, the kind that comes in a cardboard carton and gets mixed with water to form an edible substance, sat on my plate like a pancake. Two cans waited side-by-side on the table, an open can of thick, sweet evaporated milk and an unopened can of garbanzo beans.

Mr. Mensah soon joined us, the man who had been my mother’s boss for a year, a softly dignified man, the principal of the teaching training college at which she had volunteered. His royal-blue gown draped richly across the dark skin of his arm.

“Oh,” he said, so softly, and picked up the garbanzo beans and left the room. I felt a moment of relief. I hate garbanzo beans. They crumble too softly and easily between my teeth, like chewing sticky pads of dirt, like flavorless peanut butter stuck in a thick paste against the roof of my mouth. The idea of eating them, gritty and cold, for breakfast, made my already sensitive stomach turn. I heard the screen door that led toward Adjoa’s outdoor kitchen creak open and slam behind Mr. Mensah, and his distant voice, staccato, calling, “Mother.” And just as soon, he returned, open can of slimy beige beans waiting, in hand. He lowered the can, graciously, directly in front of me on the table.

“Adjoa is worried about you,” he said. “You need protein.”


I visited Ghana with my mother in the summer of 2007, a year after she had Africa. My mother had lived with the Mensahs for a year, volunteering at the teacher training college Mr. Mensah headed in rural Bechem, five hours on pock-marked red dirt roads from the capital city of Accra. She’d promised the family she would return to visit, and when she did, I went with her. The trip became a sort of experiment in expanding my thinking about my parents. I’d always thought I was the activist in the family, the overtly political one. But I traveled thousands of miles to see the continent where my white, upper-middle class mom had volunteered for nine months, away from her family and the stability of the suburb. I slept in the room where she took her daily malaria medication and made lesson plans and practiced her Twi (the African dialect spoken in Ghana). She was the one out in the world, making a difference, putting on HIV/AIDS awareness plays and forming non-profit cocoa-growing cooperatives to help fund education for women and children. Was it possible that my mother was actually much more radical than me?

I was lucky, when I visited Africa, that I was not a complete stranger, because my mother could explain in advance that her whiter-than-a-Beluga daughter did not, in fact, eat meat. Voluntarily. And Adjoa, the matriarch of the Mensah family, had, for the entire two weeks I’d stayed in their enormous-by-Bechem-standards, one-story, two-bedroom house, cooked me three meals a day without meat.

Even so, Adjoa’s idea of being a vegetarian was not quite as nuanced as the idea has become in the United States. One night, she made her famous pepe soup, a watery broth the deep rust color of an heirloom tomato, spiked with grated red pepper of some kind. This was neither the smoky burn of chipotle nor the clean, wet heat of a jalapeno, nor the coarse cough-in-the-back-of-your-throat of black pepper. This was fire engine. This was nose-running, ears-sweating, hair-frizzing heat, the kind of heat that I felt under my skin like a sunburn, blood surging towards the surface. My lips tingled, nearly numb by the time I reached the bottom of the bowl.

I’m a picky vegetarian white girl from the suburbs of New England, so this was a little outside my comfort zone. But so was Africa. I relished every obstacle, every unfamiliarity there as a learning experience, as a jolt of electricity, so I ate the entire, blistering bowl of pepe soup. But as I lifted the heavy ceramic bowl to my mouth, to swallow the last few drops, I saw faint grey flecks stuck like algae beneath the last dredges of broth. The remnants of the shredded goat that Adjoa cooked in the pepe soup before serving it, careful to ladle my bowl full without any meat.

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Marissa Landrigan

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Marissa Landrigan’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Orion, Guernica, Diagram, and elsewhere, and she is a regular nonfiction contributor to The Nervous Breakdown. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where she completed a food narrative tentatively titled The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat, from which this essay is excerpted. She currently lives in Pennsylvania, where she teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown, and blogs about becoming un-vegetarian at