“My African Mother” by Marcus Samuelsson
I am reading Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir, “Yes, Chef.” I checked it out of the library’s ebook collection because I have seen the author as a judge on cooking competition shows like “Top Chef” and “Chopped” and I like books about chefs and restaurants.
Marcus Samuelsson was born in Ethipia, and the first chapter of the book, “My African Mother,” is an essay about his birth mother. When she and her children all fell ill with tuberculosis, she walked many miles from her remote village with two year old Marcus on her back and his five year old sister by her side to reach a hospital in Addis Ababa. She died there, but her children recovered and were eventually sent to Sweden to be adopted by the Samuelsson family.
Samuelsson has no real memory of her, but has spent a lifetime trying to know her. He has never seen a photograph of her, but says he knows her features because he has seen them staring back at him in the mirror his whole life. He cooks Ethiopian food using the traditional spice mixture called berbere, and writes:
Today, in the dead of night when I should be sleeping, I sometimes imagine the breath of the woman who not only gave me life, but delivered me from death. I sometimes reach into that tin by my stove, take a handful of berbere, sift it through my fingers and toss it into the pan…I have taught myself the recipes of my mother’s people, because those foods are for me, as a chef, the easiest connection to the mysteries of who my mother was.
Samuelsson’s longing to know his missing mother is beautifully expressed here, and doesn’t in any way diminish his love for his adoptive parents. (Chapter 2 is called “My Swedish Mother.”) I think this chapter stands alone perfectly as an essay, and would be meaningful to many people who are not otherwise interested in memoirs of chefs. I found it very moving. My father died when I was nine and my brother was three years old. Losing my father was terrible for me, but at least I had memories. My brother grew up without any of his own memories of his father, just a profound sense of his absence — a different experience from the author’s but still the same profound longing to know someone who is beyond knowing.