I have known Justin Gailey and his family for many years…since he was in elementary school. He is talented in many fields; music, physics, languages to name just a few. Teaching physics in Portuguese to high schoolers in Mozambique is something I would never in a million years imagine him doing when I met him as a youngster but that’s exactly what Justin did when he was a Peace Corps volunteer. I enjoyed a catch up visit with him when he returned and asked if he might share some words about baking in sub Saharan Africa. As evidenced by his words, I think you’ll agree that he is a fine and inventive pie baker. I can’t wait to see where his path next takes him.
Baking Pie in Mozambique by Justin Gailey
Any pie maker worth their salt knows that one of the main battles in making a good pie crust is fought against heat. For that perfect flaky crust, you need your butter (or other fat) to be as cold as possible at every stage until the pie goes in the oven. This is difficult even under the best conditions – with freezers, ice, and air conditioning. It’s an entirely different challenge in sub Saharan Africa.
I served for a bit over two years in Mozambique as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. As a member in the Peace Corps you need to give up a lot. Some things you simply can’t gain access to, and often times it’s important to willingly give up certain comforts and habits in service of immersing yourself in the host community. That being said, I found that for mental well being it’s important to hold on to certain things from your life before Peace Corps. For me one of those things was baking. I grew up baking with my parents and learned how to bake pies from my mother. Not only was baking intrinsically fun and enjoyable, in my family baking also had a strong element of community. It was something you did with and shared with other people. In Mozambique, it was one of the ways I connected with my community. I baked with other people to share with them part of my culture as an American and often baked things for celebrations or to express my appreciation.
Although the town I worked and lived in, Nacarôa, got electricity the year before I arrived, I wasn’t fortunate enough to have, what we would call in The States, “an oven.” The body of my oven was a large aluminum pot, the baking rack was a used tuna can, and my heating elements were an arrangement of coals I placed both above and below the “oven.” It was a continuous balancing act of adding new coals on top, rearranging the pan – a tad trickier than preheating to 350 degrees. I had to be flexible with ingredients as I adapted recipes to my new circumstances. When I had a craving for peanut butter cookies, it meant buying raw peanuts, roasting them, and mashing them in my wooden pestle and mortar. When I found myself with a ton of unripe, green mangoes, I modified my mom’s strawberry rhubarb crisp to be a green mango crisp (it was amazing by the way). I even managed a ricotta cheese cake that I made with ricotta I made myself. But perhaps the most harrowing baking adventure came about when some fellow Peace Corps volunteers and I decided to make an apple pie from scratch.
This story happened while I was visiting friends one province over in a hot and dusty town called Cuamba. I had stopped on my way in one of the bigger cities to buy apples and whole spices I would later grind by hand but butter was something I would have to get in Cuamba. The problem was, my friends’ house was on a school compound about four miles from the nearest store that sold butter. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue except we didn’t have a car and it was in the mid 90’s that day. But Peace Corps volunteers aren’t prone to giving up in the face of adversity.
Much like a timed quest in some bizarre video game, we donned running gear (and ample sunscreen), and after buying the butter in town, ran as fast as we could through the hot African sun to get our butter back before it warmed up. It was a race against time and our future flaky crust was at stake. We took the shortest route back which led us winding through neighborhoods of thatched roof mud brick houses. The dirt pathway twisted around tropical trees and giant termite mounds and the sun beat down on our backs and sweat poured off our faces. As we ran, we drew attention of children and adults alike as foreigners aren’t a common site in these small neighborhoods…and certainly not ones sprinting down the walkways with a bag of cold butter.
Fortunately we made it back in good time while the butter was still plenty cold. With cold butter at hand, we finished assembling the ingredients and baked up an incredible pie. Now objectively it wasn’t the best pie that has ever been made. But given what it took to make it happen, and as we sat together on the literal opposite side of the planet, I couldn’t help but feel that it was one of the most delicious and comforting things I had ever eaten.
Note from Kate: I too have done my fair share of outdoor baking and, as Justin says, it most definitely is “a continuous balancing act.”