Hallah Recipe in Benin, Africa

Subject: My First Shabbat in Benin, making Challah in Africas: Using a gift book, A Day Apart: Shabbat at Home, from My Cousin

I would like to share this story with you: (I admit, it turned out to be a bit of a long one, so read it only when you have some free time to do so!)

In exploring my Jewish heritage and family traditions, I decided to celebrate Shabbat this past weekend. So, on Friday morning I awoke, went for my run, did my laundry by hand (the only way to do it), swept my house, cleared my desk, pulled water up from the well, ordered and bought fresh veggies for the weekend and opened Shawn’s book to the recipe for Hallah and began to follow it.

It was only after I had mixed the oil, sugar, salt, water and yeast, when I had 5-8 minutes waiting for the yeast to bubble before I was to add flour, did I discover that I was out of flour. So, I went outside into Christine’s concession. (This story requires the background knowledge that my kitchen is currently devoid of the necessities for cooking or baking and so I do both at the home of a friend and Peace Corps volunteer, Christine. Usually we cook together, but this week she has been away at a meeting, so I was on my own. In fact, I had not only swept and tidied my house, but hers also in preparation of celebrating my meal there.) I asked her next-door neighbor if she knew where I might buy flour (I was actually hoping that she would have some on hand, as I only had 5-8 minutes to find it, according to the recipe.) She didn’t, and before she could tell me where to go, we naturally first had to discuss the fact that she had not seen me recently, I explained Christine’s absence and promise to come over more often to “saluer” the family. When this discussion finished and all was forgiven, she suggested I walk to the main road (a 15+min. walk). There, she said, I was sure to find someone selling flour, even though it was not a market day. She recommended that I wait until the sun was not so hot, but as it seems to me never to get less hot here, even at night, I explained that I was in the process of making bread and had to go immediately.

As I left I met a woman with whom I work at the orphanage; when she asked about my day and I explained that I was in the middle of making bread she made me promise to bring her a piece when it was finished. Well, I sweated my way to the main road and inquired at three or four stands, all of whom had several bags of white powder for sale, all of which turned out to be every other kind of Beninese cooking ingredient that looks like flour: powdered manioc, sugar, salt, powdered yams etc., but isn’t. At the store of a friend, she recommended that I go to the women who sells bread and ask if I might just buy the ¼ kilo of flour that I needed. (Please keep in mind that I have never ever made bread before and my yeast is surely bubbly at this point.) I dutifully and still vaguely optimistically hauled myself to the stands of my friends who sell baguettes out of baskets on the roadside and made my plea. I describe them as my friends because some of them greet me by name when I pass, but today none of these ladies were about, and those with whom I spoke didn’t speak French, unfortunately. So, after explaining through the guy in the shop next-door, he told me to ask someone else. I did and she was so shocked that I was trying to make my own bread, (I politely refused her offer to just buy bread instead of flour) and so she insisted on a taste when I was finished. She told someone else about my desire to buy flour and he explained that the bakery was closed because of afternoon “repos” and that I could return in the evening.

Frustrated, but still determined, I asked a woman at a nearby stall and she replied that she only sold things in cans or boxes, not flour (but suggested I ask at the bakery.). So, I trudged back to the house. When a lady greeted me halfway there as a last resort I asked her. She sighed, shook her head and said that she didn’t have any flour. Just as I began to walk away after thanking her anyway, she called me back. “Go down this street,” she said “and go to the red doors.” and then she sent her daughter to accompany me.

There, I met a lovely woman and her daughter in the midst of preparing several dishes over their charcoal stoves. She readily (and at a very good price) sold me an entire kilo of flour. (It cost less than a dollar.) Amazed by God’s little miracle I nearly skipped back to the house. (After thanking again my new friend.)

On my way I met my friend the tailor, Marceline, who asked me how my day was unfolding. I explained that I was on my way to bake my first loaf of bread. She asked to try it when it was finished. I promised she could. I returned to Christine’s, smiled at her neighbor and raised my bag of flour (which had now also made a white dusting down the front of my pink shirt where I had been clutching it the long walk home) in victory.

Back in the house, I made the dough, covered it with a towel and a strainer (to protect it from curious lizards) placed it outside in the sun to rise and returned to my house to put the finishing touches on cleaning and gather my small change for Tzedakah. When I returned just over an hour later, I rolled out the dough (which looked suspiciously exactly the same size as I had left it. I quietly blamed it on the extra hour or more the yeast had sat bubbling alone, and simultaneously quietly hoped that it would work anyway.) I braided two small loaves after taking a small piece from the dough and reciting the blessing over the separation of the Hallah (honestly I was glad to be alone, as my Hebrew pronunciation left something to be desired!) I put them in the Dutch oven to bake, and prepared to leave the house to take a shower and change into a skirt.

Just before I closed the door, I changed my mind (I suddenly felt deeply responsible for Christine’s house) and returned to shut off the stove until after I returned. (Still a few hours before sunset.) So, feeling very proud of myself, I nipped home, took in my dry laundry, showered and changed. I returned to Christine’s, candles and matches in hand, wearing earrings, feeling very refreshed and ready to bake the Hallah.

As I approached the house I noticed that the mama from next door (the opposite side as the original flour inquiry mama) was peering in a window. Startled, I asked what was happening. “The chicken.” She replied. My heart skipped a beat. (Or a quarter of a beat, I wasn’t quite that startled.) Christine’s family next door has a pet chicken that has developed a great fondness for Christine and often tries to jump into her house (once even when the screen door was shut, which it now has to be at all times because of the silly bird - yes, she hit the screen twice before deciding to move on, or try again later.) So, I (with attempted calm) explained that this was impossible because only I had been in the house, and the door had been shut the entire time. “No,” she insisted “the door must have been open because when I came out she (the chicken) was no where to be seen and I think I can hear her voice coming from inside the house.”

My frustration from earlier rising again, I no longer felt calm or collected. While I continued to insist that this was impossible to the mama, a knot in my stomach began to form and I unlocked the house. And there, indeed, standing brazenly in the middle of the living room stood Harryetta (as we so named her several weeks ago), the neighbors pet chicken. I booted her out the front door with a sharp word and a swift kick and looked angrily about the room. In her panic at being locked in the house (it suddenly came to me that she must have jumped inside when I ran back to turn off the stove) Harryetta had pooped four piles of turd on my newly swept floor. “How dare she!” I thought in my astonishment. The daughter from next door came and helped me sweep the turds from the floor as I checked the kitchen, which, to my relief, Harryetta had not discovered during the short time I was showering. I was flustered and eager to turn on the stove so that my basted Hallah could bake. (Perspiring as it was trapped in the Dutch oven. ) After turning on the stove, I wiped all the countertops and tabletops on which Harryetta might have stood and swept the floor once more.

Apologizing profusely to the mama, I tried to regain my celebratory attitude. In my final perusal, I remembered that my cellphone was charging on Christine’s desk. When I picked it up, it had an incomplete text message on the screen. “G” was all it said. A turd on Christine’s pile of stickers gave it away. Harryetta had been sending a text message on my phone!

I was very cross. I was finishing cleaning off the desk and sacrificing a few cow stickers to the waste bin when I smelled something burning. I rushed to the kitchen and opened the Dutch oven, and revealed, two beautiful golden brown mini Hallahs, and a small ball of cooked dough. I was overjoyed! (And not much worried by their slightly burnt undersides.) For a moment I pondered the piece of separated dough. Shawn’s book reads, “The dough is set aside is baked but not eaten. Some people place it on a windowsill for the birds.” I looked up at Christine’s screened in window, and then it came to me.

As I tossed the baked ball of dough at Harryetta, who stood expectantly outside the closed screen door, I thanked her for representing the challenges, the surprises and the laughter that we find even when seeking the sacred. She looked as delighted as a chicken can possibly look. Finally, I sat down with my Hallah, hidden under my newly washed bright blue Hallah cover, my red cloth to dry my hands, salt and Shawn’s book. I lit four candles, one for each member of my family, and said the blessing and a prayer. As I had no wine, I washed my hands, said the blessing over my hand washing, then the HaMotzi and the Kiddish and then broke, sprinkled with salt and took a bite of my Hallah. It was delicious; I was very happy. On Saturday, I delivered my other Hallah to my friends the tailors.

Marceline reported to me today that she, her sister Estelle and her mother Edwidge enjoyed it very much. In the weeks to come, I plan to deliver one to my friend at the orphanage, and another for the woman who makes bread. Reciting Havdalah Saturday night over my full glass of powdered milk and under many stars, I felt blessed and joyful at the completion of my first Shabbat celebration in Benin. Our family is rich with traditions and I have enjoyed one more.

And this week too, I will think of you when I say, Shabbat Shalom and Shavua Tov! Have a Good Week! And thanks for reading! Much love, Celia

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