For Nacala Ayele, cooking and travel go hand in hand.
“Wherever I travel I try to get in somebody’s kitchen. I’ve cooked in Ghana. I’ve cooked in Guatemala. I’ve cooked in Jamaica,” says the Seattle-native.
Last December, she left her job as a massage therapist at Hot House Spa and headed to Jamaica, the Bahamas and then Trinidad. She’s visited markets and farms and met with local chefs, learning about Caribbean cuisine and the various cultures that influence it flavors.
But Ayele hasn’t been crisscrossing the Caribbean for the last three months just for fun.
She’s cooking up plans to launch a culinary tour company for women of color.
Ayele’s love affair with cooking began at the age of four.
“I used to watch the Frugal Gourmet every Sunday with my mom. Then at my grandmother’s house I would make the most fabulous mud pies,” she says.
By the time she was five years old, she was learning to make real pies with the women in her family.
Another legacy passed onto her from the women in her family was travel.
“I was in a Pan-Africanist organization,” explained Ayele. “Pan-Africanism has a pretty long history going back at least to the 20s in this country. My great-grandmother was a member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.”
Founded by Marcus Garvey in 1914, the UNIA was dedicated to the repatriation of African Americans to various countries in Africa. The Pan-African movement itself was a call for diasporic solidarity in the face of untenable racial discrimination. It’s core concept was to promote and educate Africans about their various cultural traditions for the purpose of building a stronger sense of self.
Though Ayele’s great grandmother passed away at young age, her grandmother continued in the movement ultimately taking a Black Star Line ship with five of her six children and some additional family to Ghana in the 1960s.
They arrived eleven days before Kwame Nkruma, the first Prime Minister and President of Ghana was overthrown. At the time Nkruma, also a Pan-Africanist, had put out an open call to African Americans interested in returning to Africa. They would be granted dual citizenships provided that they were returning with skills that could be put to use building the country. Ayele’s grandmother was a nurse and one of her sons was an electrician, so they had work set up for when they arrived.
The military coup complicated the terms of their employment. To make ends meet, Ayele’s grandmother ended up selling donuts on the roadside, which eventually led to a very profitable business.
“In 1966 she started making sandwiches and snacks for ten employees at a local company and by 1970 she was cooking four hundred meals for three shifts a day,” Ayele says.
Her business became so lucrative that she became a target for corrupt government officials looking to extort money. In the end she escaped across the border to Togo with $250,000 hidden in the seats of her car. In Togo, she started her first hotel and also did medical work with the American embassy. After having a similarly harrowing experience with corruption there, she and her family returned to Seattle in 1974.
Though Ayele grew up here in Seattle, hers was not a mainstream upbringing.
“I grew up eating West African food,” she remembers. “I grew up having a better understanding of African geography than U.S. geography.”
When Ayele turned 18 she went to Cuba, and while it was perhaps not the Pan-African utopia she had imagined, it was the jumping off point for her many international adventures.
Throughout her travels the kitchen has been a place where women gathered and where Ayele was able to learn about culture through food.
“The food tells the story,” she explained. “You go to Jamaica and it’s all about jerk chicken. It was like the original kind of barbecue and that was an Arawak thing, the native population before slavery created that way of cooking things. Allspice as the main ingredient as something that is endemic to Jamaica.”
Each dish she has encountered comes with not simply a list of ingredients or family preferences, but also hidden insight into the movement of people and the ways in which culture is created.
“In Trinidad you have roti or you have doubles. Doubles are two pieces of bread with seasoned chickpeas in the middle. You won’t find it in India, but it’s the Indian population who created it and it’s specific to Trinidad.”
As a food aficionado, Ayele had thought of participating in a cooking tour in the past, but never found the right fit.
“All these tours go to Europe. They go to Italy. They go to Greece. They go to France. And the food there is amazing, but that wasn’t the experience I wanted have,” she says.
So now Ayele plans to be the change she has wanted to see in the world.
“What I want to create is an opportunity for women of color to travel together and have an intercultural experience through exploring African diasporic culture and food.”
The first of these culinary tours is slated for November 2015.
“I am excited about creating an opportunity for women of color to have an intercultural exchange that is not centered around whiteness or navigating whiteness, but is about our experiences.”
Ayele will be returning to Jamaica during the first week of August to continue her research at an “eco-village called the Source Farm — and to do a dry run of the trip itself.
“Because I love food, and I love history and I love black people it’s like the dream job for me, it’s like my dream business.”
For more information you can check out Nacala Ayele’s blog: http://nacalascookingadventures.com/