by Helene Cooper
There are three Christmas traditions my Liberian family lives by.
Tradition 1: A few nights before Christmas, we do an Ikea meatball and Red Rooster party for the neighbors at my house. It is beautifully low-rent: I drive to the Ikea to buy seven or so bags of frozen meatballs, with the lingonberry jam and the powdered cream sauce.
On party night, I serve them on platters accompanied by giant pots of mashed potatoes, all washed down lovingly with Red Rooster frozen vodka-cranberry juice-orange juice concentrate slushies.
Tradition 2: Christmas dinner will not include turkey. Because really, who wants to eat turkey, ever?
Tradition 3 concerns Christmas breakfast, when my mom makes cassava with smoked fish gravy and Spam.
Growing up on the Atlantic Ocean in Monrovia, just north of the equator, tropical vegetables and fresh fish were staples of life, and cassava—sometimes called yucca here—was on the table for all special-occasion breakfasts. The cassava is peeled and then boiled in water for 20 minutes or so until it’s soft, and served with a spicy, habanero-pepper-infused fish stew.
Liberians who couldn’t afford or find fresh fish simply substituted Spam as the main star of the stew, and then added smoked fish fillets, as ubiquitous in Liberia as bouillon cubes, to give the transformed Spam stew its necessary fish flavor.
Indeed, Liberians flavor everything with fish. We use it as a seasoning, in all of our tropical stews, or just with “dry rice” and palm oil. My American sister-in-law never could understand that—the same way it’s hard for me to understand when my friends in Washington say they don’t want fish that taste fishy.
Let’s now discuss Spam. In Liberia, like in Hawaii, Spam rules. We eat it with plantains, we put it in potato salad and, most especially, we eat it with cassava.
My earliest memory of cassava and smoked fish gravy with Spam breakfast stems from 1973, the first Christmas my family had at our new house at Sugar Beach. I was 7 and fresh with terror over the “Santa Claus Weah”—a traditional Liberian country devil on stilts who had shown up at our house the night before to dance for money. But now it was Christmas morning, and the only thing standing between me and my Christmas bounty was my parents’ rule: no opening presents before breakfast.
My siblings and I ate our cassava and smoked fish gravy with Spam on plates on our laps, excitedly chattering about the packages around the tree. My brother wanted a Polaroid camera; I wanted sunglasses.
When my family fled Liberia for America after a military coup, we kept our Christmas breakfast tradition. It was hard to find cassava at first in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Greensboro, North Carolina, so my parents substituted potatoes. That’s where the Spam really showed its true worth, because even when it was hard to find smoked fish, it was easy to find Spam at the local Kroger. I don’t know what my parents did, but somehow they managed to extract the fishy flavor even when we didn’t have smoked fish.
These days, African grocery stores are all over Washington, and you can find cassava and smoked fish right at my local Shoppers Food Warehouse on Route 1 in Alexandria. Since I’m in charge of Christmas dinner, my sister and mom make our Christmas breakfast. The night before Christmas, my sister Marlene takes my mom the ingredients, and she makes the smoked fish gravy with Spam at her condo. The next morning, my Serbian brother-in-law, Aleks, picks up my mom, her Christmas presents and our smoked fish gravy with Spam and brings the whole lot to Marlene and Aleks’ house for Christmas breakfast and present-opening.
The Serbs—Aleks’ brother Dragan, his wife Lilly, his cousins Vlado and Marina, and their children—have become completely used to eating cassava for Christmas breakfast now. These days Marlene makes eggs and bacon on the side, but it’s the cassava and smoked fish gravy with Spam that disappears the fastest. I love the idea that my Liberian-Serbian-American nephew, Cooper, is growing up with the same flavors in his mouth at Christmas that I did.
We still stick to the “no presents until breakfast” rule too, and Cooper and his cousins Jovana and Maca are, of course, DYING to get through breakfast so they can open up their gifts.
Which they can’t do until after their cassava, smoked fish gravy and Spam.
Just as it should be.
This Christmas, for the first time since we ran away from Liberia after the coup, my entire family is going home for Christmas.
We’re not sure yet where we will be for Christmas dinner—we will figure that out later. I recently called my sister Eunice, who lives there, to suggest we all go to Libassa, a popular seaside resort, for Christmas dinner.
“That’s cool,” she said. “But you know those people won’t have cassava there oh.”
I said nothing, letting the silence stretch.
Eunice started laughing. “So we will have breakfast here at my house first!” she said.
“Well, duh,” I said.
I can’t wait. A real live cassava, smoked fish gravy and Spam breakfast this year, right where it all started.