When I traveled to Nairobi after breaking up with my fiancée, the brisket I found there inspired me to come back home to East Texas.
The sign above my head read “Texas Barbeque.” The smell of brisket, pork ribs, and other slow-cooked meats wafted from just beyond the swinging double glass doors in front of me. But even if the scene felt somewhat like home, I couldn’t escape the truth. I was more than 8,600 miles from where I grew up and lived part-time in the quiet piney woods of East Texas. I was on the outskirts of Kenya’s cosmopolitan capital, Nairobi.
By then, I’d spent six weeks traveling Kenya. I intended to somehow avoid the reality that I’d recently split from my fiancée, with whom I’d spent five years, in June. In late August, I found myself boarding a plane to Kenya, where I’d venture through its Serengeti plains all the way to the Tanzanian borderlands. I’d watched sunrises over Nairobi, the “Green City in the Sun.” To travel so far away was an attempt to get closer to myself. Somehow, I wanted my life to be sawa, a Swahili catchall for “okay.”
As far away as I’d removed myself, I still craved the comforts of home. I wanted barbecue.
Barbecue was a staple where I grew up in Jasper County. I’d enjoyed eating at roadside shacks off U.S. Highway 96, where ashtrays still sit on tables and the ceiling tiles are stained with smoke and time. My uncle and my father’s friends smoked brisket for me to celebrate birthdays and my high school graduation. I’m hardly a critic, but I know my way around a butcher-paper-lined tray.
To my surprise, I learned barbecue is beloved in Kenya, too. From Chinese take-out spots to bars, seemingly every menu has some type of barbecued meat. Only they call it nyama choma, which translates in Swahili to “grilled meat.” Alongside ugali (cornmeal boiled in water until it’s doughy), it’s the country’s most celebrated dish.
Texas Barbeque is located in the working-class community of Kikuyu, just outside of Nairobi. It’s open 24 hours a day—in other words, it’s part-BBQ joint, part-nightclub, as you would find is the case for most of the late-night restaurants throughout the bustling capital city.
I stumbled across the restaurant by luck. An ad for the restaurant popped up on my social media a few days after I’d landed in Nairobi. For once, I welcomed the fact that advertisers have collected so much of my online data. I told myself I’d wait until homesickness set in. More than a month went by, and it never did (sorry, Mom), but by then, I was bored of eating other common dishes like stewed fish.
I finally visited on a Tuesday night. A bouncer sat outside the restaurant’s doorway. I thought it was a little odd but hoped that meant the brisket was so good it needed guarding. Inside, a DJ performed to an almost empty room, where a waiter sat me at a table next to a speaker blaring Jamaican reggae mixes.
Other than the sign reading “Texas” outside, there wasn’t a drop of Texas in the décor. Not even a simple Lone Star flag.
For 4,500 Kenyan shillings ($30), I ordered the deluxe platter. To wash it down, I went with a White Cap Lager for about 300 shillings ($2). In minutes, a pile of brisket, a plate of chicken legs and chunks of breast, pork ribs, and a side of deep-fried bhajia—thin slices of potato, like what you’d find at a carnival—appeared. The meat was served on a platter like fajitas, and with sautéed onions and bell peppers. There wasn’t the white bread, pickles, beans, or potato salad that I believed was customary to Texas barbecue.
I studied the pieces of meat at first. The brisket lacked a smoke ring around the edges, and as I tasted it, I could also tell it had all been cooked in an oven, rather than a smoker. The meat’s flavor lacked any woodsmoke characteristics, and the ribs were cooked hastily, so the meat still clung to, rather than fell off, the bone. At least the barbecue sauce that came alongside tasted authentic, with a hint of apple cider vinegar. It all tasted decent enough.
As I shoveled half-fistfuls of meat into my mouth, a final dish appeared. It was Kenya’s take on Texas-style smoked sausage, only it was almost cartoonish-looking: a pinkish-red casing with each end tied so neatly. The cook had sliced it down the middle, loading it up with diced onions and a slather of ketchup. It was a hot dog, pretty much. I looked up at my waiter, confused, with a hint of sadness in my eyes.
I had come to recognize that look on myself since the break-up. My friends and family were less than ecstatic when I told them I’d be traveling to Africa. Even among those I’d consider open-minded were skeptical of what I was after. When I told my friend who would have been the best man at my wedding, he insisted on taking off work so he could come stay with me. I told him sure and sent him a link to Kenya’s visa application.
I played the trip off as a much-needed vacation and an opportunity to pick up work. (I’m a freelance environmental reporter, and the inaugural Africa Climate Summit was in Nairobi that month.) I lied. It was life’s upheavals that sent me here. I figured a trip to Africa would be cheaper than therapy, and it was clear I needed therapy at that point. My hands had begun to shake during conversations, and the vibrations felt as though they rattled through my mind and down to my stomach.
I could see my parents were worried about me too. I’d been living full-time at the small cottage I inherited on our family land in Kirbyville since I left the New Orleans house I shared with my fiancée. I could see they would do anything to help, but felt helpless knowing there was little they could do for me. I wanted to help them avoid my pain. I wanted to find a way forward.
I wasn’t sure if I’d accomplish that in Kenya, but, then again, I didn’t think I’d find Texas-style barbecue, either.
Food has a way of curing most ills—including heartbreak.
It didn’t exactly heal me, but the whole experience brought me closer to okay. Six weeks into my time in Kenya, I felt nearly whole, baptized by a flash flood on the Serengeti and the champagne at nightclubs. My meal at Texas Barbeque was the dill pickle chip atop my brisket sandwich: that is to say, my final attempt in Kenya to feel full again. I asked my waiter to box up my leftovers, which were plentiful—the restaurant was generous with its portions.
Kenya’s interpretation of Texas-style barbecue would account for my final memory of the trip. The next day, I would go back home to the small Texas town I was raised in and try to patch together the remaining pieces of my life.
As I packed, I felt my stomach rumble with hunger. I then walked over to the fridge in my apartment in Nairobi and opened it, the leftovers before me.
I looked inside the bag to find only one third of the food I’d expected. Unbeknownst to me, my waiter had discreetly stolen most of what I’d ordered. I laughed. Hopefully, my leftovers made whoever enjoyed them feel whole because it just wasn’t close enough to home for me.
I didn’t care. Where I was heading, what I truly desired—true Texas-style barbecue and other things—was waiting for me. It was sawa.
Source: Texas Monthly