When Bill Holland landed on the West Coast of Africa in 1963 as a Peace Corps volunteer, he was forced to make a choice. It was, as he put it, "Either learn how to cook or eat Dinty Moore beef stew for the next two years."
So Holland, now 35 and the driving force behind a local jazz rock band, "Bill Holland and Rent's Due," wore out a James Beard cookbook (which the government had placed in every volunteer's foot locker) learning "the basic." Fascinated by the wide variety of foods found in the open-air markets of Monrovia, Liberia, where he was stationed, Holland spent the next two years cooking James beard - African style.
That's when I started eating spicy foods," said Holland in the tiny kitchen of the Adams-Morgan townhouse he shares with artist Marianne LaRoche. A wooden rack holds favorite spices - tumeric, cumin, cardomom and coriander, pungent reminders of his African experience.
"I didn't cook at all in college. I went to a private school run by German nuns. When they served spaghetti, it tasted like German spaghetti. They tried Chinese, but it came out German chow mein. It was horrible."
Holland said when he arrived in Liberia, he was "amazed" at all the spices and foods he had never even heard of, let alone tasted.He would watch and listen, picking up a few local dishes to make himself, but rarely writing recipes down.
"It's like music," he said. "It's easier to listen to a song and sing it, rather than read the music. It's also easier to watch someone make a dish than to read the recipe."
Holland returned to Washington, spent two years as a rock critic, wrote poetry and launched his career as a singer/songwriter after buying a piano and forming "Rent's Due." Last year the group recorded an album on Adelphi Records, but the rent still has to paid.
When he's not performing on stage, Holland can be found cooking up storm at home - often at 3 in the morning."That's how he upwinds after a gig," said LaRoche.
Musicians on the road are not known to favor gourment food. For many, burgers or barbecue and beer are the staple fare. But one night, after playing a club in Woodstock N.Y., Holland borrowed cooking utensils from a nearby restaurant. Working in a small kitchen off their motel rooms, he served steak with mushrooms sauce to the band.
"Fancy cooking requires time and money," Holland said, "two things I don't have much of." He won't make a dish that requires more than an hour to prepare, and has set a price limit on meat of $1.29 a pound. He won't use saffron, a popular African spice, because it is so costly here.
He does all the shopping and estimates he spents less than $40 a week on food. One of the several Spanish markets in Adams-Morgan offers Holland free hot peppers. "But it all balances out," he said. "The next time I go in and buy two plantains and a can of palm oil for $4."
Italian parsley, paprika pepper, sage and other herbs are grown in a small backyard garden, along with vegetables. Fresh basil is ground into pesto sauce for pasta, and LaRoche makes rose geranium vinegar from the flowers on the front walk. "Bill's talent is that he can put things together," she said. Soups, stews, gumbos, rice and bean dishes all are improvised with whatever happens to be in the refrigerator. Nothing is thrown away.
"It's old-fashioned," says Holland, "but to me, a roast chicken dinner is just one part of what I can do with that chicken."
They rarely buy prepared or packaged foods, "except Doritos," LaRoche laughed. And they can't afford restaurants very often.
"Some people call this peasant food," said Holland, with a smile. "I prefer the word provincial."
Here a a few samples. Ingredients available at Latin specialty markets are followed by an asterisk (*). TABOULET (4 servings) 1 cup bulgar wheat 1/2 cup hot chicken broth, preferably homemade 1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped 1/4 cup fresh mint, finely chopped 2 or 3 fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped 1/4 cup green onions, finely chopped 3 tablespoons olive oil Juice of 2 lemons Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Soak bulgar in chicken broth for 30 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed. Toss with remaining ingredients and chill for several hours. Serve on bed of lettuce or shredded cabbage with crackers or Syrian bread. SUMMER SQUASH CHINESE STYLE (2 servings) 1 large yellow squash, or 2 medium 1 rib celery, sliced in 1-inch pieces on a diagonal 3 spring onions, chopped 5 fresh broccoli florets 1/4 cup fresh green peas 1 clove garlic, finely chopped 1 tablespoon finely chopped, fresh ginger root 5 mushrooms, thickly sliced 1 tablespoon peanut oil 1 teaspoon sesame oil 1 teaspoon oyster sauce (available at Oriental groceries) Salt
Scrub squash, rinse and chop into cubes. Heat peanut oil in wok or frying pan. Add squash, celery onions, broccoli mushrooms, garlic and ginger root. Stir fry for 3 to 4 minutes, then add peas sesame oil and oyster sauce. Continue cooking squash turns transparent, but edges still look firm. Season with salt to taste and serve over rice. OKRA AND COUNTRYHAM (4 servings) 1 cup coarsly chopped country leftovers including glazed fat. 1 cup chopped fresh tomatoes 1/2 cup chopped onion 2 pounds fresh okra, cut in half (or 2 packages, 10 ounces each, frozen okra) 1 cup water
In a skillet combine ham and onions and fry until fat is rendered. Lower heat, then add tomatoes and okra. Stir well and add 1/2 cup water. Cover and simmer 5 minutes. Add more water if needed. Do not overcook. JOLLOP RICE Liberian-Style Jambalaya (4 servings) 4 to 6 tablespoons palm oil 2 chicken thighs 1/2 cup ham (or hocks or neckbones) chopped in small squares 1 medium onion, chopped 2 Jalapeno peppers' chopped 4 small red peppers, chopped 1 cup uncooked rice 1 small piece (3 inches square) salt cod or other salted fish, soaked water. 1 tablespoon tomato paste 3 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
In a large skillet, heat enough palm oil to generously cover the bottom of the pan and saute chicken, ham, onions and peppers together until browned. Add 2 cups water and let mixture steam for a few minutes, until liquid turns to gravy.
Transfer mixture to large saucepot and bring to a boil. Add rice, salt fish and tomato paste. When rice begins to absorb liquid, add shrimp and lower heat. Cover and steam for about 20 minutes. PEACH TREMBLIQUE (4 servings) 1 package Goya "Tremblique," a coconut custard padding mix 2 cups milk 1 egg, slightly beaten 4 ripe peaches, peeled and sliced Grated fresh coconut (optional)
Prepare pudding with mix and milk by package instructions, adding the beaten egg. After pudding begins to thicken, remove from heat and add peaches. Chill several hours and serve topped with grated fresh coconut, if desired.