Family Dinner: The Toïngars gather for African cuisine

The Toïngar family makes sure to take the time to share a meal and talk about their days — photo by Helaina Thompson

Ask Judith Toïngar, 5, what she wants to be when she grows up, and she will reply, “A lot of things.”

A police officer, a doctor, a nurse, a cashier at Dollar Tree: Considering the examples set before her, Judith’s vision is perfectly logical. Her mother, Brigitte Toïngar, is a part-time nurse, landlord and graduate student; her father, Ésaïe Toïngar, is a manager at Rockwell Collins, the author of three memoirs and the founder of two immigrant rights organizations. Both are parents of five children; Judith is the youngest.

“Eating together — it’s hard,” says Brigitte, who cooks dinner for her family nearly every night. “We have a very busy family. [Eating together] is a priority, but it’s hard.”

Tonight, the Toïngar family gathers around two large metal pots placed in the center of their dinner table. One is filled with white rice, the other with African-style greens in peanut sauce — a mixture of simmered sorrel leaves, smoked fish, peanut butter, onions and spices. Busy hands reach into a nearby bowl of homemade beignets as Brigitte spoons the nutrient-dense main dish onto seven plates.

Photo by Helaina Thompson

“One thing that I appreciate from my wife? It is unusual for us to eat out,” says Ésaïe. “Always she cooks. We try our best so our children can be healthy children.”

Ésaïe and Brigitte grew up in Doba, Chad, where families “always ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together,” says Brigitte. The couple moved to Iowa 17 years ago. Most evenings, Brigitte cooks from scratch (although, she admits, on especially busy nights, they order pizza). She wants to see her family eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and fish like she did as a child.

After dinner prayers, the Toïngar dinner table erupts in noise. Gently, Ésaïe scolds Judith for running around the table — “Judita! Sit down.” — and her siblings giggle in response. Utensils clang against plates. The Toïngar children, between mouthfuls, share the highlights of their day: “I got a solo in the first song and the second song!” “Dad, I learned how to set a fire with a gum wrapper and batteries!” “Mom taught me how to make beignets today!”

Ésaïe fondly remembers sharing meals beneath a mango tree with his family and neighbors in Doba. Even people walking by were welcome to join, he says. “This is one of the ways to tie communities together,” says Ésaïe. “It it through this moment that we learn, especially young people learn from old people. During dinner, that is where people share knowledge.”

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