The random snack stand with a big story to tell

Lessons learned from Big Bite Snacks in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Hello and welcome to Snack Stack, the newsletter that explores the history, origins, and cultural significance of snacks. If you like it, please subscribe! There’s a free snack every Wednesday (like this one!) and paid subscribers also get snacks on Monday and Friday. Check out past snacks here.

I wanted to try an experiment today: spin the globe, find a random snack stand somewhere in the world, see if there just happened to be a compelling story told in the snacks themselves.

In non-pandemic times, I’m a travel writer, and one of my favorite ways to learn about a place is to consider the seemingly mundane details of everyday life—the way building materials or traffic patterns or the music playing from a shopkeeper’s radio can provide a window into the distinct identity and history of a place and culture.

This newsletter often uses snacks in the same way, as a lens into a bigger story, but the way I’ve found snacks has never come through simply wandering around a place. When I’m looking for snacks to write about, I usually start by reading lists of particular types of foods (meat pies or nut candies or things that are kinda like pancakes) or Googling, say, “national dish of” and seeing what comes up. There’s plenty of serendipity and delight in seeing the search results, but the intrigue is always served up in flat, algorithmically-curated words on the screen—it’s not the same as the endlessly stimulating, infinitely nuanced, perpetually intriguing encounters that lie in wait when you’re physically poking around a place you’ve never been before.

I miss that feeling of movement through a new-to-me place—that joy of wandering with eyes wide open, attuned to every detail of the world around me—in these long months of Covid, and I wanted to recreate it, as best I could, by way of a search for a snack through Google Maps. And I wanted you to join me.

So I spun the globe.

Or rather, I had Twitter help me choose a random place. I asked for a letter and a number.

A bunch of people replied, but the very first was for the number 14, and the first letter that would actually work was S (someone else suggested Q first, but there’s only one country that works, Qatar, and I needed a list of at least fourteen). So I went to an alphabetical list of countries, got to S, skipped down to the fourteenth listing, and that gives us …

Today’s destination: Sierra Leone

Let’s find a snack stand!

I’ve never been to Sierra Leone before (though I can find it on a map, thanks to my Seterra habit), but let’s go look around via Google Maps. (Pause here to acknowledge that maps are themselves flawed, limited views of a world, their details altered by politics and commerce and all kinds of other factors. But we’ve gotta use something to take a look around in this digital format, and this seems like the best option.)

Here’s the interactive map of Sierra Leone, if you want look for yourself!

The capital and largest city is Freetown, along the Atlantic coast, as I’m sure you know. My plan was to wander around in Street View, but it looks like that doesn’t exist in Freetown (or anywhere in Sierra Leone), so we’ll have to shift plans (part of the fun of travel!) and just check it out from above.

I had Google show me nearby restaurants, and while those listings don’t give a full picture of a place (omitting most street vendors, for starters), it’ll have to do for now. So let’s zoom in …

And I keep zooming—absolutely randomly, I promise I don’t have an establishment or neighborhood or anything at all in mind—I find …

Today’s snack-purveyor

The word “snacks” caught my eye. That’s it. The place we’ll use for this experiment.

(Again, you should take a look around the neighborhood yourself. Get lost! Find something that piques your interest, whatever that may be, and then learn more about it!)

Here’s the satellite view. Note the road called “Old Railway Line,” which reminds me of this great 99 Percent Invisible story on the roads that remain when railroad lines are removed.

The streetscape around that intersection looks like this.

I could be mistaken, but I believe that’s Big Bite Snacks on the far right.

Let’s see what stories this place holds

First up, let’s find out what they serve. There are only two photos, which show fried chicken, chips (french fries), hamburgers, chicken burgers, and kafta sandwiches (kafta being a Lebanese beef kebab, and this sandwich being a version of arayes, which, as it happens, we’ve already discussed here on Snack Stack).

Luckily, Big Bite also has a website, which is convenient for people in Freetown looking for more info about their local snack shop as well as people exploring digitally from thousands of miles away. Let’s take a look at the website!

It’s pretty basic, but it does list the hours, which is kinda the main thing, and some reviews, including this one from Dama L.:

The best restaurant I went to in Sierra Leone, it is a popular restaurant, not the first class people, it is a very simple restaurant owned by very good Lebanese people who deal with the people as Sierra Leonean, and the staff there are not professionals but they are better than others and very kind people and the food is the best every weekend I go hastily to eat to them, I went once went to Chicken Town , There is a nice place for the class people, but the worst chicken I have ever eaten and the staff are even worse, so don't judge anything about the appearance. Thank you, Big Bite, Thanks for being here with us.

There are plenty of details to consider here, but the question that immediately came to my mind, from this review and the menu’s kafta sandwich, is this: Is there a significant Lebanese population in Sierra Leone? What’s the history there?

There’s something here! Let’s find out more!

To the Google Machine! Down the rabbit hole!

And … oh. Yes. This randomly-chosen snack bar, in this randomly-chosen country, really does have a whole intriguing story to tell.

Because, yeah, there’s history here—Sierra Leone has a Lebanese immigrant community numbering in the thousands, and they’ve been here for more than a century.

Today I learned …

The first group of Lebanese immigrants in Sierra Leone were escaping the persecution of the Ottoman Empire in 1893. As a 1984 New York Times story recounts, “The majority became traders and merchants, assuming an important role in the economic life of this region, a role they continue to play.” Lebanon’s civil war, from 1975 until 1990, led to another increase in immigrants across Western Africa, including Sierra Leone.

I went over to Jstor to see what kind of in-depth information and research I could find.

Just a few things to read there. A substantial handful, you might say.

One common topic was Sierra Leonean reaction to Lebanese immigrants in the early 1900s (when the particulars of British colonialism made it all complicated and bad for everyone), including anti-Lebanese riots in 1919. A more recent article examined the ways independent Sierra Leone has diminished the political and economic power of the Lebanese community by way of a Constitutional clause denying birthright citizenship to people of “non-Negro African descent,” meaning anyone of Lebanese ancestry who wants citizenship must be naturalized—and naturalized citizens can’t hold political office, which means that “Lebanese continue to occupy both an economically privileged and politically isolated position in Sierra Leone.”

In the 1990s, as a civil war raged in Sierra Leone, a large portion of the Lebanese diaspora there—including some residents who had just fled the war in Lebanon—left the country, and the Lebanese community there dropped from around 30,000 in 1984 to some 7,000 people in 2007, before increasing again to just under 9,000 by 2012.

This is, obviously, just the beginning of a complicated story of immigration overlaid with a history of colonialism, and a snack newsletter isn’t the best place for that whole history lesson.

But it’s interesting, no?

This simple snack stand serves as example of a long-established community, one whose numbers declined significantly a generation ago but are starting to come back up. Once you know to look for Lebanese restaurants and other markers of the diaspora, you can find them all over:

So much to consider, so many browser tabs to open

Big Bite Snacks led me down branching rabbit holes, and now I have tabs open about:

There’s a lot here, and I don’t expect you to go down all those rabbit holes with me.

But I guess the lesson today is this: Always read the plaque but also always pay attention to the other details of a place, and take the time to understand them as their own narratives of history. The streetscape is full of details that open up sprawling, complicated, centuries-spanning stories (and with plenty more nuance than the broad facts that modernization and globalization are everywhere and multinational brands are alarmingly dominant no matter where you go).

I suppose it’s possible to find a place where the background details don’t all hold an encyclopedia’s worth of information and intrigue (and, honestly, I was slightly afraid I’d happen to find that one boring place in my spin-the-globe wandering today). But those places, if they exist at all, are exceedingly rare.

Your turn now. Go wander.

Pick a place and topic and spend some time exploring a new place and letting curiosity be your guide. The world’s a mess but it’s also still a beautiful, fascinating place to see, even if you’re only doing it through Google Maps.

And if you need help getting started—in this task or in life—it helps to find a snack.

Sign up for a paid subscription to support this newsletter and get three posts about the history, origins, and cultural meaning of snacks every week (if you’re already a paid subscriber, thank you). Happy snacking!

--

Note: This post was lightly edited on September 9 because I initially wrote and published it after a long, exhausting day and, yeah, it needed some tweaking.