The Young and Disenchanted

“I’m feeling kind of hungry…” – Food

Posted on: 16 February, 2010

Sometimes I crave the taste of pepper on the tip of my tongue. Maybe it’s my West African upbringing, but there is nothing more satisfying and sensual than that hot-fire-burning-sharp-but-sweet sting of a cayenne seed grazing my taste buds. No meal ever tastes quite right without a bright red smear of hot chilli paste on the side of the plate (a habit I picked up from my father), especially if it’s a meat dish. Oh Lord, and meat: the tender flesh of a curry-yogurt-marsala-simmered chicken breast, that juicy, burst-in-your-mouth satisfying bite of steak or the fatty succulent depth  of slices of pan-seared duck. .. Mmm. Heaven. And all the other good stuff: squidgy sweet plantain, sweet slippery mango, bread fresh out of the oven that’s crisp on the outside and so so soft on the inside with butter dripping off its edges….

Just in case you hadn’t noticed from my little soliloquy, I LOVE food. Someone once said that in every fat man there is an even fatter one trying to eat his way out – well, my inner fat woman is one insatiable beast. Food is my fun, my comfort, my high. I love preparing it, I love consuming it, I love exploring it – I recently discovered that NPR has a food section which, essentially, has made my life complete. I recognise that, generally, people enjoy eating (you know, with that whole staying alive aspect of being a human being and whatnot) but food goes beyond that for me – this shit is on that spiritual tip.

Let me expand.

A couple days ago I was in a foul mood for no understandable reason. I was throwing my stuff around my room, stomping on the floors and blasting my de facto angry song (Nas’ “Get Down” from the God’s Son LP) and probably pissing off my neighbours. I had promised a friend I would make him lunch, so I grabbed a knife and got to chopping some onions. As I started heating the oil and gently sautéing the chicken, I could feel the tension easing out of me and transforming into a spicy peanut stew in a vibrant reddish hue. By the time my friend came over, I was considerably calmer – and my stew and coconut rice hit the spot so correctly that it gave my friend the itis (as in, he had to legit take an hour long recovery nap). Something as simple as cooking a meal has the power to transform my mood (and knock out lanky Bolivian men). I’m not sure, but maybe it has to do with the act of creating: anger tends to be a pretty destructive emotion if it’s left to fester. Channelling it into something productive, whether it’s painting à la Jackson Pollock or carving racks of lamb like Gordon Ramsey, sublimates all that negative energy into something deliciously beautiful. Or at least, that’s how Freud described it to me.

More than being a mood-changer, food and its preparation also serve as a uniting force. A day after the peanut stew, my roommate and I turned our apartment into a dumpling-and-chicken-yassa factory to celebrate Chinese New Year (and the fact that I’m African, which is always cause for a party). We had a good twenty people over all eating and cooking at the same time, Fela blasting in the background, folks breaking out into a two-step in between bites of vinegar-soaked-doughy-meatiness and sipping on some apple cider… The only part we planned was the food, but like bees to honey everyone gravitated together and arranged themselves into a busy little hive of happy productiveness for a few blissful hours.

Certain foods also invoke specific memories. Apricot jam takes me back to the age of five, visiting my grandmother in Benin City and getting a jar to take back home to Lagos with me (she used to keep it in this fridge outside her room – standing on the pink carpet waiting expectantly for that little glass vessel that contained that magically fruity sweetness is a memory that will stay with me forever).  Roasted potatoes soaked in gravy remind me of boarding school Sunday lunches after Mass – so perfect on a cold February afternoon. Milkshakes (chocolate preferably, although I have recently discovered the sweet tanginess of banana) recall late night conversations over hip hop beats and hookah smoke.

These three aspects of my relationship with food – its mood-soothing properties, its community-building power and its role in my history – take it far beyond the physical fulfilment of a bodily need. It’s part of my emotional make-up too. Both aspects are closely intertwined, because to me it only makes sense that something that feeds your body in some way feeds your soul too. And my soul is hungry, and craving that hot-fire-burning-sharp-but-sweet sting of a cayenne seed just as much as my tongue.

P.S. Taking it way back with the title.

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