The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Food

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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At some point during my sophomore year of college, I stumbled across the book Colonize This!, a collection of essays written by women-of-colour feminists. Each essay is written from a different perspective – Indian American, Chicana, Muslim – but many share a recurring theme: how to reconcile their cultural identity with their feminist views. One essay that struck me in particular was written by a Nigerian woman. She discussed how, as a child, the role of cook/cleaner/wife-in-training defined her position as the only girl in her family, and how she rebelled against this imposed identity as a result of her exposure to feminist literature while studying in the USA. Now, I 100% sympathise with home-girl on this tip. If I had brothers and I had to watch their lazy asses play Nintendo 64 (holla!) while I washed all the motherfucking dishes, I would have become an only child by virtue of the cutlass there would have been some problems. But even without brothers, it was definitely emphasised when I was growing up (slash still today) that I would have to ensure that my domestic skills were up to par in order for me to “make a good wife.” I used to resent this pressure and told anyone who would listen (all three of them) that I would make my husband cook when I was married. Now that I am older and wiser I see that the words of my youth were unduly rash. Why? Well, for one thing, I’ve learned how to cook. And I LOVE it. Seriously: cooking is one of the most fabulous, sexy, empowering activities that I engage in on a regular basis. I think Nigella Lawson was the catalyst for the unleashing of my inner domestic goddess: I once analysed her cookbook for an English class and fell in love somewhere between Coca-Cola Ham and Deep Fried Mars Bars (which, despite sounding absolutely revolting, hold a strange power of fascination over me). Plus, she’s a total hottie. Besides the point: I have now embraced the wonders of domestication – something I thought would be accepted with open arms and empty stomachs by all. But apparently not.

A recent offer to make a sick male friend some soothing ginger cola was met with the reply that he did not want to “domesticate an educated woman” by subjecting me to the indignities of the kitchen. Now, I know that this came from a place of kindness. However, my outer inner proud African woman felt somewhat affronted (inner dialogue: “What, you don’t think I can make it?? My ginger cola-making skills aren’t good enough for you??? What in the hell do you mean by this????” – P.S. I never said my inner proud African woman, despite her wonderfulness, was altogether rational). On the one hand, it was lovely to have a man not want to take advantage of my cooking skills (ahem, African men I attend college with). On the other, I’d never thought that doing something domestic would be somehow be seen as compromising my status as an educated woman. My mother, who holds two degrees, doesn’t play with her skills in the kitchen (and especially her cake – mmmmm, I hope she’s making cakes for Christmas this year so that I can grow fat and merry :)). Both her domestic nature and her intellect work together to make her the wonderful woman that she is – one doesn’t necessarily contradict the other. First of all, cooking isn’t easy – there are plenty of women who can hold their own in a philosophical debate who cannot cook for shit. Anyone who can wield a knife, whisk and chicken breast without causing grievous bodily harm to themselves or others is a real OG. Chuuuuuuch. Secondly, I’m not certain that domestication is such a bad thing. I mean, if a motherfucker can’t cook, how are you going to eat? What if you’re chilling in a warzone in East Africa with your mercenary army, AK-47 in hand, no Chinese takeout spot in sight and just some goats at hand? (I’ve thought this out a little too well…) I mean, don’t get it twisted – this applies to women and men. Even though I will cook for my future husband, he had damn well take some classes at the Culinary Institute and be prepared to get busy with the Magic Mixer. Motherfucker, what if I come home late from work?? What are you gonna do, stare at the cooker in hope? Pause. I’m not with it.

I’m also not sure how I feel about the idea of domestication being an imposable concept. I think that there is plenty of power in being able to cook and clean: just imagine if your mother decided to not cook any more. My mother did something like this once. It was not a good look. Being a position of serving others does not necessarily equate to being subservient, I’m slowly realising. Not only is it an expression of love, like my girl Bimala says, it’s also a way of showing strength. Take it from someone who is making a regular gig of cooking dinner for 10 people just because – that shit takes MIGHT.

All I’m saying is: I don’t believe that my strong African womanhood is depleted by my puff-puff making skills (shout out to the Burundi meatballs) – rather, I believe they enhance it in all of its intellectual, political and slightly crazy glory.

Let me know how you feel in the comments.

P.S. Went back to my girl Jilly from Philly for the title – LOVES this song.