Cooking (and eating) in between worlds
Cooking (and eating) in between worlds
When I take to the kitchen, head filled with ramblings of life and hands fidgety and restless that only the balm of stillness can quiet, I am able to touch the sense of peace I’m longing for. Once embedded into the kitchen, the desire to entertain the cognitive tussle of questions in my mind suddenly dissipates.
I have always had a particular relationship with food and cooking, manifested from a desire to understand living and existing in what I see now as an identity: being both a Black American from the Deep South in Atlanta, Georgia, and a first generation Nigerian American.
I struggled with my identity. And it became my lifeforce, what I leaned upon and was most certain of, that type of despairing confusion. I felt at home in my Blackness generally and what it meant to be Southern because I grew up there. But I also felt like a stranger in what it meant to be Nigerian because I’d never set foot on that native land and the distance felt too great to fill all the ceaseless emotional gaps. In totality, I felt as if there was never quite enough of me to rest within either identities that both belonged to me.
There was an aching for groundedness. That was when I chose to cook.
As the eldest child in my family with younger sisters, cooking was mandated, expected, thrust upon me as one of my many roles, being the example setter and keeper of peace being others. In the afternoons before curling up with a novel or finishing up homework, I’d help my mother get dinner on the table. That meant listening as she delegated random tasks—sweep the floor, wipe off the counters with the soapy dish rag, set the table for all of us—or standing side by side, in her shadow, as I tried to soak up all of her culinary knowledge that I admired.
My mother is from Huntsville, Alabama, and the origin of my Southern heritage. Growing up, I spent most of the holidays with her side of the family, feasting on smoked Boston butts, potato salad (with far too much paprika), massive pans of baked beans in the summer months, brown sugar crusted ham, cornbread dressing, collard greens, and chitlins for Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Accessing what it meant to be a Black woman from the South was easy for me, instinctual even. This coincidentally means I feel more comfortable and more well versed in cooking Southern dishes than I have ever felt with Nigerian food.
My father is from Lagos, Nigeria. Enugu State to be more precise. When he was in his 20s, he immigrated to Huntsville, where he was an international student at Alabama A&M University. My mother happened to be a student there at the same time.
For most of my life, no matter what elementary, middle or high school classroom I was in or where I attended college or graduate school, no one let me forget I was different from them. But I had the exact same citizenship as they did. They communicated their difference in frowning and pausing when my name was called out, slickly and slyly commenting about my ‘weird’ name or flat-out teasing in many other instances.
Being a Southerner never subjected me to this type of isolation. This sense of wondering what it would take to be accepted as I was, even if it was a mass of nonsensical incongruencies that cultural and ethnic identities often is, plagued and consumed me. Yes, being a Black Southerner was almost easy, so I leaned easiest and intuitively on that. And I tucked away what it meant to be Nigerian unless it made sense. Unless it felt comfortable.
The truth is, it rarely did.
One of my favorite Southern dishes is meatloaf, buttermilk mashed potatoes, skillet cornbread with a touch of sweetness and southern fried cabbage. It’s as much a nostalgic dish as it is a comforting one. You see, each time my family journeyed the four hours from Atlanta to my grandmother’s house in Huntsville, she had that exact meal waiting for us, followed by an utterance that I’d “been coming this way for a long while.” She said this while smiling at me.
Now it’s like muscle memory for me to prepare the beloved meatloaf meal. I can drop the mushy ground beef into the stainless steel mixing bowl and thrash it delicately with my warm hands. Next, on top of the mound of meat, I toss the chopped onion, garlic and parsley, and dust the mixture with kosher salt, ground black pepper, a dash of onion powder, smoked paprika and nutmeg for a surprise kick.
As I mix and meld the mixture, I think about how my mother made it and how her mother made it. Were they happy or sad? Those simple ingredients transition into an actual meal, and there’s a gladness and sadness that arises within me. I am proud of who I am and what I have become. How I’ve been able to learn from both my mother and grandmother. But I also feel remorseful and regretful, and a little ashamed, that I couldn’t learn more about Nigerian food from my father or my late paternal grandmother I never got to meet. That there’s as much yearning and distance as there is a true desire to feel more connected to food I’m supposed to know, behind the vague and surface level knowledge I possess now.
For the past three years I have lived alone. It’s hard to cook Nigerian food for just one person. In its essence it is meant to provide sustenance to several people. I reckon it makes the dutiful amount of labor required to make even the simplest Nigerian dishes worth it in the end. Being able to play the spread on a table amongst a mass of people ready to devour what you made.
I rarely cook Nigerian food. I rarely eat it as well. To make Nigerian food would require endless phone calls to my father and one of my aunts. Lots of online research. Dashing around to African food stores and scratching my head at the unfamiliarity of all the ingredients.
Admitting this makes me feel like such a fraud, but a part of me, a bigger part of me that I’m reticent to accept, still has a long way to go in terms of seeing myself as fully Nigerian. I am still fledging in some other world where I’m still like that small child, hungering for someone to tell me it is okay to be who I am. That I am enough even if I feel confused.
That I am enough even if I cook, and eat, existing in a void between two worlds, the two worlds which don’t intersect except when they are placed next to each other in my name.