Reconnecting With My Nigerian Heritage Through Cooking
Learning and cooking these complex dishes inspired newfound respect for my culture and provided me with a way to reconnect to it in the absence of my parents.
I never really liked cooking.
For a long time, I had a similar relationship to this life skill and hobby that I had to the color pink. Because of society’s tendency to gender simple things like breathing due to the forced gender binary, I reduced the aforementioned color and life skill as “girly shit” and had no interest in engaging with these things.
Of course, those of you who are Nigerian (or hell, just simply non-white) know that this particular belief is a foolish one to have in a Nigerian household where you are one of two daughters and also one of the elder siblings. And this caused me to constantly butt heads with my parents while I was made to stand in the kitchen and resentfully watch my mom cook cultural dishes while my brothers were allowed to play and fuck off around the house.
Eventually, such resentment reinforced my decision to reject cooking (even cultural dishes) for the foreseeable future. Which was headass, because I learned hella quickly—particularly post-college—that I had skipped out on perfecting, again, a whole life skill and:
I had no idea how to cook food that was indigenous (and crucial) to my own heritage as a Nigerian.
This likely wouldn’t be as distressing if one still has their Nigerian parents in their life and they decided to just back up and finally take on some lessons. But people who know me well and are familiar with my work will remember that I am exceedingly and [mostly] happily estranged from my narcissistic parents. And being estranged from them remains one of my greatest non-regrets. But, as you can see, having to learn these cultural dishes has become an unintended side effect of being strident in enforcing boundaries. So what’s an Americanized Nigerian immigrant kid to do? Well, she apparently starts a Pinterest board of Nigerian dishes—ranging from easy to challenging—that she’s gonna learn over the course of the next two years, or die trying.
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To be clear, while cooking has been a thing that a lot of people have taken up during this time of social distancing, I actually hatched this plot to learn these dishes the summer after I graduated from UChicago. But I had no follow-through then, and now Miss Rona is making me sit my ass down and revisit this goal. And it’s been an eye-opening one, to say the least. Firstly because on top of reinforcing my recently learned fact that COOKING IS INDEED A LIFE SKILL (and misogynists trying to pawn it off on “the wominz” means that they are quite literally throwing up a middle finger at their stomachs to spite “the wominz”), I’ve learned something else:
That cooking is also a very intimate act.
And this counts toward doing it for yourself or others. At the core of doing it for one’s self, it is both ensuring your own survival and also exercising an act of self-care. And you are saying, with this act, that you deserve to enjoy one of life’s greatest pleasures (food!) and you’re also saying that you like yourself enough to do it for yourself. And where others are concerned, it quite literally boils down to someone else trusting you enough to put food that you made in their bodies—with the expectation that they won’t die or have to brutally shit themselves as a result. People across the African diaspora actually say this all the time with the motto, “That’s why you don’t be eating everybody’s food” (in various language translations) without realizing sometimes how powerful or poignant it is. One isn’t supposed to eat everyone’s food or what they cook because you don’t know everyone’s motives, you don’t know what the inside of their kitchen looks like (we’ve all seen video clips with whole dogs and cats Crip Walking in certain kitchens), and quite frankly, they might just suck at cooking. Knowing this, I have constantly been forced to confront my responsibility when it comes to introducing others to these dishes (be them friends, lovers, or whoever) and also how vulnerable doing so makes me because this also means that I am willingly opening myself up for valid criticisms about the quality of my food—good or bad.
Nerve-wracking right? Yes, the fuck it is. But for me, there’s also a sort of comforting factor to incorporating this kind of intimacy in my life. Which is:
Learning to cook these complex dishes have inspired newfound respect for my culture and have provided me with a way to reconnect to it in the absence of my parents.
I’ll just come out and say it: being an immigrant in the United States of America means that you will be subjecting yourself and all your future descendants to the very American phenomenon known as “rugged individualism”—which is completely antithetical to the community-oriented societies that many immigrants come from. And as a result of this, many of us (or our parents) were forced to assimilate to be able to function in this society and unfortunately, sometimes assimilation means dropping the ball at passing down important cultural markers, such as language, food, clothing, customs, and whatever else.
To become American. Or Americanized.
In my case, I had already been denied a major marker before—language. While mom actually started teaching me while I was fresh out the womb (which is why I can still translate it even though I can’t speak it), her sperm donor put a stop to it because he was afraid that all of us kids would “have strong accents”, that, you know, wouldn’t be American-approved. This is a concern many of our parents have, true, but what’s so funny about it is that we were Nigerians who decided to plop down…right in the middle of Tennessee. Ya girl was always gonna have an accent, be it a Nigerian one or a Southern one. So a result of being denied speaking what should have been my first language, cooking has become my way of putting a stop to this and reclaiming my connection to my culture—which is now an imperative for me because, as I’ve gotten older, I don’t have as much access to parties, weddings, clubs or whatever else would help me maintain my connection to my Nigerianness… and the food if I’m being honest.
So I’ve been doing the work to learn these dishes. And I’m not going to lie, my mom definitely made it look easier than it is. From getting the correct balance of spices like thyme, ginger, beef Maggi cubes and dried crayfish to make exemplary Jollof (and not glorified sweet potato mush) to making pounded yams by hand versus just buying the powder (pounding pounded yam by hand should be an Olympic sport—CHANGE MY MIND), actually cooking these dishes myself have showed me how intricate these dishes are and, to be honest, how much more complex culinary-wise these dishes are in comparison to their European counterparts. Makes you really think about the sheer whiteness involved in the so-called “cooking canon” that people push in culinary school. But that’s a conversation for another day.
That said, my quest to learn how to whip up all the dishes of my people (or at least ten percent of them) continues. And hopefully, I continue learning about myself through cooking and about how unique being Nigerian truly is (our food and celebratory customs especially).
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