I could blame my father for the fact I did not grow up eating my mother’s food. But I don’t. Tied to her back like a cocoon, I was often lulled to sleep by the sounds of wooden spoons sliding around opened drawers, the rhythm of knives striking cutting boards, the whoosh of a vent meant to dispel the fragrances permeating throughout the house. When I was older and could make myself useful: Nana, please light the candles for me. The kitchen became my crib. I was hugged by the distant warmth of steam escaping from a cocked lid resting on an opened pot. I needed no mobile when the shuffle of my mother’s feet from stove to sink to stove again — we do not use ovens much to prepare our food — supplied a calming tune.
For the preparation, I was present, but for the consumption, I’d protest I didn’t like what I had neglected to try. My father, eager to appease his child, would pile me into the backseat, minty green scrubs swishing all along the driveway as we headed to the local 7-Eleven. The tubular pieces of meat glinted under a heat lamp. They rested in the crevices of a greasy rotator belt before finding a home between the wings of a hotdog bun adorned with a squiggle of ketchup. My mother’s lament: four girls, but the little one will not eat her food.
“But this used to be your favorite,” my mom says to me of some of her usual dishes: kontomire stew, grilled tilapia and banku, light soup — no, mom, using chicken instead of goat won’t make me eat it — the soup with the snails whose undersides wriggle when her palms, mounted with Morton’s salt, scrub away the slime. Okra, I remark, oozes an unpleasant slime like snot when the seeds sliver through her fingers. “Used to be” was twenty-six years ago in utero, not yet a small human and picky eater whose father pitied her and whisked her away at the first sign of obstinance.
I am relieved my nephew shows no signs of feasting on gas station hot dogs like his aunt did as a child. He makes excellent use of what little teeth he has: the tiny mounds of white that periodically poke out of tender, pink gums hard at work to eat morsels of his grandmother’s creations. Though words haven’t yet formed from his mouth, his drool-dribbled chin communicates for him. He wants more. He consumes the bits of love I declined. In small victories, maybe he will resist the softening impact of this land.
It is because I am here that I am soft. I do not know how to fearlessly clutch a knife and slide it valiantly along a fish, freeing scales from the clinging grasp of flesh. I do not know how to pound fufu, though I watch almost entranced as mom, grandma, aunt, and neighborhood aunties take turns: a dip of the palm to quickly shape and turn the starchy blob, moving the hand just in time before the strike of the wooden stick comes crashing down with a thud. The chatter, syllables of sound familiar yet foreign when formed in my own mouth, float above the thudthudthud like a hymn. What is natural to all women back home seems forced to those of us growing up here.
Patiently, my mother teaches her firstborn how to grind peppers, her tone encouraging yet firm as my sister struggles to match the pattern of mashing in the mortar and pestle. I fail to embody the rituals and rhythms to which I have spent my whole life bearing witness. Replication without precision and purity. Mere mimicry rather than mastery. That which was sacrosanct is now sullied. I am the dilution of generations worth of practice. I admire that which I cannot actualize. In love, my mother takes my hands, kisses them gently, notes that they are smooth and soft.
I am six years old. It feels special when I accompany my father to work. Under the fluorescent hospital lights, I catch glimpses of our reflections in the freshly waxed floor, his crocs squeaking every few steps as I concentrate on keeping up with his stride. While I wait for him to bring babies into the world, I scoot the chairs in the doctor’s lounge together like a bed and drape myself in his lab coat. He alerts me to where the Oreos are, and I help myself, feeling bad as little black crumbs now dust his white coat. I am twenty-six years old and I cry in the ice cream aisle when I see the Baskin Robbins rainbow sherbet parked on the freezer shelf because somehow, I am six, and he is wetting napkins, tending to my ice-cream-streaked hands as the scoops quickly melt and race down the sides of the waffle cone. Come Christmas time, the nurses will give him, their favorite doctor, an assortment of decadent treats — ornately iced sugar cookies, chocolate boxes with a photograph on the back detailing the flavors, hot cocoa mixes and mini marshmallows, pretzels sprinkled in peppermint. He’ll slide these over to my pile of gifts as an offering of love. I’ll receive them like contraband.
I am six years old. I accompany my mother everywhere she goes. Today we are near the beach, in Accra, with my grandma. There is going to be a party later that evening, and we are running errands. I meet a goat, and I name him Billy. He bleats and bleats as I jog in circles around him. My mother tells me he will be taken for a bath so he can look nice for the party. I do not see my friend Billy again. Beach and sunlight and palm trees and pedestrians blur by the whole ride home. If I blink away the tears, I can see clearly. But I let them collect, heavy in my eyes, before they roll down in release. As we bump along the road, the contents of the cooler loudly clang together. Everyone enjoyed the party that night.
I am twenty-six years old. On my yearly visits, my extended family members line up to greet me. They scoop me in their arms, and I sink into their softness and brace myself for comments on what I will eat and when. Sweet smiles turn to slight frowns as I am still too lanky for their liking, “like a beanstalk.” We congregate under the gazebo, and I tease my mother for her heaping servings, bowls of soup filled to the brim with sizeable pieces of fish poking out. She pinches her fingers together and places them in the center of her palm to demonstrate my own special serving size. But I do not feel special. I want her to resent me, to look upon me with disgust as I sit beside her at the table where everyone else prepares to eat her creations while I chew on whatever I manage to make from the pricey imported ingredients she insisted on getting at the grocery store just for me. She looks upon me with love, patience, and understanding I do not have for myself.
We do not write down recipes. The recipes are carried within the muscles of their makers that remember them intimately. A particular grip on a wooden handle, a fearless way of plopping objects into ferociously hot oil, the blade of knives delicately dancing close to skin but never daring to break it. My own muscles have not inherited these instincts. I hum the sweet melody of this song, never recalling the words that identify it.
To say, categorically, that I do not eat my mother’s food is false. Parked at her side, I watch diligently as she measures butter, slick with a sheen of oil from being left on the counter on a warm Georgia day. Pam spray mists the walls of a Bundt pan, and our tongues fall silent, eager for a sweetness that melts into our souls. Besides the pound cake, there is her booty bread, nicknamed by my sister and I for a reason I can no longer recall. The roundness and plumpness of each roll must have reminded us of the round and plump backsides that carried us when we were tired, agitated, yearning for affection. Joyfully, dutifully, I ate these.
There is also kelewele and kaklo, sweet and spicy fried plantain, but still, it feels insufficient. It is food palatable for white people. It hardly counts. I have tried to excuse away my failure to eat my mother’s food. The raw, bloodiness of meat nauseates me. The animals of the sea are my neighbors, friends unfit for consumption. When she visits me, she laughs, remembering she is forbidden from blending onions, tomatoes, and ginger in my blender. But it would make your smoothies taste better, she jokes as I suds up a sponge and vigorously scrub each crevice of my Ninja. I often hear people refer to our food as “heavy.” Heavy, as if our food is a burden to bodies. It feels like denigration. Surely my 7-Eleven hotdogs and my sister’s Hamburger Helper meals were also acts of denigration. “She spits in it for flavor,” my mother jokes about the Hamburger Helper. This disjointing and disconnecting is one of my own making.
My mother props her phone on her new air fryer and stands in view of the camera. My father appears in the back, still in his minty green scrubs but without his signature contraband. Between pulses of the grunting blender, blades roaring like a chainsaw to slash the peppers and onions and tomatoes, she greets me with a “have you eaten?” It’s as if she senses my emptiness. We chat about mundane things like who is getting married and who she ran into at the grocery store until I tell her I should get going, and she asks me, again, “did you eat?” I am not sure how to tell her that I wish I had this fervor for food, for it to envelop me and hug me while I’m away from home, for it to feel and smell and sound like her, for it to tell me the stories of my family I fear I will forget, for it not to feel like a burden to simply sustain myself. So, I, her reformed-of-gas station-hot-dogs-daughter, tell her, “You already asked that,” before getting into my car to find a drive-thru somewhere.
Image credit: ohcuma.chengi