There’s a scene in the movie, Moonlight, where the Kevin character (André Holland) prepares a meal for the lead character, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), whom he is in love with. He drizzles lemon over tilapia fish and sautéed onions, he adds a spoon of fluffy, freshly boiled rice then uses his hands to delicately cup the rice into a perfect pyramid shape. He then adds a scoop of sizzling black beans to the side of the plate before chopping some fresh cilantro to sprinkle on top. Kevin may be a cook at a restaurant that clearly ain’t five-star, but the meal could be served to a king.
It is a romantic scene but it also makes me think of the notion of belonging. People of African heritage share a food heritage – not only in our taste palette but also in the holistic performance of preparing and eating food. For instance, many African slaves who arrived in the diasporas continued the communal eating tradition.
Even less spoken about is the masculine nature of cooking in ancestral legacy. The reason that scene made me reflect on belonging was because the image of black male hands cooking struck me with familiarity. It reminded me, to give one example, of my dear late uncle, Abdoulie, who would teach me about pan-Africanism while cooking native Gambian dishes, Yassa, Domoda, Benachin, sharing both food recipes as well as “recipes of revolution” as written by the Walter Rodneys, Malcolm Xs and Patrice Lumumbas of his time.
Due to experiences like this, I connect African heritage food, when cooked consciously, with both politics and love. Africans have been robbed of so plenty but perhaps one of the most sorrowful things that we’ve lost is a system of feeding each other; a robbery that causes not only famine, but also a poverty of love and ideas that are chewed on during a meal.
People of all races produce food and cook it deliciously, naturally. My point is that African people have been especially disconnected from our natural environment by the Atlantic- and Islamic slave trades, as well as through the continued colonisation of our land. This intentional disconnection of African people from their land causes ignorant belief in myths such as that African men should not cook, or that our food isn’t healthy, or worst of all that we are not protective of nature! This has dire consequences. Of all the infrastructural issues in my hometown Lagos, for instance, what perhaps agonises me the most is how effortful it is to connect with the nature. Yet our indigenous belief system, like that of most Africans, consists of nature deities. More need not be said about our historical relationship to the natural environment!
When people feed each other – plant food for each other; sacrifice the life of a physically weaker animal for another; taste the produce of nature together; there is a brief restoration of order. For a short while, when Africans connect food, nature and our deepest selves, the tongue tastes memory and the hunger for the metaphoric salt of the earth is satiated.
Great post Minna
I find that food in Africa is a sacrament that brings people together, and reaffirms their unity. It used to be seen as rude to eat in front of other people without inviting them to join you ( something that suggests that people in Africa have traditionally seen eating as essentially communal). Even corruption is given a false acceptability through the deployment of the language of eating – whose turn to eat, who eats alone and who doesn’t. When I was very young I ate communally pretty indiscriminately in public places in Lagos without mishap.
But food is not just about unity. Food can also be used to signify bad blood and suspicion. Now, as then, there were one or two places I was specifically warned not to eat. No because they were strangers but because there had been a disagreement.
I found the scene you mention in Moonlighting very affecting. It is just a greasy spoon but Kevin puts all his love and attention in the meal he prepares for Chiron. I think Kevin might be also asking for forgiveness through the food, declaring his love and saying something about whom he has become.
The only place to commune with nature in Lagos is the beach! Everywhere else seems to have been swallowed up by commerce, people and heat.
Thanks Ebele! Lovely to chew on the additional analogies you gave – the connection between food and corruption, food and suspicion, food and forgiveness, it’s a wonderful topic isn’t it! As you may know, I spend a lot of time in Lagos nowadays, and was very happy to have the epiphany that the longing I had for parks could be substituted by the beaches, which of course are breathtaking. But even that you can’t do with the same ease as one would go to a London park. For one, the entry point roads to the beach are terrible, then there are tolls and also when you arrive, say, on a Tuesday afternoon instead of a weekend which seems to be the accepted beach day, you aren’t left alone at all as I would like to be. Nevertheless, it’s worth the hassle…
My pleasure Minna,
Food is so various. On TV in Europe it seems to be about precision engineering and haute couture. In Africa, in contrast, it is a basic connection that binds.
I have been in Lagos a lot this year and often feel frustrated about just going out for a walk without hassle.
I find that the beach in Ilase is beautiful and relatively uncongested. The local kids know how to pester but it is big enough to be by yourself.
How do you get to Ilase?
Been to the lovely pop beach club but not visited other parts.
By boat from the boat club – takes about 20 – 25 mins
Rosalinda Wijks says
A lovely, interesting article, which is inaccurate on one point: Kevin didn’t make him fish, but chicken. It’s a Cuban dish called pollo a la plancha. Pollo=Chicken. But aside from that, keeps on the good work!
Thanks for the nice anecdote, incidentally I unsuccessfully tried to find the name of the dish when I wrote this as I was sure it would be a classic somewhere in Latin America. Now I want to watch that scene again, and I am also suddenly hungry 😉