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A quarterly international literary journal

A Traveling Pantry




/ Third Place, 2024 Plentitudes Prize in Nonfiction /      

We are speeding toward Victoria Island—CJ, my driver and I—to the consulate for my visa interview. It’s a little past 6 a.m. and Lagos is beguilingly quiet and empty. For a fleeting moment, I wonder if I will miss it. CJ has queued a gospel album in the car’s CD player which is fitting for the tense business ahead. Since making the visa appointment two months ago, lore of ruined American visa interviews have followed me around; stories of officials denying more visas than they grant, people pleading to be reconsidered, dragged out of the halls dejected by their truncated American dreams. I’m considering all the possible outcomes as we drive through a deserted Lekki-Epe expressway, the worst of which will be a visa denial. But, I think to myself, it won’t be the end of the world. And because of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s remote learning now. I will get my graduate degree, and maybe moving to America will turn out to be disappointing. Soon after, we arrive at the embassy and park under a tree in front of the zinc fence separating an expansive parking lot from the building. We both fall asleep.


It is daylight when we wake. My heart is starting to throb which annoys me. I want to get the day over with. As CJ urges me to go over my documents again to ensure I have everything, it occurs to me that there might be a missing document, one that links my sister to her husband—who is standing in as part-sponsor—and completes our circle of relatedness. So I send her a text asking for a marriage certificate already anticipating this may not be useful and loathing that I am about to be at the mercy of printing and photocopying shops set up in the vicinity of the embassy solely to exploit the fevered panic of prospective travelers. In one of those shops, I haggle down the printing cost but end up paying twice what I would’ve on less consequential ground. But I feel more assured as I walk toward the embassy building.


Inside, the waiting area is full. I wager most of the crowd are newly admitted international students who a chance opening ushered to the front of a maddening queue of prospective travelers. Uniformed staff review documents and passports, cross-checking them with lists on their bulky screens. They order our seating arrangement and everyone is quiet and well-behaved as if a Monstrance were sitting on an imaginary altar in front of the hall. We wait. And wait. And wait. To the side, the lagoon swirls. An occasional gust of wind blows the nauseating smell of sea toward us. No one talks to the other. The young man next to me looks like an engineering nerd, his glasses thick like the bottom of a coke bottle. An I-20 peeks from the stack of documents he carries in his lap. A woman who sits ahead of us appears frazzled by her twin girls who can’t be placated with the absence of electronic devices or snacks.


A while later, two metal detectors screen us from the waiting area into a packed medium-sized hall where people snake and disperse in front of several desks. We listen to ongoing interviews over loudspeakers. One interviewer stands out. His voice is louder than his colleagues, his questions are unchanging, and he denies a visa to almost everyone who comes before him. The interviews are so quick I wonder how the immigration officers arrive at their decisions about who’s in or out. As the line progresses, I miss the loud interviewer by a split second and find myself in front of a soft-spoken woman who asks the same routine questions I’ve heard over the loudspeaker: my purpose of visit, how my education will be funded and my plans after the creative writing masters program I am attending is over. “I’m going to write books,” I say to her. It is not the response I rehearsed while inching toward her on the serpentine queue, but it is true. Her yes grants me a visa. She says she hopes to read my books someday. I tell her, “You will.” I believe it more than anything I’ve believed in the moments prior. It’s long past noon when I emerge. CJ congratulates me. I call my sister, call her husband, call my father. I got the visa!

 

* * *


After the visa arrived, this final step guaranteeing my departure and for which I’d dredged up the least savory outcomes, I was plagued by a deep lethargy and reluctance to leave. I did not know where or how to begin gathering what little I owned. I’d traveled out of the country several times in the past—once, as a last-minute participant on what appeared to my sister as a daredevil trans-African road trip—but I was always in the company of a group, with a goal that was artistic or journalistic, all clearly set out and short-termed. The possibility that I could fare terribly in a new place on my own terrified me. It’d also begun to dawn on me that I did not know much about the college town I was heading to. On a Zoom call weeks before my arrival, one of the writers in the program, in response to a question about what the town was like, said to me that he did not want to mince words about the whiteness of the town and whatever textures of life I might have to steer through when I arrived. It hadn’t occurred to me to check the town’s racial composition. I hadn’t also realized then the uniqueness of the Pacific Northwest landscape, nor its weather, how rainy it really was and how certain past associations with rainfall made it a weather event I almost loathed. All of these considerations blurred in the process of applying and being accepted into a fully-funded writing MFA where I could become a better essay writer and researcher. As my travel date neared, I Googled the university and town often, trying to picture how and if I’d fit into it, if this was all going to be one huge mess of a move. I gathered my things in small bits, sorting which clothes and shoes might fit the clime, which books to leave behind, which old photographs to carry home with. In late August, as I had as many goodbye coffee dates as I could manage, I spoke with a close friend over the phone. She wanted to know what foodstuff I was traveling with and if I wanted her to accompany me to the market to buy them, and anything else I needed for my move. I wasn’t traveling with any foodstuff, I said, to her utmost surprise.


It is easy to spot a Nigerian leaving home by their luggage if they have it close by. A more discreet traveler might have it all well arranged in a nice luggage set, but otherwise, it will be apparent by the assortment of Ghana-must-Go bags in the cluster of belongings to be checked-in: a mobile pantry of sorts. Inside will be an assortment of cooking ingredients: cellophane bags of ground egusi, bottles of palm oil tied over and over to prevent spilling, bags of ground crayfish and pepper—the kind that could blister the roof of your mouth. Depending on what part of the country the traveler is from, you might find cellophane bags of ụsụ or ogiri—local thickener and seasoning you will not find elsewhere in the world apart from the stall of a sun-burned woman on an aisle at Ogbete Market. You will find bags of stockfish and smoked fish, and bags of suya or Cameroon pepper. Some might pack small bags of powdered milk and Milo, bags of Golden Morn and other kinds of cereals they are unsure they’ll find in the new cities they’ll soon call home. You’ll find Knorr stock cubes and sachets of Benny, jollof spice and yaji spice. They’ve been told Americans season food with only salt and black pepper—a travesty. “Nigerians have been transporting food across borders from before we formally became Nigerians…,” writes Yemisí Aríbisálà in “Letter from Candahar Road”. “It isn’t perfectionism,” she argues. Nothing there tastes the way it does back home. I did not know this that August, only that my relationship with food—cooking it and eating it—was lackluster and had always been. There was nothing to miss.


* * *


For a brief period between 2017 and 2018, after living with a maternal aunt for about a year, I moved into a self-contained apartment on the Lagos mainland to be closer to the port area where the newspaper I reported for at the time was located. The four storey building sat snuggly in the small compound and my apartment, just by the gate. At night, the footfalls of passersby as well as banter from roadside stalls kept me awake. Not long after the move, I resigned from the newspaper to join the editorial team of a new digital culture magazine on the island, flinging my workplace farther away, once again, from where I lived. My sister, who had been away in Europe getting a graduate degree, had returned and now lived with her husband on the Lagos island around the time and so I found myself shuttling between her home and my modest mainland apartment. The apartment had three rooms: a bathroom/toilet, a living area/bedroom and a kitchen. On my tip toes, I could easily touch the ceiling. If I stretched both arms and spun the apartment, I could cover the entire length in one turn.


I got by in the apartment the few nights I spent there each week, but, as I told my new colleagues once during a lunch break, I found the kitchen a particularly challenging space to be in. Structurally, it was a nightmare: narrow, small, and with crude finishing. It did not help that already, I was apathetic towards cooking and eating, choosing often what was quick and easy. But, I added, I was hoping to put on some weight so I could fill out my clothes and look more grown-up, perhaps attract more respect on the streets of Lagos where I was often still being mistaken for a university student although I’d graduated at least four years prior. My friend who’d offered to go to the market with me, also similarly built, was in the same shoes, looking to add some weight to fill out her clothes.


That afternoon, someone suggested I purchase a multivitamin called Wate-On. And so the following day, I went to a nearby pharmacy and asked for the drug—a sweet creamy liquid which, in the days that followed, wracked my body with intense pangs of hunger that I couldn’t ignore. Of course, I told my friend about the multivitamin. And although she did not suffer a similar disinterest in food, she bought a bottle and together, we embarked on our journeys to fill out in the places we desired. It seemed to work because a few months in, I began to notice my clothes snuggled. This presented a fresh challenge: the likelihood of a wardrobe change which we had not considered. We decided needing new clothes on lean salaries was quite the dealbreaker and weaned ourselves off the multivitamin.


I grew up on multivitamins like Wate-On. They were my mother’s attempt to compensate for the little amounts and varieties of food I ate. Born in the early 1990s at 28 weeks, I spent two months in the neonatal intensive care unit of the teaching hospital in Enugu and grew into a child who found ways to trick my parents and caretakers out of enforcing a meal. This aversion to food— and a head scar —appear to be the only remnants of a very early birth at a time when and in a place where fatalities and long term disabilities were common. I hesitate to make this link between prematurity and pickiness but in the last decade, research continues to show how pickiness can indeed be one of the more invisible and lasting aftermaths of the intense trauma of prematurity—births that occur at less than 37 weeks—given the nature and duration of time spent in an incubator. Many researchers cite prolonged tube feeding or the pattern of incubator care as a root cause. Physiological delays from immature body systems such as poor oral motor skills were also found to contribute to feeding challenges outside of the NICU. Other researchers collected the perceptions of parents through questionnaires that asked how fussy a child was at meal times or whether they could not eat enough of whatever meal was before them. Some studies concluded that levels of maternal education had a role to play in whether a preterm-born toddler had feeding challenges or not. Regardless of the modality employed and whether the research was more or less empirical, the consensus from observing hundreds of preterm-born toddlers and talking to their parents was that the more severe the prematurity, the greater the challenges with feeding in childhood. It is unclear if these challenges resolve themselves before a child reaches maturity.


Parents fuss over feeding concerns for apparent reasons. Without enough food or a variety to provide a rich range of nutrients, a premature-born toddler is ill-equipped to catch up in many developmental respects. In the same manner as Wate-On, the multivitamins my mother resorted to brought about the kind of hunger that could only be sated with a healthy portion of food. To mitigate my pickiness—and because some of my siblings also preferred it—she began to tweak the ways she prepared certain dishes. Take soups for instance. A befitting pot of Nigerian soup has two things in abundance: an assortment of meat and plentiful vegetables, dark green and alive. I hated them. So she would prepare separate pots of soup, one we began to refer to as plain— a thick soup base really—and a regular pot of soup with its assortment of meat and vegetables. I refused dishes with visible cooked onions because the sight was revolting. And because we often watched chickens get slaughtered and cleaned when we went to buy meat in the market, I couldn’t stomach cooked chicken. The putrid smell of carcass in a drum of hot water lingered. Eating cooked fish was both nauseating and time consuming—picking bones off steamed fish is no easy task—so my mother always deep fried our protein. When she made vegetable yam, I gathered the green vegetables into a small heap and struggled through the pieces of palm-oiled yam. I do recall running through packs of Complan, a milk product that advertises itself as a complete meal in a drink, a glass of which my mother handed me every night for months at a time. I recall once asking her if I could forgo food and drink Complan forever.


After I went away to boarding school at ten, my supply of plain pots of soup and deep-fried chicken ceased. The rice dishes were often flavorless, the soups watery. Strands of vegetables sat in need of company if they made it into my bowl. Until my final year, when the principals enforced a more austere eating regimen, all of these were often ignored for the supply of provisions that I went back each term with. I did develop a weak appetite for some of the menu; it was a six-year long education afterall. I grew to like the bread we were served on Sundays. The loaves were soft, a tad bigger than what we had for breakfast every Tuesday and Thursday. And they smelled of the Sisters of Divine Mercy bakery, a sweet aroma of cooked dough that often wafted into the chapel in the middle of morning masses. On Saturday mornings, we were served plates of dry abacha that needed a tin of sardine and a dash of soy sauce to be edible, but I loved it. I was also fond of the Sunday rice and tomato stew which was, mind you, as runny as the soups were, but palatable. If we were lucky, it would be fishy too, tufts of cooked titus lounging around in the stainless pot. As I write this, the taste is right there sitting faintly at the tip of my tongue. Yet, food remained utilitarian. I ate because my body needed the food to withstand the mental and physical tasks that schooling required. Whether by an occasion of birth or some other inexplicable factor, relishing food just did not seem to be written into the essence of my life.


I went to the market with my friend alright, but for new pairs of jeans and pajamas and an oversized denim jacket I wore for the cold plane ride. I filled my luggage with clothes, footwear, beauty and skincare products, journals, my camera and photography paraphernalia. I snuck in a few books I considered essential. At the airport on the evening of my flight, I hugged my sisters for a little longer. We were not a crying family; the tears did not come until the plane sped down the runway and inched up and up and away from everything and everyone I’d known intimately for thirty years.


* * *


I arrived in Oregon through Seattle after several hours in the air, and for days after, was plagued by a mild vertigo from flying for so long. The town was ghost-like in the nature of college towns before a school session begins. It was the first day of September, sunny yet cold. A colleague in the cohort ahead of mine who lived in Portland picked me up at the airport and in Corvallis, handed me off to two colleagues, one in his cohort and one in mine. After setting down my luggage in the shortlet room I booked from Lagos—in a motel-like complex called iHouse—they drove me to a store to buy a pillow and a blanket. Then we went to have dinner at a restaurant whose name I no longer recall. I was floored by the kindness and warmth with which they embraced me, all of them transplants too from other cities, feeling similarly I supposed, about being away from home and whatever lives they’d left behind to attend the program. Before classes began in earnest, we bonded over drinks at a rooftop bar downtown and went hiking—which left me so embarrassingly out of breath. As the days unfurled into weeks, I turned to my journal to keep track of what I was feeling about the move. The town was indeed very white—I recall once in those days leaving my last class for the day and making my way to an African Student Association meeting as if tugged by an invisible force, desperate to see and hear another person who looked and sounded like me. There was the weather, the wetness, and the cultural norms that were startling in close observation—it is one thing to be partly raised on American sitcoms, gorge on Hollywood films and be deceived into thinking that you have thorough knowledge of how life is lived in America. It is another thing to experience a place through presence. I did not think I was homesick; I was quite accustomed to a life of independence. Still, when I journaled, the words ‘unsettling’ and ‘hovering’ and ‘unnerving’ arose often. “All of this to say, my heart isn’t here. Yet,” one entry in early October reads. “I guess I miss home.”


I walked often in an attempt to ground myself—but also because it was the only way to get around besides taking the bus since I did not own a car. This way of learning a new landscape was something I’d learned from my brother. From iHouse, I’d walk sixteen minutes every morning to the building where I was undergoing rapid-fire teacher training with my cohort. I walked fifteen minutes to the ID Center to pick up my ID card and afterward, video-called my father to show him a bit of the campus. Effusively, he said how very proud he was and I wondered when the glitchy network back home and the hours that stretched between Lagos and Corvallis would make it so that calls like this became less frequent. On Sundays, I walked about five minutes to St. Mary’s for mass—my sister had urged me to go because it was one sure way to find community in a new place. Often, I’d walk about fifteen minutes one-way to the apartment complex where a new friend, as well as two other Nigerian PhD students lived. Though we had only met, I found our lively banter about appropriate clothing for the imminent winter, school work, evolving accents and home—in familiar accents and with familiar cultural references— comforting.


Two weeks after I arrived in Corvallis, my time at iHouse was up. I moved into another building downtown, a four bedroom apartment in a student housing complex I shared with three college students—from Thailand, South Korea and Kuwait. I moved on a Saturday and fully unpacked, grateful to no longer be living out of a suitcase. And I made my first real meal in America; a pot of stir fry pasta.


Ingredients:

  1. Bow tie pasta

  2. Wesson vegetable oil

  3. Soy sauce

  4. Onion

  5. Carrots

  6. Red bell peppers

  7. Fresh tomatoes

  8. Dried thyme

  9. Dried parsley

  10. Seasoning cubes

  11. Salt


Directions: I chopped the carrots, onions, tomatoes and red bell peppers. Then I cooked and strained the pasta. I sautéd the vegetables in oil, seasoned with salt and Maggi seasoning cubes (from a packet my new friend gifted me when I complained I hadn’t come across seasoning cubes at my neighborhood grocery store). I stirred in the pasta and plated a small bowl. I ate with a glass of white wine (to ease the tension I’d worked up about teaching English Comp. to American undergrads).



Actually, I cooked my first real meal in my new friend’s kitchen: a pot of shrimp jollof rice I agreed to make if he bought the ingredients and prepped them. Though tasty, the rice turned out too clumpy and a pale red color that was not pleasing. Not jollof color. That was five days after I arrived, five days of eating sourdough buns and drinking milk from a labeled carton in the gigantic stuffed freezer that stood in a corner of iHouse’s industrial-size kitchen. I did not like the kitchen, its intimidating gas cookers and large range hoods hanging down the ceiling. It was communal too and on some days, when I came in for some water or my cartons of juice and milk, the sink was chock-full of dirty dishes and tumblers. I could not cook in that disarray. In those weeks, during our breaks from teacher training, I went to a nearby Subway and winged my first ever Subway order. And when my gums started to swell and hurt, I bought oranges, a variety different from the green-skinned ones my siblings and I competed over who could peel in one fell swoop without cutting into the pith.


Once in those first few days, as I caught up with my sister over WhatsApp, I found myself complaining about the sourdough buns I now frequently had for breakfast. In Nigeria, most breads are sinking-soft and sweet. At least the ones we ate in my home were, bread so soft you can collapse a whole loaf between your palms. Unfamiliar with the brands of breads here, it was difficult to tell sweet, soft and milky from the dizzying options available at grocery stores. I complained about the rice—small bags of jasmine, long grain, or Thai varieties—that just wouldn’t produce the kind of cooked rice I’d always eaten, always short minutes away from turning to mush. I complained about the lack of spicy pepper—and I did not particularly like spicy food. I complained about not finding Knorr cubes at the downtown Safeway. I couldn’t find powdered milk and grew frustrated by the amount of milk I had to pour down the drain because of how slowly I used them. Ground crayfish and palm oil were just not here. I had a hard time finding plantains. When I eventually did, at the Fred Meyers store a forty-minute walk from my apartment , they looked like sickly, unripe bananas. A friend said to try the HK Market on Ninth where I happily bought a packet of stockfish only to find that it didn’t taste like all the stockfishes I’d eaten before now. Here, at last, was that not-quiteness of familiar ingredients. And here was I, surely indifferent to food, longing for familiar meals, for home.


To describe the melancholy of those first three months, Teju Cole’s essay “Home Strange Home” comes to mind. About returning alone to the college town where he was born seventeen years later to begin college, Cole writes: “My first evening on campus, as I wandered around in what seemed like intolerable cold, it suddenly struck me that everyone I loved on this earth was almost six thousand miles away. I was flooded with panic, like a young boy in a helicopter being pulled away from all he’d ever known.” It was, much like grief, the unexpected remembrances as I went about my day; of the people I loved, of the ways we shared meals and the traditions we built around it. Like driving with my sister and her husband to Glover Court for suya after evening mass on Sundays. We ate as we headed home, picking the meat and onion rings off rumpled old newspaper with toothpicks, drinking cans of SmirnOff and singing along to Freshlyground. Sometimes, it was the sudden aroma of my mother’s ọha soup wafting from the ethers. Or the aroma of roasted corn which permeated one section of the Lekki-Epe Expressway where a cluster of women sat roasting corn and ube when it was in season. Instead of panic, what I felt was a brief intense longing for home. I wanted, in an instant, to return to the people I’d left behind and to the familiarity of my lackluster relationship with food.


* * *


As weeks went by and I tried to find a new rhythm to schooling, writing and teaching, I let curiosity take over my longing. Could I bring to bear the sense of worldliness my friends tell me I possess in my food tastes? Could this soothe the melancholy from what I missed and give me another inroad into grounding myself here? Maybe with this approach, I could reveal a connection with food I did not think was at all possible, feel a little more about food, as M.F.K. Fisher urges, want it. I tasked myself to cook with ingredients I’d never eaten, varieties of familiar foods that were new. I made creamy pastas, rice dishes that were not jollof or tomato-stewed, gravy-like sauces. I cooked pinto beans and lentils and steamed broccoli—a lot of broccoli. I made and ate mashed potatoes. I bought and ate bagels. Once, I tried making them myself from an Instagram recipe video which did not go very well. I tried pasta with pesto and fell in love with the scent of cilantro. On YouTube, I learned how to sauté asparagus and to bake the kinds of bread I wanted to eat—this, too, did not go very well. I ate kiwis and dragon fruit and much later, persimmons, which I loved. Sometimes, I bought produce I did not know what to do with. Home, I searched for recipes online and then ignored them halfway to wing a dish. At potlucks—where I often ignored the food offerings for drinks—I gave myself permission to eat and savor sweet potato pecan pies, chunks of turkey cooked whole and sides whose names I didn’t remember after the meals were over. It seemed my longing for home food, which I now ate less of, had abated. But, as the year wound to a close, darkness descending in the early evenings, the cold increasingly biting and harsh, I was thoroughly exhausted and only the comfort of what was familiar could soothe me.


I bought a return ticket to New York to visit with friends I’d known for longer than three months. They lived in Brooklyn, somewhere northeast of Bedford that was oddly reminiscent of Bariga, the neighborhood on the Lagos mainland where we had all spent periods of time before moving to America. Brooklyn was not at all like Corvallis which was not surprising. There were specialty grocers at every corner and home food arrived at your doorstep with the touch of an app button. I ate my first real plates of Nigerian food in four months there in Brooklyn: jollof rice, porridge beans with plantain fried the way I prefer it—a little overripe and dripping with oil. It turned out I needed the trip. It proved grounding. Even with all my experimenting, I missed the meals I’d cooked and eaten all my life. I’ve never been more delighted by a plate of jollof rice than when I was in Brooklyn that December.


Far from home, food can and often does become more than nourishment. “As an immigrant, one becomes more conscious of food, its significance, and its social and therapeutic function,” says Nigerian artist Emeka Ogbo, whose work explores migration through sound and food. We spent time bantering about living in America. I read. I braved the cold to explore New York, rode the infamous subways, got lost in the maze. My friends plied me with meal after meal that meant more eaten thousands of miles away from home. And after about a week, I flew back to Corvallis partly exorcized of my melancholy and longings, ready to get on with my new life with all of my heart, and stomach.


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