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I don’t cook. For some reason, I always feel the need to reiterate this inconsequential fact about myself to anyone I meet in the first hour of conversation. Young or old, female or (mostly) male, we could be talking about the fact that the sky is blue and I’d just slide it in there. I have a couple of theories as to why I do this, but none of them have ever rung true.
With potential suitors, I tell myself it’s so they know right off the bat that I don’t conform to traditional gender roles. More often than not, my declaration is met with a scoff and something along the lines of – “I’m sure I’d be the one to change your mind.” After 6 odd years of dating, it still hasn’t happened.
On the other hand, I have never been able to figure out why I do it with women and casual male friends. I came up with a theory recently. Cooking has been an integral part of my identity for as long as I can remember. Even as I revolt against it, I cannot help but associate myself with it in some way. Women who don’t cook, don’t care enough about it to go on and on about it the way I do, but I do because I was raised in a kitchen.
“The only part of the house that is firmly etched in my memory is the kitchen.”
At the time I moved out of my parents’ house, we had moved houses three times. We moved out of the house where I spent my formative years in 2012. Details about the house have already begun to fade from memory, but I remember there were two African fruit trees and an avocado tree in the garden and that I used to pick the efirin for pepper soup from the garden. I don’t remember much else. My mum has a bit of a green thumb and likes to grow some of her vegetables. In a recent conversation with her, she complained about how she has never been able to grow plantain as she used to in my childhood home, and only then did I remember that we grew some plantain trees.
The only part of the house that is firmly etched in my memory is the kitchen. I remember the pantry with its weather-beaten wooden shelves and endless stacks of repurposed butter buckets. I remember the laundry with its old fashioned sink that was never used for laundry, but came in handy when we made ogi from scratch. You see, I remember the kitchen so well because I grew up in it.
How young is too young to start cooking?
The first time I was left to prepare a meal on my own, I was 10. My mother had travelled for work and left just my dad and I behind. It was just a 24-hour trip, but it meant I was responsible for catering to his lunch and dinner until she came back the next day. She had made some soup for lunch and I was only meant to prepare Eba to go with it. I made it so badly my dad had to go to the kitchen to rectify it. That was 14 years ago and it’s the only time I’ve ever seen him make anything in the kitchen. I could probably count how many times I’ve even seen him walk into the kitchen.
The first time I told a friend I had been cooking since I was a ten-year-old, she told me it was impossible. We were both 18 and for her, cooking was completely optional and only something she did to amuse herself. Even though her mother bore the sole responsibility of cooking, she didn’t want her daughters to be pressured by it. She didn’t particularly enjoy it, but it was her own cross to bear. At home, we had gotten to a point where I wasn’t just expected to take on my fair share of the cooking responsibility, I was expected to completely own it. You see, my mother had paid her dues and it was time for her to pass the baton to her daughters. My sister who was in medical school was barely around and even though I was in school, I soon found myself tailoring my holiday schedules around my father’s mealtimes.
When making personal plans I was obligated to factor in the fact that his breakfast must be put on the table by at least 10 am. I had to be back by 3 pm to make his lunch and his dinner went on the table by 9 pm. As any 18-year-old would, I revolted. On some days and they weren’t very many, I’d take off in the morning and not come back till just about the time dinner was to be ready. On most of those days, I only did this to escape the kitchen. But for the most part, I carried out my obligations dutifully. I was in school for most of the year, and the holidays only ever lasted a few weeks. So I’d grit my teeth and make pots of soups and bowls of rice.
It was a given that no more than a week into any holiday, my mother and I would be at each other’s throats over whose duty it was to cook. My father never got involved as long as food was put on the table when he expected it to be, our little tiffs were really no concern of his. I don’t remember the details of all our arguments, but I remember the one and only time she got physical. She had woken me up at 5 am to wash the skin off some beans so we could make Akara for breakfast. Sulking at being woken up so early I washed the beans halfheartedly hoping she’d tire of my slow progress and do it herself. Instead, she snapped at me and I snapped back, telling her that cooking for her husband shouldn’t be my responsibility. She threw a plastic bowl at my head and lunged at me. Luckily a house help was there to intervene but the bowl had left a cut. When tempers simmered down, we went right back on cooking and breakfast was on the table at 10 am.
The most peculiar thing about how much cooking we did at home was how little eating went on. My mother cooked for herself separately, because she and my father had very different palates. And it was very rare for all 5 children to be at home at the same time. For the most part, aside from my parents, it was usually only my younger brother -who was exempted from kitchen duties because he owned a penis- and I at home. So how were we spending seven to eight hours in the kitchen?
My father is a very picky eater. Except he’s out of town, he only ever eats at home. He doesn’t like pepper and likes his food fresh. He’s very health conscious so his meals have to be a perfect balance of carbs, greens, proteins and fruits. He doesn’t like to eat the same meals two times in a row. So if he has Jollof rice for dinner today, he’d prefer to have potatoes the next day. He also didn’t eat very much, and odds that he finished all of the food put before him were slim. When you put all of this into consideration, it’s easy to see how one can spend seven to eight hours a day cooking for one person.
Don’t kiss the cook, feed her
I’ve always found cooking to be such a chore, I have little or no energy for anything else after. And that includes eating. There just something about standing for that many hours chopping, boiling, pounding and frying that takes away my appetite. So the more I cooked, the less I ate and I inadvertently lost weight whenever I was home. I soon learned to survive on half a meal a day and was so slim, it still surprises me when I notice my newly acquired love handles in the mirror. Cooking made me miserable and I figured out pretty early on that the only way I could avoid it was to move out of my parents’ house. And so at 22, I did and even though they are still in the process of coming to terms with it, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
Moving out gave me some insight into a couple of things. For a very long time, I held my mother responsible for my cooking woes. After all, no one else’s mothers was asking them to come home from school on the weekend to cook for their fathers because they had to be out of town. The way I saw it, she was only doing it to punish me. Now I realise she was doing it because it was the only way she knew how to cope with the impossible role she was occupying. She was a woman who at the peak of her career with a full-time job was expected to also play the role of full-time housewife. Even though she grumbled and complained, she performed and she expected the same out of me because she couldn’t imagine things being done any other way. I like to think that in my rebellion I’m finally showing her that it can be.
I no longer resent how much cooking was a part of my life growing up, on some days I’m even grateful that I can whip up a pot of Banga half asleep. But these days I’m more focused on the eating side of things and focusing on letting all of the other wonderful and things that also define who I am take the spotlight.
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