Magazine article The New Yorker

REAL FOOD; Family Dinner

Magazine article The New Yorker

REAL FOOD; Family Dinner

Article excerpt

I was nine years old, sitting stiffly at the dining table in my blue-and-white school uniform, and across from me sat my mother, who had come home from work at the university registry, elegant in her swishy skirt, smelling of Poison perfume and saying she wanted to watch me eat. I still do not know who told her that I was skipping lunch before school. Perhaps it was the houseboy, Fide. Perhaps it was my little brother Kenechukwu, who went to school in the morning and came home just before I left. The firm set of her mouth told me that I had no choice but to eat the garri and soup placed on the table. I made the sign of the cross. I plucked a morsel from the soft lump of garri. I lightly molded it with my fingers. I dipped it into the soup. I swallowed. My throat itched. I disliked all the variants of this quintessential Nigerian food, whether made from corn, cassava, or yams, whether cooked or stirred or pounded in a mortar until they became a soft mash. It was jokingly called "swallow," because one swallowed the morsels without chewing; it was easy to tell that a person chewing garri was a foreigner.

"Hurry up," my mother said. "You will be late for school." We had garri for lunch every day except Sunday, when we had rice and stew and sometimes a lush salad that contained everything from baked beans to boiled eggs and was served with dollops of creamy dressing. The soups gave some variety to lunch: the yellowish egusi, made of ground melon seeds and vegetables; onugbu, rich with dark-green bitterleaf; okro, with its sticky sauce; nsala, with beef chunks floating in a thin herb-filled broth. I disliked them all.

That afternoon, it was egusi soup. My mother's eyes were steady behind her glasses. "Are you playing with that food or eating it?" she asked. I said I was eating. Finally, I finished and said, "Mummy, thank you," as all well-brought-up Igbo children were supposed to after a meal. I had just stepped outside the carpeted dining area and onto the polished concrete floor of the passage when my stomach churned and recoiled and the garri and soup rushed up my throat.

"Go upstairs and rinse your mouth," my mother said.

When I came down, Fide was cleaning up the watery yellowish mess, and I was sorry he had to and I was too disgusted to look. After I told my mother that I never ate garri before school, that on Saturdays I waited until nobody was looking to wrap my garri in a piece of paper and slip it into the dustbin, I expected her to scold me. …

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