Calabar Winch

By Akin Adesokan

CHRONIC-BOOKS_CALABAR-WINCHI

When the goddess of happy accidents stumbles on a plot improbably hatched behind her back, she dreams of the perfect return to a state of grace. She nudges Yemisi Aribisala, a writer who loves, makes and writes about food with equal passion, to go live, at a decisive turn in the relentless search for a style to match those ardours in prose, in Cross River State, Southeastern Nigeria. Moved by the goddess, Aribisala sets out one evening to the fish market on the bank of River Oyono in Calabar. The evening is sultry. Low-hanging clouds and heavy winds announce the onset of rain. All those within sight are women, and they are there either to sell or buy fish. Women, some hairy, most with skin the texture of loamy soil, gather near a river of brackish waters as dusk falls, haggling over fish, “to take home, to cook for a man, to lure him away from his wife [or]… for a husband, to highlight his masculinity and satiate his sense of entitlement”. They say lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice. The mammy-water is either a myth or a mood or a manatee or a mirage. Yet she is more likely to be found on the bank of a brown river and in the shape of a woman-fish-to-be than in the company of a lone gunman wandering the windswept streets of a deserted town west of Colorado. A writer with an aesthete’s feel for food makes home at “the centre of probably the most vibrant food culture in Nigeria”, if not in the whole of West Africa, and goes in search of fish, that species of food inseparable from romantic fantasies. One has to be slow not to see a state of grace in profile.

Why fish?

“The backbone of Cross Riverian cuisine is fish,” Aribisala writes toward the end of the pivotal chapter of Longthroat Memoirs, her much-salivated-upon book. “[F]resh, dried, ground, whole, pounded, smoked in giant mud banks with great big burning mangrove trunks. Some are exposed to cool foreign temperatures and wind and imported thousands of miles from Norway as stockfish. Everything here is cooked with fish.

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This review appears in Chronic Books Foods, a supplement to the Chronic, April 2017.

If food is at once sustenance, art and social protocol, fish is one of the heartiest embodiments of all three from the point of view of the denizens of Cross River. Even in places far from large bodies of water, fish has something of magical or supernatural attraction, and the book overflows with discussions of various references to that species in erotic terms.

The chapter, “Fish Soups and Love Potions”, strikes close to the heart of this seven-spirited book. It brings together all the anxieties, fantasies, prejudices, quirks, and scepticisms connected to food and its connection to sex in a cultural context where relations between men and women, in love, marriage, and everyday transaction, are perceived as essentially unequal or exploitative. It is one of the book’s many strengths – and, I think, of Aribisala’s artistic temperament – that the discussion the author offers in this chapter proceeds in the manner of making food; curious, measured, experimental, attentive to the spirit of each ingredient, eyes set on taste as the ultimate arbiter of the great conundrum of sex, the insurmountable frontier in human affairs. This troubled link between food and sex is one of the themes of this book, but first, there is the foreplay. Into the nerve ends of that brightly alluring notion is wired a discourse on the status of Nigerian cuisines in the silent debate over the possible “globalisation” of African cultural and social practices. Aribisala has long been a passionate advocate of the aesthetic aspects of Nigerian food, while also wholesomely championing its specificity. Her weekly column in the defunct Lagos-based daily, NEXT, was one of the paper’s most-read sections. In a way, Longthroat Memoirs is the summa of those nuggets, the big feast arriving with a deluge of aromas to announce that there is more in the kitchen from where those priceless morsels came.

Broaching these controversial topics requires care and tact, and Aribisala makes the move in several innovative ways. The first is a really good fight with Michael Barry of Exotic Food the Crafty Way fame. Appreciating Barry’s skills in some ways (his Nigerian groundnut chop was “delicious”), she is just as attentive to the paradox of the exotic in Michael “Bukht becoming Barry to be more palatable to BBC viewers.” The famed connoisseur made his name by marketing the exotic but he had to standardise his own complex identity by airbrushing his name. An undercurrent of anti-imperial vigilance runs through this discussion, and the reader is prepared for it in the introduction about the still-unknown identity of Nigerian food. One of Barry’s recipes is for the Nigerian River Province chicken soup, the unexamined premise being that the river province of Nigeria is close-knit enough to have one chicken soup in common.

II

This critical overture is akin to first chasing away the fox before descending on the errant chicken! For what follows the reflection on Barry – and sundry other cookbook lords and queens – is an elaborate conceit of the so-called “jollof wars”, the sibling tussles between Nigerians and Ghanaians over the ownership of the “ubiquitous red-faced rice dish served at every social Nigerian event and sold at every fast food joint”. Surely, Aribisala thinks better of that storied dish with ancestry in the Senegalese ceebu jen than this dismissive characterisation might suggest, and the place to look for what she thinks is the long chapter deceptively titled “My Mother, I Will Not Eat Rice”. There are five sub-headings in this chapter, each taking a cleverly desultory stab at the absurd notion that something as vibrant as food daily consumed could only be born out of a monogamous marriage between two straitjacketed parents.

The connection between two men carrying a ram home, the startling discovery of a mound of nail-parings under a bench at the British Consulate, adults passing stool on the Lagos Third Mainland Bridge, a cache of puff-puffs wrapped in newspapers, and the Ibadan blood flowing in the veins of the uncompromising boy who despises boiled rice, can only be established on the level of literary conceit. People go to great lengths to eat the jollof rice cooked in the shadow of the Ghana High Commission at Onikan in Lagos. They change their routines just to be able to buy and eat hot puff-puffs at CMS, without worrying that the taste of bromide from the newspaper wrap clings to it. Aribisala’s evocation of the spirit of Ghana High jollof is poetic, heart-felt and ironic all at once, and the reader, if unfamiliar with the spot, cannot but wish to get his hands on the food. A reader who used to work that axis of TBS-Onikan-Obalende sighs with longing, especially because he’s just been interrupted by a flight attendant offering pretzels and soda.

Despite its suppleness, a metaphor is insufficient to make manifest the rationale of this chapter, contained in the statement that if “words cannot bear the weight of what you see, then you will have to change your mind about what you see”. Reality operates in excess of a given figure of speech – in excess of speech, in fact. Aribisala might know of a famous food-seller called “Shó Wò Fún E?”, owner of the buka in Ile-Ife where the writer also known as Tatalo Alamu often lunched in the mid-1990s. Idiomatically, the name translates as “Take It Or Leave It”, although the question-mark must be retained to signal the indeterminate relation between a short fuse and a long line. What Aribisala pursues in this remarkable chapter, and in the book as a whole, is an as-yet-unaccounted-for approach to cultural critique, more reflexive than a smug celebration of authenticity, in spite of her unapologetic case for the integrity of Nigerian food. It is easy to miss this approach if one ignores how the case is made through patient attention to the environmental diversity of the places from which she writes. Between the two discussions about the Nigerian River Province chicken soup and jollof, there is an unassuming detour about meat. Then we stumble on this paragraph:

“In Calabar, it is not unusual to run into world-renowned delicacies pretending to be nobodies: strawberries up on the plateau at the Obudu Cattle Ranch; sole peddled out of old basins on Hawkins Street; lime-green and red rambutans hawked on little girls’ heads in May. And now usu, which might be the tartufi bianchi, one of the most expensive, luxurious foods in the world.”

To appreciate the importance of the environment in this narrative, one could reflect on the nationality of those men and women who preside over the kingdom that is the Ghana High Jollof Rice. Does nationality matter?

Due to geographical reasons, human traffic from Northwestern Sierra Leone to southern Cameroon has been one continuous river flowing in both directions, even long before the end of slavery brought about greater safety of movement. Economic historians and anthropologists as different as Sara Berry, Claude Meillassoux and Anthony Hopkins have highlighted these movements as crucial factors in the accelerated agricultural expansion and urbanism of early 20th century West Africa. Cocoa grew in the same region; cattle thrived in the lower Sahel, as did crops like rice, sorghum, millet, and maize. In the region, especially between Sierra Leone and Western Niger Delta, migration back and forth was and still remains a fact of life, and those who move bring and shed a lot of baggage, including ethnic and cultural peculiarities.

The progenitors of those Yoruba nationalists who would die or kill for the cause of the “Oodu’a nation” probably came from northern Togo three generations ago. As recently as the late 1970s, there were ethnic Akan and Twi as natives of Yaba, Lagos, beautiful threads forever sewn into the Nigerian human fabric. What goes for people goes for food: as a West African staple, rice has been historically cultivated on a vast scale in the Senegal River valley for ages. Familiarity with the lore and history of countries from Senegal to northern Sierra Leone will reveal that rice plays a central role in tales, proverbs and songs, as the locust bean tree does in those of the lower Niger. Long accepted as crucial knowledge in specialised academic fields, the blend of history, geography, literature, art, economics, lifestyle and politics embodied in these migratory patterns is yet to become available to a general audience. It is pleasant to see Aribisala write about food in such a way as to nudge the reader to this kind of awareness, precious mentally-liberating knowledge hidden in plain sight of everyday hustle.

III

What we have in Longthroat Memoirs, then, is a brilliant excursus into ethnography, a culinary sociology of Nigeria for which there is no precedent. While the geographical distribution of the plants, crops and animals gives an indication of a long, complex African history in the making, Aribisala’s careful attention to diverse Nigerian cuisines doubles as an anatomy of various cultural attitudes toward food within the country. These attitudes have been the topics of countless discussions and threadbare ethnic jokes, some self-directed, most genuinely disparaging. With the benefit of long residences in Lagos, Ibadan, and Calabar, the author offers an account both subjective and plainspoken.

Fish may be ubiquitous in Calabar meals for reasons similar to why peppers are in those of Ibadan, but there is no prize for guessing which will travel better. Aribisala manages to retain her satisfaction in being Yoruba-born (native of Ibadan, no less) while giving “Yoruba omi obe” (watery stew) the most savage review imaginable. Yoruba vegetable sauces (or soups) are plenty and can be cooked in creative ways, but few have had the luck of being even nationally tolerated, a pitiable condition when compared to afang, edikang ikong, or banga. The Niger Deltans, we learn, are the crown princes of aromatics, they who contribute what we know as pepper soup to Nigerian cuisine—though they call it nsala. And what is pepper soup without the aroma? No physical and psychological aspect of food escapes the caring vigilance of this author who, after all, is a self-confessed lover of food. A work which proposes to pick a gauntlet and break Nigerian food into the arena of global flavours cannot ignore some standardisation, and Aribisala walks the talk by providing generous tips on cooking each meal, soup, stew or snack that she personally enjoys. The recipes and preparation processes move unobtrusively through the narrative grooves, such that the reader can hardly miss them or successfully hope to cull each as a discrete item, but will end up savouring the delicacy, the mushroom oyster being just one case in point.

Stylistically, this is a book with a very strong, compelling identity. Aribisala has demonstrated that there are many creative ways of writing a book. It doesn’t have to be a “novel”. It could just be about food. But, like an unpretentious, self-knowing food, it has to have just about everything that goes well with the spirit of the person who makes it, and trust enough in that self-knowing to be hopeful of an identification in the imaginary of others. She has also shown that writing such a book would lead to intelligent, eye-opening adventures in real life, such as a mini-sociology of Calabar, captive of a complex mass of unresolved Pentecostal and nativised fantasies, or the workings of a Nigerian parastatal. It is a frequently funny book, with sustained metaphors that bring a sentence or paragraph to an end with a laughter that shatters. Recall, for instance, the incredible imagery of a “blender going for a stretch of about thirty minutes and then you… would know, without doubt, that the poor blender had, in great bitterness of spirit and thorough exhaustion, given up the ghost.”

I think Longthroat Memoirs could have been better served by crisp copyediting. Aribisala sometimes uses compound, densely reflective sentences, which are playful, rich in metaphor and strong on euphemism or apostrophe. A more careful editorial oversight would definitely rescue a preposition or a verb that has fallen off in the process of constructing those exquisite sentences. Regarding structure and narrative pace, I would prefer the section containing the seven chapters (24-29) from the discussion of afang to fish-soups to precede the chapter on cooking. “To Cook Or Not To Cook” ends on an original note of temperance and fairness – to each her own – beyond which only the undiscerning will continue to argue about whom should cook for whom. Moreover, this chapter would work quite well appearing just before “Dead Man’s Helmet”, a chastening account of the author’s father-in-law as a refugee during the Nigerian civil war, which shows the utter redundancy of aesthetic food-making in the blizzards of warfare.

A quarter of the way into Longthroat Memoirs, Aribisala writes: “Daughters learn the process from their mothers, tweak it and pass it on to their daughters, each tweak adding individuality in taste and texture. The desired result is not consistency, but rather adaptability to the individual or household palate.”

She is reflecting on the making of dawadawa, a condiment that is widely produced and used across Nigeria and West Africa, and compares the process to making cheese or wine. The argument in point here is about the amount of labour, mostly by women, which this undertaking requires, and what it means for the global renown that such a product might acquire. Rereading this passage, I wonder if the variation on method described in the process of preparing dawadawa plays a role in how West African cultures have responded to change in the industrial age, and if there are any pointers in this attitude to the hypothesis, beloved of social anthropologists, about African isolation prior to the dawn of European Renaissance. If one can depart from a set pattern (“adding individuality”), what is the status of the knowledge thus passed on, and what does it mean for the packaging of Nigerian (or any African) cuisines? Nigerian populations are now broadly distributed across the world, but their cuisines, even in the standardised, affordable menus available at restaurants in North America and the United Kingdom (boiled rice, fried plantains, choices of meat and adaptable vegetables), have not followed suit. Imagine arriving in Antwerp on a wintry night and looking for a place to dine after hours in airplanes, and wishing for options besides Ethiopian and Korean dishes. Imagine the thrill of having a Nigerian meal as one option.

In Food and Love, his comparative history of European and Asian cuisines, Jack Goody advances several factors for the successful globalisation of Chinese (and, later, Indian) foods. They were initially inexpensive, relying less on meat and more on nutritious vegetables; they were suitable for take-aways; and their operations relied on forms of labour and capital that did not always conform to European bureaucratic practices of formal contracts. It remains to be seen if Nigerian cuisines have comparable aspirations. Aribisala keeps this idea in view, but I think she is far more invested in an intra-mural discussion among Nigerians. Reading this book leaves me in no doubt that she has come a long way from the kind of observation fundamental to Goody’s thesis about the absence of differentiated cuisine south of the Sahara.

IV

One of the shortest chapters in the book, the seven-page “Henshaw Town Beach Market,” doesn’t seem to have anything to do with food. It is about a market, an old, storied one, built on the site of the wharf of Nigeria’s first but short-lived colonial capital. Aribisala paints an endearing picture of this market whose glorious history is all but forgotten, a fact that doesn’t bother the women who live off it. The peculiar logic of the marketplace resides in the difference between how things appear to the discerning eye and how they are described or named. The ripe plantain is “red”; the green one is “black.” The all-stiffed-up attitude of the market-goer who misreads the shiftiness of the fish-seller as dishonesty thus mirrors the unexamined alienation of the “Island big boys”, inhabitants of Lagos’s choice real estates. These sophisticates do not care where what they eat comes from. Much less are they interested in the intrinsic value of it, in comparison with the offerings in the most exotic-sounding restaurants in proximity to the habitations that support their fantasies. The person who goes to the market once, even twice, in a week is a result-oriented visitor and may not afford the precarious investment of the storeowner, the true market denizen who does not easily distinguish destination from destiny. Odd as it sounds, the smooth operation of the enterprise that sustains both buyer and seller depends on the inviolable purity of this disequilibrium. This is where the ruling food-sex conceit in Longthroat Memoirs makes such beautiful sense.

Pushing back against the trendy fascination with sex in newish African literature as a marketing stunt, Aribisala writes at some point: “There are places in a woman that a penis will never reach.” The air in the room where Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina presides over a writing workshop has become unbearable. In order to exhale, Aribisala puts this notion to test by positioning a friend, Aderewa, as the foil for her hunches about sex. Sharp-tongued, slightly crazed and unshameable, Aderewa comes across as the perfect contrast to Aribisala, although most of what she says in their hour-long, eleven-page conversation complements the idea of lack of “intrinsic fuckability”, one of the reasons that Aribisala’s recent essay on feminism, “Sister Outsider”, startled many readers. It is an enlightening exchange. Like most of the things that sustain life, sex is part-fantasy and part-experience, and to think of it as overrated is to draw attention to what gives it a lasting meaning.

In Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Healers, a young woman contemplates lovemaking as an affirmation of her desire for companionship, and whispers to her lover: “When it begins, you want to get in so badly you have to fight me to let you in. When it ends, I’m the one who has to fight to keep you in.” Either from the perspective of the submissive or domineering partner (if those), it seems that the sexual act is an unending rehearsal of inequality, even when it is satisfying to both parties. Yes, the penetrating act does not exhaust all possibilities of lovemaking, despite its fame. Though crucial to a love affair and matrimonial sanity, sex is only one item on a list that partners make up mostly by whim and circumstance. The late Gore Vidal was once asked why his relationship with his companion, Howard Austen, lasted so long, and he replied: “It’s simple. No sex.” Given Vidal’s legendary reputation with irony, it might be prudent not to take him literally. But we get the point. A main aim of the sexual act, pleasure, is also what food (good, sensually desirable food) provides, and it is valuable because it is often difficult to quantify.

Aribisala writes sympathetically and thoughtfully; she is not afraid to break the feminist rank, and does not pull punches with men who belittle women’s attitude toward cooking. Thinking through the myth of cooking as a gendered instrument of domestication and domination, which extends to the perception of women as sex objects, she dwells on the putdown by an acquaintance who calls her “housewife”, and proposes several explanations for the myth’s durability. I like the ones about pheromones and hormones because they are scientific, commonsensical, and bring us back to stories of fish. I think that there may be additional explanations for the food-sex complex, and its link to power. For one, they both satisfy the base instincts of all animals and expose humans, especially, to bodily vulnerability. This explains why comedy is most congenial to public expressions of instincts about these two pleasures.

On a more culturally-specific level, the following passage from Peter Morton-William’s 1960 essay about the Yoruba Ogboni (traditional judicial) society is instructive:

“An elderly Ogboni who feared that a rival would try to suborn one of his wives to poison him, might marry a young girl, sending his other wives to live elsewhere, and require her alone to cook and care for him. He would take his bride to the iledi (the society’s meeting place) and there split a kola nut and with the prongs of the edan pick up one piece and give it to her to eat, then pick up a second piece for himself. The two would then be ritually bound together as the edan are linked, and she would be told that if she betrayed him in any way, she would surely die or become mad.”

This sounds exploitative, and raises a number of questions, but whether the man cares for the woman is not one of them. And who can say that such a union will not lead to genuine love? There is a reason that men in monogamous marriages from this culture might favour a childless woman who is caring over the one who has children for them but likes to pick fights. Similarly, reflecting on the process of preparing dawadawa, the fermented locust beans without which the spicing of Cross Riverian soup is incomplete, Aribisala notes that fornicating women are forbidden from preparing it but not from eating it. From this cultural distance, anybody with a sense of dignity could do no better than relate to his or her partner with all that is fair in love.

Each to his or her own, for whom she or he cooks, after whom he or she looks.

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This piece appears in the Chronic (April 2017). An edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently.

Food is largely presented as scarcity, lack, loss – Africa’s always desperate exceptionalism or exceptional desperation or whatever. In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.

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